case study:

The cultural monastic landscape of Vanatori Neamt Nature Park, Romania

Header photo: © JM Mallarach

Sebastian Catanoiu, manager of the Vanatori Neamt Nature Park, member of the Delos Initiative, part of the IUCN/WCPA Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. Parcul Natural Vanatori Neamt, Vanatori Neamt, 617500, Romania,
Benedict Sauciuc, archimandrite, abbot of Neamt Monastery, forest inspector of the Eparchial Council of Metropolitan Church of Bukovine and Moldavia.

Vânători Neamț Nature Park is part of the wider cultural monastic landscape in the northeastern Romanian Carpathian mountain range and added to the UNESCO tentative list as a Mixed World Heritage site. It represents a unique combination of historical, cultural, religious and natural values, related to Orthodox Christianity. Since 1350, the area hosts a vibrant, resilient and uninterrupted monastic tradition, including 16 monasteries and hermitages. The monastic population currently has about 1,100 monks and nuns which makes it the second largest Christian monastic concentration in the world after Mt. Athos in Greece. Monastic lifestyles in the Park include those of communities living in monasteries or monastic villages and also individuals in isolated hermitages or cells scattered in the mountains and forests. The Christian monastic tradition represents an exceptional example of harmonious interaction between local communities and extensive forest habitats. It is characterized by balanced management of natural resources and sustainable development ensuring the conditions for the conservation of species, habitats and cultural landscapes. Park managers have fully assumed this rich religious heritage, integrating the cultural and spiritual values into the management activities.

Cultural and Spiritual Significance

The cultural monastic landscape of Vânători Neamț has been created and managed by Christian Orthodox monastic communities for about seven centuries interrupted by a period of communism from 1946 until 1990 after which lands were handed back to the church again (Catanoiu, 2007). The site is an exceptional example of a cultural landscape developed and modelled by the continuous presence of religious communities. The whole Park can be considered a particular expression of the Christian monastic life within forested mountain habitats (Catanoiu & Sauciuc, 2008).

In Orthodox Christianity, Creation or nature, is considered sacred and humans used to live in harmony with nature in paradise (Chryssavgis & Foltz, 2013). It is believed that as a consequence of the fall of the first humans (Adam and Eve) from paradise, humans and nature became separated. This separation is present in modern consumerist society today which is seen as sinful because its causes the destruction and suffering of innumerable beings created by God, plants, animals and humans included. The only possibility to restore nature is through the spiritual rebirth of the individual and society at large. Examples of care for the natural environment are found in the management of Orthodox monasteries and monastic lands and include self-sufficient agricultural and forestry practices. The monastic economic model supports the conservation of the local diversity of wild species and habitats, as well as agro-biodiversity. It is characterized by autharchy, ascetic life and sustainable production and consumption oriented towards the needs of the local communities.

Ecology and Biodiversity

Vânători Neamț Nature Park has a very high biodiversity because it is situated between the continental and alpine bioregions. Approximately 2650 species have been reported in the Park, of which 245 are endemic, rare or endangered (Catanoiu and Deju, 2009). All the large carnivores of the Carpathians are present, including large populations of brown bear (Ursus arctos)  and wolf (Canis lupus lupus), as well as the iconic free herds of European bison (Bison bonasus), which were reintroduced in 2012. All the monastic settlements maintain their traditional way of life. The living cultural landscapes include a mosaic of pasturelands, croplands and orchards, surrounded by extensive forested areas, including a wide diversity of habitats.


The Vanatori-Neamt Natural Park was established by the Government of Romania in 1999, mostly over Government owned lands. Since its inception, the Park has been administered by Romsilva, the National Forest Administration. After the end of the Communist regime, a process of land restitution began, and currently about 30% of the Park is owned by monastic communities. The main stakeholders are the monastic administrations, the local authorities and educational units. The management plan needs to be approved by the Scientific Council and the Consultative Council – which includes key stakeholders and facilitates their interests – before it is approved by the Minister.


The Nature Park covers an area of ca. 31,000 ha, of which 85% is forest and corresponding with IUCN Category V; Protected Landscape. The management plan assumes that the protection and conservation of the natural, cultural and spiritual heritage are complementary. It operates on the assumption that the protection of spiritual values and features such sacred sites works best when the surrounding natural heritage is also being well conserved. The existence of sacred sites further implies that environmental protection has a spiritual component. This is illustrated by the development of awareness raising activities and ecotourism strategies that transform mass-tourism to the main monasteries by road and car, into a spiritual experience by visiting the significant and less significant sites on foot along ancient pilgrimage routes and nature trails.

