04 Apr 2011: Report

Along Scar from Iron Curtain,
A Green Belt Rises in Germany

A forbidding, 870-mile network of fences and guard towers once ran the length of Germany, separating East and West. Now, one of the world’s most unique nature reserves is being created along the old “Death Strip,” turning a monument to repression into a symbol of renewal.

by christian schwägerl

The planners of the border zone separating East and West Germany thought they had considered everything. They wanted to stop people from fleeing the communist East for a freer life in the West, and they wanted to leave nothing to chance. So along the 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) border that stretched from the Baltic Sea to Bavaria, they built one of the cruelest barriers ever created by man. It began 5 kilometers from the actual border with a first line of control, followed by runs for guard dogs. Then came fences with touch-sensitive alarms, sandy strips to detect footprints, guard towers, minefields, bunkers with automated guns, and — finally — the ultimate fence or wall, behind which lay the forbidden land of West Germany.

As it turns out, the planners of the East German border hadn’t quite anticipated everything. They didn’t envision that history would sweep them away. And they had no clue that what they were really creating in the long run was not a brutal enclosure but a highly valuable nature reserve. “There is no other area in Germany that has been largely undisturbed for such a long time,” says Dieter Leupold, a biologist with the German branch of Friends of the Earth.

View photos
German Green Belt

Photo courtesy of Klaus Leidorf
Conservationists and government biologists hope to make Germany’s “Green Belt” the backbone of a system of ecological corridors.
Now, more than two decades after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s East-West border zone, Friends of the Earth and other conservation groups, joined by the federal and state governments, are close to completing an amazing metamorphosis: They are turning the former “Death Strip” into one of the world’s most unusual nature preserves. Although it runs the length of a reunited Germany, it is only 30 to a few hundred meters wide. But despite its bizarre dimensions, this border green belt — where hundreds once perished trying to escape to the West — is uniquely valuable, according to Leupold and other scientists.

In most parts of Germany, East and West, intensive agriculture, highways, and cities put huge pressure on ecosystems and many species of plants and animals. But the border area was off limits to most humans for decades, and thus became a safe haven for rare wildlife and plants. “The European otter, which is endangered throughout Germany, really likes the ditches that were meant to stop vehicles from crossing,” Leupold said as we walked recently along the former border near the East German city of Salzwedel. “We have black storks, moor frogs, white-tailed eagles — basically you can meet the Red List of endangered species here.”

But the vision of conservationists and government biologists goes well beyond the ribbon of land that once divided the two Germanys. Conservationists and government officials are striving to make the Greenbelt the backbone of a German-wide system of ecological corridors. Since 1990, the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation has established more than 20 large protected areas connected to the old East-West border. Those protected areas might eventually become part of a much larger effort — proposed by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — to create a continuous, pan-European nature reserve stretching from northern Finland to the Black Sea along the route of the former Iron Curtain.


Only a few weeks after East Germans broke through the Wall at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in November 1989, and then through the inner-German border installations, environmentalists from Friends of the Earth in Bavaria dared to publish a petition for a “Green Belt” project. The border area “should be protected as the ecological backbone of Central Europe,” the petition, published on Dec. 9, 1989, says. This was a courageous step at the time, as the border was universally referred to as the “Death Strip” and loathed for very good reasons.

Leupold, now 49, is originally from Hamburg in what was West Germany. After the wall came down, he felt an urge to help East Germans protect their environment. So he applied for a job at the regional environmental office in the East German Altmark, an area halfway between Hamburg and Berlin. That’s where he first heard about efforts to create the border reserve, now located right in the middle of a unified Germany.

“Many people just wanted to get rid of it and move on,” Leupold says. Farmers started to cultivate the land after mines were removed, and cities and villages built numerous roads to reconnect the people.

That’s when the hard work started for people like Uwe Riecken, department head for habitat protection and landscape ecology at Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in Bonn.

“We wanted to prove that this is an area of value and that it can transcend the horrors of the past,” says Riecken. In collaboration with Friends of the Earth, Riecken’s agency began a painstaking inventory of the ecosystems
‘We wanted to prove that his is an area of value and that it can transcend the horrors of the past,’ said one official.
and species along the Green Belt. “We had teams of ornithologists, botanists, entomologists, people for many different taxa, walking for hundreds of kilometers along the former border and recording what they came across,” he recalls. Observations from local birders and plant aficionados were fed into the database as well. In the end, more than 1,000 species from Germany’s Red List of endangered species were identified.

Riecken’s agency also called for the creation of large formal reserves in as many areas as possible along the Green Belt, which would form the spine of a new German-wide system of ecological corridors. “From early on, we tried to protect the pearls along the bead chain,” he says.

Last year, planners at the Federal Agency for Conservation published a proposal for a nationwide system of ecological corridors branching off the Green Belt. One of these reserves, Harz National Park, encompasses 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) in the heart of Germany. In the northern part of the country, Schaalsee Lake anchors an extraordinary 15,000-hectare landscape of moors, fens, forests, and meadowlands. The Green Belt ties together these diverse natural areas. “We can’t prove yet that individual animals actually migrate exactly along the Green Belt over very long distances, but it certainly connects populations of many different species and helps their survival,” Riecken says.

