Stretched across the Transylvanian plateau lie the Carpathian Mountains, a collection of primeval forests in the heart of the Romanian wilderness. Many may be surprised to find that Romania occupies more than half of Europe’s remaining old-growth forest, making it an invaluable part of Europe’s ‘lungs.’ Home to some of the country’s most elusive animals – including the brown bear, wolf, bison, red deer, chamois, and over 300 species of birds – it is no wonder the ancient ecosystem is often referred to as ‘Europe’s Amazon.’ Like the legendary rainforest, however, it has also fallen victim to illegal logging and deforestation. Fortunately, Forest Without Frontiers is here to change that.
Founded by UK-based, British-Romanian DJ and artist Nicoleta Carpineanu (aka Nico de Transilvania), Forests Without Frontiers (FWF) is a nonprofit organization set up to reforest and rewild degraded land – with the help of music and arts. FWF’s goal is to help nature regenerate by planting trees to restore damaged ecosystems as well as support local communities. We spoke to Nicoleta from her home in Brighton, England.
You grew up in Romania in the Carpathian Mountains. How did your upbringing influence your work in tackling the growing threat of deforestation?
Yes, I was very lucky to grow up surrounded by nature in a beautiful part of Transylvania. My grandmother lived off-grid right next to the forest and lived sustainably from the land and I spent so much time there, learning about nature and the seasons, playing in the woods, seeing how her life revolved around the forest and how important it was for the wildlife. The area has amazing ancient forests that are home to animals like bears, wolves, and lynxs. I moved away as a young adult, to the UK and to a city, but my childhood obviously had a huge influence on me. As I came to understand the problems with illegal logging in Romania, and the huge scale of deforestation both there and around the world, I became more passionate about trying to do something about it. I had to somehow use my work to help protect and repair these forests, which I knew were so important for the whole ecosystem, as well as local people.
It’s evident that music is a great passion of yours. How did you come up with the idea to merge your love of music with conservation?
Music has always been a huge passion of mine – and I started DJ-ing soon after I came to the UK in 1998. Music has such power – it’s a language everyone understands, it energises and unites. And it was music that actually inspired me to start Forests Without Frontiers. My debut album BE ONE features traditional musicians that I recorded in the mountains of Carpathia – elders like 80-year-old flautist Babu Ion and 91-year-old Buna Ana, who play beautiful old folk songs. While I was with them, they started telling me some heartbreaking stories about how the forests and local habitats were being destroyed. I decided to use any money from the album to plant oak trees in the area – it felt like an obvious marriage between music and conservation. It was a small idea (released on my record label Muzica Without Frontiers) but it grew into Forests Without Frontiers, working in partnership with an amazing foundation on the ground. It makes sense to me to use music and arts to bring people together, to raise funds, and to do something positive to protect and regenerate the planet.
Forests Without Frontiers doesn’t just protect the Carpathian Mountains, it also makes efforts to safeguard indigenous practices. Why do you believe protecting local culture is so vital to your mission?
The knowledge that elders like my grandmother and the musicians I worked with in the mountains have is so important to preserve – they are the guardians of the forest. They live in harmony with nature and have inherited so much wisdom from a long line of ancestors, which we now risk losing unless we do something about it. They know how nature works, they live with bears on their doorstep, they know how to plant the right trees in the right places, they know how to use nature to heal. Babu Ion told me lovely tales of the rituals people used to do around the trees to honour them when they needed to cut one down for firewood – so different from industrial logging the forests suffer today. I want to preserve their stories, their songs, and their instruments before they disappear, to bring the traditions back to life for future generations to enjoy. It’s not just in Romania, of course; all around the world we need to listen to indigenous wisdom and learn from it moving forward. I really believe we need to do what we can to protect local culture, it’s so precious.
To date, what project or projects are you most proud of?
Besides my album, it’s probably the fact that FWF has managed to plant 40,000 trees in a short period of time. It makes me so happy to think of these trees all growing on an area that had been logged and would not regenerate without some human intervention. I’m proud of the way we work and our high standards – we use locally grown native species, planted and maintained by local people, and the land is protected so the trees will not be cut down. It’s one thing that really sets us apart from many other tree-planting organisations. Our work is helping restore wildlife corridors too – so it’s connecting up part of the forests which were separated by logged areas. We’ve already seen wildlife start to return to areas we’ve been working in, which is so heartwarming.
What role does community outreach play in Forests Without Frontiers?
We want to support the communities that live close to our plantations as much as we can. During the first wave of the pandemic we raised money to provide food boxes for 51 elders in Nucsoara village, close to where we work, for one month. Many were isolated and cut off from family, and it provided something of a lifeline. We want to develop more cultural community projects too and help provide education on the environment to local children. We’re planning to record more artists and the local choir for a new album, giving them a voice and engaging the community.
Forests without Frontiers has a goal of planting one million trees by 2025. What other goals do you hope to accomplish by then?
We’d love to plant many more trees than that, really – the potential is endless as we have access to a lot of land! Besides the Romania projects, our goal is to expand into other areas of the world. We are working on exciting new projects in the UK. One goal is to start a ‘Cities for Earth’ campaign where we galvanize local residents and businesses to join us in planting trees to help compensate for their carbon footprint. We’re starting it in Brighton this year and will plant trees both in Romania and locally in the UK, always bringing education and music and arts into the mix. We want to develop partnerships around the world too, engaging as many people and artists as possible so we all work together to restore and celebrate nature.
How can regenerative travel help critical areas at risk of deforestation?
We’ve reached a tipping point in the health of planet earth and regeneration needs to be at the heart of everything – from how businesses operate to how we live as individuals. We urgently need to give back to nature; it has to become the norm. Regenerative travel can have an important part to play in this. Choosing to stay in places and travel with companies that contribute to conservation and support local communities is vital – and people can also think about supporting organisations that fight deforestation if they’re travelling (and can help balance the carbon emissions). On the ground, if local people can see that protecting their environment offers an economic opportunity through responsible tourism, it provides more incentive for them too. In the long-term, regenerative travel is part of our plans at FWF – we want to develop a model for tourism in the forests that benefits nature, local communities, and the people visiting.