Down by the river

As a child, I used to spend summer holidays with my grandparents, in the countryside. They had a beautiful large property, bordered by a river on one side and forest on another.

There were many other kids my age, visiting their grandparents, and we used to explore the surroundings, bathing in the river, running up the hills and climbing trees.

Among the dearest memories I have from those times, it’s the one of our dog. It was a cute mongrel with dachshund characteristics, which my grandparents named Labus. Little did they know regarding dog gender. In Romania, Labus is a male name. Few years later, the dog turned out to be a female, when it gave birth to 6 adorable puppies.

A surprising thing I learned back then is that dogs and cats are not necessarily enemies, as I saw in cartoons. Labus and the cat, Titu, used to sleep together, hugging each other all the time. The cat was also a female.

I got very excited each time our pets had babies. Sadly, I never got the chance to watch them grow, or play with them as they always disappear a few days after birth. I was told they were given for adoption, to neighbors.

Later I found out that was a lie. Those newborn souls were put in a bag and thrown in the river. It was a common practice of the locals to get rid of unwanted animals. As ironic as it sounds, this was the less cruel method. In many cases, people kept some of the puppies, later realizing they didn’t want them anymore and resorted to abandoning them far from the village, or hanging them in the forest.

These practices are still common today, after more than 20 years. Despite the legislation around animal rights, the amount of EU funded projects and support from various animal care associations, local vet teams still struggle to educate the population from rural areas to sterilize their pets and guard dogs.

The children that were born and raised in the rural areas didn’t seem to be bothered by these practices. They found them natural, and, as their elders used to say, “what other choice did we have? We don’t need so many animals. We cannot afford to raise them.”

My hometown was developing fast, more and more entertaining venues were opening and, as a teenager and young adult, my lifestyle changed. I was preoccupied with visiting the malls, going to cinemas and attending concerts, local festivals and pubs. My grandparents moved to the city for health reasons so the days in the countryside, in nature, ended. I used to spend my holidays mostly in big cities or notorious touristic resorts.

Close to my thirties, working in the field marketing industry, I got tired of partying, malls, crowded and noisy places, so I returned to nature. I started spending all my weekends outdoors, hiking and camping.

It was then when I truly had a connection with nature. I‘ve discovered all the benefits it has to offer and realized the enormous negative impact humans have on it. Human traces were visible even in the most remote places we explored. Deforestation was obvious from one week to another, riverbanks and mountains were dumping sites, lakes became ports for motorized boats and pontoons and natural reserves were taken over by real-estate.

While tourists, corporations and governments were responsible for those issues, I noticed the big impact the locals had on the waste management situation.

Yes, tourists are littering the marked hiking trails and barbecue places. But we usually explore hidden gems, we choose unmarked paths, inaccessible for cars, through dense forests and thorn bushes. Yet, even in the most isolated spots, there is a bunch of construction materials hidden under branches, sofas and mattresses in the middle of the field, old tires, pots, cans, shoes and clothing on the river sides. Hard to believe the tourists bring their furniture with them or that they leave their shoes in the middle of nowhere.

Most of the litter is found on riverbeds. And I remembered how my grandparents and other locals from the village used to throw the solid waste in the river, based on the fact that “the water will take it”. And it did. The garbage was not there anymore and, back then, I never wondered where it would end up. Well, now I know.

But in the ‘90s, the villagers did not have access to sanitation services, nor knowledge about environmental challenges and climate change concerns. They managed their waste locally, using part of it as fertilizer, incinerating it or it went “down by the river”.

One would assume that along with the evolution of technology, urbanization, internet access and development of infrastructure, people from rural areas would become more aware of their actions. Which is false. I have noticed that many of the settlements in the proximity of dumpsites have access to sanitation services and even selective trash cans.

I can only conclude that it is not about the logistics. It’s not that the local administrations don’t provide the means of waste collection. It’s about convenience, tradition and mentality. It is about breaking down the misconceptions that garbage disappears if you don’t see it anymore or that throwing your couch down by the river will bring you luck and prosperity.

It is unlikely that old people will make an effort to change a lifetime learned behavior on the basis of environment protection. And how do you educate the educated ones? The middle-aged ones with a graduate diploma, who have all the means of information and necessary equipment to correctly manage their waste?

I believe the only way to persuade them to act in an environmentally friendly way is the same way they are influenced to buy a certain type of ice-cream, or change the old shampoo: through incentives. They need to have a palpable, short-term reward.

Brands can have huge success in determining such changes in behaviors, as they possess the resources to conduct their marketing and advertising campaigns in such a manner that will be beneficial for the individual, the society and their own notoriety and profit.

Together with some friends who share my core values, we founded Community, a nonprofit organization. By having a legal form to operate, we want to do more than just picking up others’ trash.