Battle for the “White Gold”

There is something unique happening in a small Mediterranean country in Central Europe. Slovenian national treasure, located in the southwest of the country where the land meets with the Adriatic Sea, patiently waits for the world to see its importance. Acres and acres of beautiful landscape covered with spacious, perfectly geometric shaped pans, birds on the horizon, trails running between salt fields, cottages, bridges and a gentle breeze that bends a variegated plant shrub. The smell of salt gently caresses the nostrils and there is no doubt that the salt is being produced here.

The Sečovlje and Strunjan saltpans are the northernmost still operating salt pans in the Mediterranean range. Sečovlje saltpans cover 650 hectares of land which is equal to one seventh of total size of the Piran municipality. The park is divided into the northern part called Lera and southern parts called Fontanigge, which are separated by Drnica. Strunjan saltpans are the smallest saltpans in the Mediterranean.

The past and present walking hand in hand

The salt produced here cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is being manufactured by an ancient traditional hand technique, with the help of a’’petola’’, which has been more than 700 years old. The method was brought from the island of Pag in 1377 and has set the greatest milestone in the operation of Slovenian saltpans. Revolutionary ‘’petola’’, a few millimetres of a thick base on a loamy base at the bottom of the crystallization pools, which is, due to the composition of the soil and algae, possible only in this area, prevents the contact of sea mud with salt crystals. This means that the salt is white, pure, and has a good and unique taste. It consists of cyanobacteria, microorganisms, gypsum, carbonate minerals, algae and clays and also acts as a biological filter because it helps incorporating iron and manganese ions in salt, which significantly affects the quality of salt. ‘’The quality of salt produced in the north-western part of Istria region has been and still is perfect,’’ says dr. Flavio Bonin, an expert who has been studying Slovenian salt pans for more than 30 years and is the son of a salt producer. Many others have tried to produce salt in this way, many failed. Thus, salt is left only to the sea, to the sun, to the wind, and to the gentle human hand, which is harvested daily with a traditional ’’gavera’’ – a wooden salt scraper.

The glorious past

We would not be mistaken, if we would argue that this piece of Slovenia would not be the same if it had not been dealing with salt here in the past, since the production and trading of ‘’white gold’’ for several centuries was the foundation of a stable economy and the development of surrounding towns, especially Piran, Portorož, Lucija, Izola and Koper. Salt was once enjoying, as today’s oil, great strategic significance since it is the main ingredient for the preservation of food. The Sečovlje and Strunjan saltpans, part of the former Piran saltpans, were exceptionally significant for the famous Venetian Republic, which left a huge seal in the area, as Venetians received more than one third of the entire salt from the Piran saltpans. The importance of the legacy of the salt pans is also confirmed by many documents from the past. For the first time, the Piran saltpans were indirectly mentioned in the year 804, in the debate of Karl Veliki at the Rižana Assembly, while the first written sources date back to 1274, where they are mentioned in the statute.

That the saltpans survived, many battles have been fought, so their existence wasn’t always certain. In the battle for economic dominance, the Venetian Republic was waging a devastating march and wiped salt pans on the Adriatic coast from the face of the earth, but the salt pans of Piran managed to survive from almost certain death, by signing an agreement on mandatory salt sales to the Republic of Venice. They also managed to avoid the next destructive march of the Venetians, and in 1460 they became the most important and the largest in the Adriatic Sea. The Venetians, who were not able to imagine a salt-free life, started major infrastructure modernization, which guaranteed more than 300 years of economic stability and development of the area.

But the Venetian republic collapsed and the salt pans fell into the hands of the Austrian administration, who declared it as a state monopoly in 1814, and less than 100 years later, Austrians bought all the salt funds, which until then had been in possession of 19 local families. They modernized them and started to manage them more intensively. Until then, one family was responsible for each salt fund, and after 1904, the northern area of ​​the Sečovlje saltpans was rearranged into one large salt fund, thereby blurring the medieval culture of salt harvesting. At that time, there were about 4,200 people employed in salt-pans. Salt-man have always been the people of Piran who, each year in April, around the day of St. George, the protector of Piran, moved with their families to the salt pans, where they stayed until mid-September. More than 400 families migrated to the salt pans, and they earned enough in the period to survive the winter.

But the history did not spare the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which in 1918 collapsed, and the salt pans were quickly retrieved by the Italians, who again modernized them and continued with the harvest of great economic success. In 1945, after the end of World War II, saltpans were included in the Free Territory of Trieste, which did not last long, since they had fallen into the clutches of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia few years later, which managed to extract some money from them before they began to lose their battle with cheap salt from the salt mines.