View photos
German Green Belt

Photo courtesy of Christian Schwägerl
Dieter Leupold, a biologist from Friends of the Earth Germany, in the Green Belt area near Salzwedel.
On their field trips into the former border zone, researchers encountered an amazing mixture of habitats. Forests, heathlands, sand dunes, salt meadows, riparian areas, green meadows, shorelines — the border literally cut through Germany’s rich natural heritage. “Some forests had not been touched for 40 years,” says Riecken, “so there was dead wood laying around just like in a natural forest, but unlike in the rest of this very orderly country.”

In other areas, the ecological value of the Green Belt stems from the fact that open areas were created with the help of machines, but without any use of fertilizers. “In the intensively used landscape of Germany, sandy areas with low nutrient levels have become quite rare,” Riecken says. In these areas, the researchers recorded plant species like heather and cowslip, as well as a great diversity of butterflies and crickets that thrive only in these habitats.

With this wealth of data, the case for a formal Green Belt grew stronger. In 2002, the Green Belt initiative pulled off a major PR coup when Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who oversaw the demise of the Soviet Union, endorsed the idea. Gorbachev became the first person to buy a “Green Belt share,” effectively giving money to Friends of the Earth to purchase land.

Yet environmentalists knew that enormous challenges remained before they could finish their job. Parts of the area had already been privatized to compensate people for property expropriation by the East German government. More than 60 million euros — $85 million — would have been needed to buy the land, which was way beyond available budgets. Without the support of German states and the federal government, the project would be doomed.

So in 2005, Riecken and others were greatly relieved when Angela Merkel became the first East German to lead the unified country and her coalition
‘There were fears that ecologists would turn this thing into a new border,’ said a scientist.
of conservatives and social democrats formally supported the Green Belt. Last year, Chancellor Merkel transferred all areas owned by the federal government to the states, which are in charge of conservation in Germany. “What separated us in the past now unites us as a Green Belt,” Merkel said. Today, politicians from all parties celebrate the Green Belt as a major conservation success.

Yet it was clear to the Green Belt strategists that just leaving the former border strip alone would not suffice. Some areas have to be managed to keep them open and sandy for specialized species. Even more important is making the Green Belt truly sustainable, which means spinning off income and opportunities for the people living alongside it, in an area beset by high unemployment and an exodus of the young.

Three areas were chosen as pilot projects to develop a mixture of ecotourism and sightseeing: One in the Thuringian Forest, one in the Harz Mountains, and one in the Altmark. “We turned the former road for patrols into a bike path,” says Leupold. Also, 60 explanatory signs along the path now tell the tragic story of separation and the more uplifting story of ecological regeneration.

“Hotels and restaurants love it — we already have people coming from afar to experience this very special mixture of nature and history,” Leupold says.

The area is ideal for birders. While we spoke, huge gaggles of grayleg geese circled in on a meadow. From the nearby alder forest came the haunting mating songs of Eurasian cranes. But ecotourism is only the start, according to Leupold. “We want farmers to be paid for ecosystem services, so we can cooperate instead of competing for land,” he says.

MORE FROM YALE e360

New Hope for Pavlovsk Station
And Russia’s Rare Plant Reserve

New Hope for Pavlovsk Station and Russia’s Rare Plant Reserve
In the early 20th century, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov created a preserve that today contains one of the world’s largest collections of rare seeds and crops. Now, scientists and conservationists are waging an international campaign to save the reserve’s fields from being bulldozed for housing development.
READ MORE
The biggest tasks ahead are turning as many sites as possible into formally designated protected areas and closing the 200 kilometers of gaps in the Green Belt. It’s a tough sell for many locals. “There were fears that ecologists would turn this thing into a new border, create exclusion zones and forbidden areas, not to serve communism, but environmentalism,” says Leupold. Those fears were unfounded, he adds, but need to be addressed.

The federal government and Friends of the Earth are collaborating in buying up as much of the remaining private land as possible to dedicate it to conservation. “But in some places, we just can’t move a road or push farmers’ interests to the side,” says Riecken. In those cases, the initiative is proposing bypass solutions. “We then try to create a corridor that does not exactly follow the historical border, as the animals that might use it don’t really care about this aspect,” he says.

As the Green Belt project moves ahead, Riecken and Leupold are happy that their work has helped turn a symbol of death into a symbol of life. “What we are celebrating with this project,” says Leupold, “is the spirit of unification.”

POSTED ON 04 Apr 2011 IN Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Europe North America 

COMMENTS


I hate to see a good word like unique die. I just read, re Germany 's former Berlin wall, "one of the worlds most unique.."

What can I use to replace unique? "One of a kind" is poor.

Posted by Lawrence Wackerman on 17 Apr 2011


An inspiring story. Thank you.