Lessons Learned
  • Positive management evaluations testify of the success and validity of the integrated approach to the conservation of natural, cultural and spiritual values and features which can be used to support its application elsewhere (Bellisari et al., 2017).
  • The cultural and spiritual significance of nature has been integrated as part of a holistic approach adopted in the vision, goals and management actions for the Park. As a result, the management objectives of the Park include supporting local communities in preserving cultural and spiritual values of the region and jointly promoting the natural, spiritual, traditional, historical and cultural values.
  • The cultural and spiritual significance of nature have subsequently also been integrated in various activities of the park, such as visitor interpretation, environmental education, sacred natural sites protection and recreation  demonstrating the importance of the Christian monastic tradition on nature conservation.
  • Including the concept of sacred natural sites in the Management Plan of the Nature Park helped represent and secure the strong connection between the ancient monastic model of land use and the actual landscape and biodiversity conservation model.
  • Emphasizing the sacredness and spiritual significance of endangered species is a necessary step in the attempts to protect the wildlife. In our educational and support campaigns, we try to revive spiritual values for the species that are the subject of our conservation efforts, e.g. European bison, some bird species, social insects, etc. (Catanoiu, 2012)
  • Monasteries and hermitages have great potential for the practical implementation of the Christian Orthodox approach to ecology. Including spiritual principles in nature conservation as well as using these principles for awareness raising among visitors is done in several places, including the hermitage of Vovidenia (Mallarach et al., 2016).
  • In order to reinforce the awareness of the spiritual values of the protected area, we draw examples from past spiritualities and religions of the region. Our visitor interpreting plan does not solely draw on the Christian Orthodox spirituality, it also includes elements from the Cucuteni culture (a Neolithic-Eneolithic culture, developed between 5200-3500 BC), which make clear connections between nature and Neolithic spirituality.

Bellisari, L., Deodati, T., Olmeda, C., Guimarães, A. (2017) Vanatori Neamt. Linking Natura 2000 and cultural heritage. Case studies, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 45-48, ISBN 978-92-79-70164-1

Cătănoiu, S., (2007). Study case of Vanatori Neamt Nature Park. Protected Areas and Spirituality. Proceedings of the First Workshop of the Delos Initiative, Montserrat 2006. Mallarach, J.-M., Papayannis, T. (editors),  Gland, Switzerland: IUCN and Montserrat, Spain: Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, 289-311, ISBN: 978-2-8317-1023-5.

Cătănoiu, S. and Sauciuc B. (2008).The monastic area of  Vanatori Neamt Nature Park, Romania. Protected Landscapes and Cultural and Spiritual Values 2 . Mallarach, J.-M. (editor), IUCN, GTZ and Obra Social de Caixa Catalunya, 146-148, ISBN 978-3-925064-60-9

Cătănoiu,  S., Deju, R. (2009). Diversitatea biologică a Parcului Natural Vânători Neamţ – Lista speciilor,  ed. Nona, Piatra Neamţ, 94 pp., ISBN 973-7979-66-4, 978-973-7979-66-7.

Cătănoiu, S. (2012). Different stories of two sacred species of Moldavia, Romania: the European bison and the brown bear. Sacred Species and Sites- Advances in Biocultural Conservation, Pungetti, G., Oviedo, G., Hooke, D. (editors), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 380-383, ISBN 978-0-521-12575-8.

Chryssavgis, J. and Foltz, B.V., eds. (2013) Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation (Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought). Bill McKibben: Books.

Mallarach, J-M, J. Corcó & T.Papayannis (2016). Christian monastic lands as protected landscapes and community conserved areas: an overview. PARKS Journal, Vol 22.1: 63-78, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.


Sebastian Catanoiu, manager of the Vanatori Neamt Nature Park, member of the  IUCN-WCPA Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas and the Delos Initiative.

Benedict Sauciuc, archimandrite and abbot of Neamt Monastery, forest inspector of the Eparchial Council of Metropolitan Church of Bukovine and Moldavia.