Hidden from God and Strangers
Published in Global Estonian, a magazine celebrating Estonians everywhere
of the Hiiumaa Centre of the Archipelago Biosphere Reserve of Western Estonia
Members of today’s older generation might still recall their mothers’ stories of how women gathered to card wool by the dim glow of pine splinters, or their fathers’ recollections of thrashing grain at manor estates. I still remember the stories of my mother, who was older than the century (she was born in 1897). She told of a boy from the local village who had worked on a ship and had seen the wide world. He set a flashlight on a stone wall and had all the girls believing that the stars from the heavens had been brought down to Earth. But what unbelievable stories will today’s boys and girls tell their children?
The island of Hiiumaa lived in peace and solitude, as a Estonia’s peripheral area, for decades. Days passed on in a customary routine, in the field and byre, forest and the sea - work had to be done and life had to be lived. Life on Hiiumaa wasn’t any better or worse than elsewhere in Estonia; uniformity was one thing the Soviet regime guaranteed. Then again, perhaps it was a bit better. Fishermen held somewhat of a privileged status under the Soviets. The pay was good; the Party men found fishing such a complicated undertaking that they weren’t so prone to preaching and meddling, as they tended to do with milking and ploughing. In the fishing industry, the Party had to trust locals themselves, dragging a lot of men into the Party who knew how to deal humanely with people - well, as humanely as one can in a totalitarian state.
In the mid-1980s, a remarkable event occurred - the population of Hiiumaa actually began to grow. In the 1930s, before the Second World War, over 16,000 inhabitants lived on the island of Hiiumaa. After the turmoil of war, when it came time to count those fallen in battle, deported to Siberia and escaped to the West, only 11,000 remained. And then came the era of collective farms and the so-called industrialisation of Estonia, which brought the number of hiidlased (residents of Hiiumaa) down to less than 10,000. But, wonder of wonders, a sudden boom in the mid-eighties increased the island’s population to 12,000 inhabitants in a matter of ten years. One of the draws attracting people from the mainland may have been Hiiumaa’s primarily Estonian population. Even today the island is 99% Estonian-speaking.
For the time being, Hiiumaa’s population seems to be holding steady at 12,000. So, hold your breath and cross your fingers, if you think it will help keep the population from dropping again. So far, an estimated 1000 young people who still consider Hiiumaa their home are working on the mainland. Lack of employment opportunities on the island is becoming a real problem. Without some action and a supportive regional policy by the state, daring predictions that 20 to 25,000 people will live on the island in the future aren’t worth a red cent.
Hidden from God and strangers
Under the Soviets, life on the island went on as if hidden from the gods themselves. As a Soviet border zone, Hiiumaa was closed except for those with a special ‘visa’ - which wasn’t the easiest thing to get a hold of. Hiidlased liked this arrangement: it kept strangers from coming to Hiiumaa and buying up their scarce goods during the days of never-ending shortages, especially during the last years of the Soviet regime. These restrictions actually kept life more secure. Every stranger coming to the island was under the scruitany of the military border guard. These visas were still required for many years after independence had been restored. Parliament finally passed a law abolishing the Hiiumaa visas in 1993, to the great chagrin of many islanders.
Today Hiiumaa has come to terms regarding the hosting of strangers. Tourists from both mainland Estonia and farther afield have become a part of everyday life on the island. In fact, even more visitors would be welcome. While in the early 1990s perhaps one out of every ten islanders profited from tourism, today no one does not benefit from the industry. There’s definitely room for expansion, especially when compared with other Baltic islands. Gotland and Bornhold host around 300 visitors per each thousand inhabitants each year, while Hiiumaa gets maybe 80 to 100.
Our Gate to the Global Village
Natural heritage protection was one of the few aspects of Soviet rule from which one could continue to keep sight of Estonian values. After preliminary work in the 1980s, Estonia’s largest islands (Saaremaa, Hiiumaa and Vormsi) were given the status of Man and Biosphere Preserve Areas by UNESCO in the 1990s. At the time the main objective was conservation, saving the island’s fragile wildlife from the intensifying pressures of the agricultural industry. (It was really pretty awful when the fishermen came back saying that the Jausa Gulf reeks of swine mucus.)
The preserve’s actual purpose - the conservation and development of nature from a human perspective - could not be stated outright, at least not publicly, because this would have contradicted the Party line. Estonia’s independence brought the preserve new freedoms and, strange as it may seem, new opposition as well. The traditional, prohibitive school of thought that fit so well in a totalitarian regime hasn’t found it so easy to switch paradigms and accept new points of view.
Now it is up to the islands of western Estonia, along with 330 of their kind in the world, to work toward a common goal - modernising the organisation of national preserves. In Hiiumaa, this challenge has been set in the most radical terms: the island is to become a model of sustainable development. Such projects are still in the very early phases throughout the world and even experts are not exactly sure how to go about doing this.
They do know that building a solid plan is the first step, and from there to take it one step at a time. A sociological survey supported by the United Nations Development Program has shown that this method suits the islanders’ way of thinking: rational and practical, based on common sense, preferring grassroots action to top-down orders, and yet at the same time at the very forefront of natural and cultural heritage preservation and economic development.
The Wind Always Wins
“Even a hiidlane can’t win against the wind,” island men would say while struggling with their sails on a stormy sea. This work was done and done well by many a generation – on foreign ships, in schooners and the beautiful tall ships they themselves built on these very island beaches. “The north is always cold – no matter what direction it blows from,” were the wise words of wisdom used to match wits with fellow sailors. Unfortunately, the long treck is over for the island’s sailing ships. While one can still take tourists out for pleasure trips, that thrill that men used to get from riding these old vessels into an autumn storm is today forever in the past.
