Divergent trajectories of local ecological knowledge among divided communities: insights from Hutsuls and Romanians of Bukovina (Romania and Ukraine)

Giulia, one of our LICCI partners, has recently defended her Ph.D. Her work focuses on Hutsuls, a small ethnolinguistic group living in the Ukrainian and Romanian Carpathian Mountains. Giulia conducted cross-border research on how the political context can affect the use of wild food and medicinal plants. Indeed, Hutsul communities used to live under the same political entity, Bukovina, until the 1940s when it was split between the Soviet Union and the Kingdom of Romania. This complex, fascinating and beautiful region of Eastern Europe hosted her Ph.D. research, which she conducted within the framework of two ERC-funded projects, DiGe and LICCI.

Read the interview here:

Bukovina, I have never heard of it! Could you tell us a bit more about this region?

Bukovina -called “Europe in miniature”- is an incredible example of how a harmonious coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups can occur. Such multiculturality was fostered by the complex Bukovinian history; it was the easternmost region of the Austro Hapsburg Empire, before becoming part of the Kingdom of Romania and subsequently split. It is now Ukraine in its Northern portion and Romania in its Southern area. This peculiarity made Bukovina and its Hutsul and Romanian communities, an ideal case study.

What about the Hutsuls?

Hutsuls are a small ethnolinguistic group. For centuries, they have interacted with the surrounding landscape, the endless forests, and the meadows created for feeding their animals. Over time, Hutsuls built a complex knowledge system, that makes them privileged observers of environmental changes in their landscapes. Yet, their local knowledge systems are being increasingly jeopardized by the rapid environmental and socio-economic changes, including the tumultuous political history. 

So, what was the purpose of your research?

My objective was to study how political borders (specifically the Bukovinian border created in the 1940s) affect local knowledge of the use of wild food and medicinal plants and its transmission, as well as local environmental perceptions. 

What are your main findings?

I came up with three main findings. 

First, the corpora of knowledge related to plants, especially medicinal plants, are richer among Hutsuls and Romanians living in Ukraine than among Hutsuls and Romanians living in Romania. This difference probably originates in their political (and multilingual) context, which was possibly incorporated during the Soviet times.

Second, local knowledge transmission occurs in divergent forms across the border.

Hutsuls and Romanians living in Ukraine, rely on written and visual sources for obtaining information regarding wild food and medicinal plants much more than communities living in Romania, which conversely transmit their knowledge orally within the family or by local elders. This could be due to the bibliophily of the people of Ukraine. 

Third, Romanian and Ukrainian Hutsuls, well known as people of the forest, share perceptions of forest benefits but differ in their perceptions of the drivers of forest change, possibly due to the diverging forest management policies.

Which is your overarching message?

Oh, I have learned so much from the people of Bukovina, their way of caring for their fairy-tale landscape. You can feel their embeddedness. They have taught me that „we are one”, with their everyday activities, caring about the forest, and preparing herbal teas for their animals, as „humans, animals, it is the same, just the same”.

I believe that cross-border ethnobiology is a powerful tool to highlight similarities and differences, which is a crucial way to promote transboundary environmental policies. Considering the fast decline of natural resources, common environmental management understandings (and policies) are much needed as peace-keeping strategies.

Next steps?

I am now working on a paper on the perception of climate change impacts among Hutsuls living in Romania, and I regret I did not perform the semi-structured interviews also on the Ukrainian side. It would have been very interesting!

My heart goes to all Hutsuls, Romanians, and Ukrainians of Ukraine suffering from unjustifiable violence. May the peace reigns over Ukraine and its people soon.


Mattalia, G., Stryamets, N., Balázsi, Á., Molnár, G., Gliga, A., Pieroni, A., Sõukand R.  Reyes-García, V. (2021). Hutsuls’ perceptions of forests and uses of forest resource in Ukrainian and Romanian Bukovina. International Forestry Review, 23(3), 1.

Mattalia, G., Stryamets, N., Grygorovych, A., Pieroni, A., & Sõukand, R. (2021). Borders as crossroads: the diverging routes of herbal knowledge of Romanians living on the Romanian and Ukrainian sides of Bukovina. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 11, 1839.

Mattalia, G., Stryamets, N., Pieroni, A., & Sõukand, R. (2020). Knowledge transmission patterns at the border: Ethnobotany of Hutsuls living in the Carpathian Mountains of Bukovina (SW Ukraine and NE Romania). Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 16, 41