The Great Importance

Slovenian salt-pans are not only important for the preservation of cultural heritage, but are also the most important Slovenian ornithophytic site as a wetland , since it is a home to many endangered animal and plant species. They have the status of a natural and cultural heritage and are, due to their exceptional landscape and ecological values, also on the Ramsar Convention List, as they have developed specific living environments, adapted to the extreme conditions of salt works. ‘’As long as the salt pans work and produce salt, they will survive. But when the production is finished, it will collapse, like most other salt pans in the Mediterranean,’’ explains the curator of the Salt Museum. With the collapse of the salt pans, the lives of plants and animals that have found their forever home here will also be at risk. ‘’Salt works are responsible for the preservation of watercourses, the restoration of dikes, the regulation of water … and thus the diversity of animal and plant species. Traditional salt harvesting ensures the existence of specific, even rare and endangered species,’’ the importance of preserving the salt pans in the countryside explains Klavdij Godnič, director of the company Soline d. o. o., which has a concession for the management of the Sečovlje Salina Park. In the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park and Strunjan Salina Nature Park, which were established in 2001, the home has found as many as 45 species on a red list of endangered plants, and is home to at least 10 species of birds, protected by the European Bird Directive, which have the only nesting place here. Ponds also provide shelter to The European pond turtle and the Salina larvae, which are high on the list of endangered species. In addition to all endangered species, the area is home to more than 290 bird species, as well as other animal species, including the smallest mammal in the world – The Etruscan shrew. Due to the preservation of the natural and cultural heritage, the salt pans received the medal of the European Union, and the salt produced enjoys the European protection of the designation of origin. The Salines are also extremely important for the locals, since they represent the lungs of the Piran municipality because they act as a filter and purify huge amounts of water and air.

Nevertheless, they fall under the most endangered wetlands in the Mediterranean. The Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning has prepared a document defining the greatest threats to the existence of salt pans. They are endangered by uncontrolled flooding of water, which is the result of climate change as well as individuals who, despite the strict prohibition, enter the living space of the ecosystem and remove animals from their natural habitat, while arbitrarily opening water barriers, thus changing the water regime and damaging the ecosystem. The ministry finds that animals have been adapted to the nearby airport, and are more threatened by nearby activities of acrobatic airplanes, which are frightening animals. Pollution is also a major problem, as there is a strong traffic load and pollution from the nearby ship repair station. Excessive concentration of copper due to the use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides in agriculture damages the area of ​​special protection.  The Dragonja river without which there would be no saltpans, also represents an enormous problem because of unregulated sewage in the Dragonja area that dumps untreated faecal waters into the river, while the right tributaries of the river serve as wild landfills.

Money talks

The area is, according to dr. Bonin, worth between one billion and one and a half billion of euros, and that is the cause Slovenian pearl is also threatened by capital pressures, where environmental protection is of secondary significance, since they tend to introduce activities unrelated to salt harvesting. Soline d. o. o., with the concession for the management of the park, is owned by a huge Telekom company. ‘’Telekom has a positive impact on the financial stability of Soline d. o. o.,’’ says Godnič, with which also agrees dr. Bonin, as Telekom initially ‘’took care of the continued existence of salt production’’. The company currently employs 87 people, and in the summer they rent out 10 salt ponds, and they then buy the salt produced and turn it into finished products. In 2017 they produced 2,700  tons of salt, while Bonin points out that only the Sečovlje Salt-pans have the capacity to produce 12,000 tons, which could be sold with different marketing. ’’Given that the salt is of exceptional quality, Telekom could be better selling it, but it has no interest because it is easier to sell tourism and real estate,’’ Bonin told the Slovenian daily Delo, adding that Salines need larger number of people to maintain such a large area. ‘’There is not much interest in the salt-making profession, because it’s hard work,’’ Godnič explains. Salting requires continuous presence; In March, the crystallization shaft is coated, in April the crystallization pools are consolidated, they prepare salt fields, and in May, the pellets become compact. From June to mid September salt collection takes place. From September to March, maintenance work is carried out, such as the renovation of the embankments and the deepening of the canals. However, Telekom says that the current production capacity of salt production is sufficient to meet market needs and will gradually increase in line with demand in the future.

Due to the unique production of salt and a special conservation area according to the criteria of the European Union Directives, the Sečovlje and Strunjan saltpans are an indisputable candidate for enrolment on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but this raises the issue of greater visibility and, consequently, increased tourism in this area. ’’The development of tourism would mean changing the space,’’ which is detrimental to the ecosystem, but ‘’firstly, politics must decide whether to protect them or not’’ commented Bonin. When asked how far we have been on the UNESCO list and why things are not happening faster, the Ministry of Culture did not comment. Time is running out, as Soline threatens to abandon its salt-making business when the concession agreement expires in 2023. What kind of plans Telekom has with Soline and what will happen after 2023, Telekom did not want to comment, but they stated that ‘’ individual discussions with the state regarding the possibility of separation of the landscape park and commercial activities are under way, but so far no decision has been taken in this regard’’.