At the end of the last century over 500 windmills ground the island’s grain. The ten or so that remain standing today are now museum pieces. But the wind rages on. In the second half of the 1980s the islanders found out about the wind-powered generators that had become fashionable in the West, and they wanted one of their own. Ten years later, with help from the Danish Environmental Agency and the Estonian Fund for the Environment on Tahkuna Point, that wish came true and the island installed the first wind-powered generator in all of Estonia. As is the custom with all new things on the island, the new generator was given a name: White Angel. (Ingel, meaning ‘angel’, is also a popular girl’s name on the island of Hiiumaa.)
The next wind generators will be brought to the island on a commercial basis, when and if the business plans show they can earn their keep. In the meantime, the island’s entire energy system is being closely examined. Following the example of Denmark’s Samso Island, some specialists want to put together a ten-year strategy for making Hiiumaa a renewable energy island. Other options, in addition to wind power, are also being considered: conservation of energy and reconstruction of buildings, biomass as a possible furnace fuel, use of solar energy, the potential of electric energy, etc. The island has already developed many partnerships with other European islands heading in the same direction through the Biosphere Reserve Centre. Hiiumaa hopes to put these plans to the test at the first Global Forum for Renewable Energy Islands in September 1999.
“We’ll Have to Look into That”
Regardless of the magnitude of the project, hiidlased aren’t prone to showing excitement. “We’ll have to think about it then,” or “Well, we’ll have to look into that,” are typical responses, even if they are already raring to go with a project. Take, for example, the European Mink Relocation Project. On the surface, local hunters appear to be indifferent regarding their participation, but you can tell they’ll do whatever it takes to make it succeed. At the moment, the project’s fate truly is in the hands of the local hunters.
In recent decades it has become clear that there are times when humans must interfere to prevent the loss of yet another species. The animal in question here is the European mink; the species’ natural habitat is being taken over by the more aggressive imported American minks that have escaped from fur farms and now are killing off the weaker minks. The Tallinn Zoo is one of the few in the world to breed the European mink in captivity. After searching all of Europe, scientists have found that Hiiumaa is the only natural setting where the European mink has a chance for successful relocation and survival. But before this can happen the American minks have to be caught. This is where opinions are divided. It is believed that there are 300 American minks living on the island, and not everyone believes that catching all of them is even possible. Tiit Maran, who is both the project manager and the resident scientific consultant at the Tallinn Zoo, believes it possible, and so do Hiiumaa’s hunters. They have already started their hunting of the American mink in December of last year. Depending on your point of view, should we wish them luck?
The success of such a hunt could, of course, do a lot of good for Hiiumaa. From a commercial point of view, world-wide publicity concerning the plight of the minks is what often pays off in the form of generating tourism. Other positive consequences include the different international contacts established in the process of saving and or eliminating the minks. During the preparatory stages of finding the proper solution for the minks dilema, visiting scholars from Oxford University helpfully shared their knowledge and experiences on other matters as well with the islanders of Hiiumaa.
After all, islanders working at the biosphere preserves are looking for reasonable solutions to the many problems regarding the relationship between man and nature, including the Baltic seals that hamper the work of fishermen and migrant birds that often pick local fields bare.
The European Mink Project is also focusing attention on the island’s perennial problems with summer drought. This danger stems back to the Soviet period, when fields were created and the land was drained beyond the bounds of reason. While solutions to these problems have yet to be found in Estonia, perhaps we have much to learn from the world’s wealth of knowledge.
Co-operation among the B7, the seven islands of the Baltic Sea, began in 1990. The islands’ strategy for the future has already been drawn up and the environmental issues work group has been on schedule since 1995. Experts from the islands of Hiiumaa, Saaremaa, Ahvenamaa , Ojamaa, Öland, Bornholm and Rügen meet regularly to discuss common concerns and plan combined efforts to solve them. Many projects have already been completed within the framework of European Commission foundations and many are presently underway. These projects include a joint renewable tourism development program, environmental indicators projects, subsoil water protection and recycling projects. Joint projects in the fields of energy and biodiversity conservation are in the preliminary stages; Hiiumaa heads the latter. The island is also responsible for ensuring communication through the list-server and the publication of results on the common website.
Additionally, Hiiumaa has participated in a wide variety of shorter, eposodic projects. Hiiumaa’s Green Sign project grew out of the European Union’s EcoIslands project, which was aimed at developing tourism. Other participating islands included Alonnisos in Greece, Elba in Italy, Fuerteventure and La Palma in Spain, and Pellworm in Germany. Hiiumaa also participates in ISLENET, the EU’s network for co-operation in environmental and energy issues. Closer ties have been established with the Scottish islands of Orkney and Shetland.
Why is it that Hiiumaa has developed such close ties with its Baltic Sea neighbours, but still has mixed feelings regarding mainland Estonia? This phenomenon would require much deeper analysis than we can provide in this article. On the surface, however, a few reasons can be noted. Co-operation among B7 islands is based on dialogue between equal partners and people-related joint efforts. Unfortunately, such dialogue with Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, has yet to be established. While regional policy is a popular topic, communication between the centre and the periphery has remained mostly a monologue
But Tallinn must be forgiven; throughout the ages, Hiiumaa has been an enigma beyond the sea. The mainlanders’ riddle:
“Horses whinny in Hiiumaa, but voices are heard on our land,”
has been interpreted as a recognition of Hiiumaa as a unique and mystical place. No matter how you look at it, Hiiumaa tends to stand apart from the rest of Estonia. It is too small for some things and yet too big for others; sometimes it has no face of its own, and at other times it has all too much personality. Take hold of what you will, the identity of the hiidlased remains strong.