Posted by Adrian Glamorgan on 26 May 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
christian schwägerlABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Schwägerl, who works for the German news weekly, Der Spiegel, is an environmental journalist who has reported on science and public policy for two decades and is author of the book The Age of Men, published in German under the title Menschenzeit by Riemann/Random House. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, Schwägerl and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul J. Crutzen reflected on what it means to live in the “Anthropocene,” a new geological epoch in which humans increasingly alter and control the planet.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Sweden’s Green Veneer Hides
Unsustainable Logging Practices

Sweden has a reputation as being one of the world’s most environmentally progressive nations. But its surprisingly lax forestry laws often leave decisions about logging to the timber companies — and as a result, large swaths of biologically-rich boreal forest are being lost.
READ MORE

In Berlin, Bringing Bees
Back to the Heart of the City

In Germany’s capital — and in cities as diverse as Hong Kong and Chicago — raising bees on rooftops and in small gardens has become increasingly popular, as urban beekeepers find they can reconnect with nature and maybe even make a profit.
READ MORE

Germany’s Unlikely Champion
Of a Radical Green Energy Path

The disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan convinced German Chancellor Angela Merkel that nuclear power would never again be a viable option for her country. Now Merkel has embarked on the world’s most ambitious plan to power an industrial economy on renewable sources of energy.
READ MORE

Europe’s CO2 Trading Scheme:
Is It Time for a Major Overhaul?

Now in its seventh year, the EU’s carbon emissions trading system is the only international program designed to use market mechanisms to control CO2 emissions. But critics contend it has done little to slow the release of CO2 and argue that it should be significantly reformed — or scrapped.
READ MORE

‘Fracking’ Comes to Europe,
Sparking Rising Controversy

As concerns grow in the U.S. about the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to extract natural gas from shale, companies have set their sights on Europe and its abundant reserves of this “unconventional” gas. But from Britain to Poland, critics warn of the potentially high environmental cost of this looming energy boom.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


A New Frontier for Fracking:
Drilling Near the Arctic Circle

by ed struzik
Hydraulic fracturing is about to move into the Canadian Arctic, with companies exploring the region's rich shale oil deposits. But many indigenous people and conservationists have serious concerns about the impact of fracking in more fragile northern environments.
READ MORE

Africa’s Vultures Threatened
By An Assault on All Fronts

by madeline bodin
Vultures are being killed on an unprecedented scale across Africa, with the latest slaughter perpetrated by elephant poachers who poison the scavenging birds so they won’t give away the location of their activities.
READ MORE

As Small Hydropower Expands,
So Does Caution on Its Impacts

by dave levitan
Small hydropower projects have the potential to bring electricity to millions of people now living off the grid. But experts warn that planners must carefully consider the cumulative effects of constructing too many small dams in a single watershed.
READ MORE

Why Restoring Wetlands
Is More Critical Than Ever

by bruce stutz
Along the Delaware River estuary, efforts are underway to restore wetlands lost due to centuries of human activity. With sea levels rising, coastal communities there and and elsewhere in the U.S. and Europe are realizing the value of wetlands as important buffers against flooding and tidal surges.
READ MORE

Primate Rights vs Research:
Battle in Colombian Rainforest

by chris kraul
A Colombian conservationist has been locked in a contentious legal fight against a leading researcher who uses wild monkeys in his search for a malaria vaccine. A recent court decision that banned the practice is seen as a victory in efforts to restrict the use of monkeys in medical research.
READ MORE

Scientists Look for Causes of
Baffling Die-Off of Sea Stars

by eric wagner
Sea stars on both coasts of North America are dying en masse from a disease that kills them in a matter of days. Researchers are looking at various pathogens that may be behind what is known as sea star wasting syndrome, but they suspect that a key contributing factor is warming ocean waters.
READ MORE

Loss of Snowpack and Glaciers
In Rockies Poses Water Threat

by ed struzik
From the Columbia River basin in the U.S. to the Prairie Provinces of Canada, scientists and policy makers are confronting a future in which the loss of snow and ice in the Rocky Mountains could imperil water supplies for agriculture, cities and towns, and hydropower production.
READ MORE

On Front Lines of Recycling,
Turning Food Waste into Biogas

by rachel cernansky
An increasing number of sewage treatment plants in the U.S. and Europe are processing food waste in anaerobic biodigesters, keeping more garbage out of landfills, reducing methane emissions, and producing energy to defray their operating costs.
READ MORE

Can Waterless Dyeing Processes
Clean Up the Clothing Industry?

by lydia heida
One of the world’s most polluting industries is the textile-dyeing sector, which in China and other Asian nations releases trillions of liters of chemically tainted wastewater. But new waterless dyeing technologies, if adopted on a large scale, could sharply cut pollution from the clothing industry.
READ MORE

How Weeds Could Help Feed
Billions in a Warming World

by lisa palmer
Scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are conducting intensive experiments to cross hardy weeds with food crops such as rice and wheat. Their goal is to make these staples more resilient as higher temperatures, drought, and elevated CO2 levels pose new threats to the world’s food supply.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT

Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Bookmark
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:
rss


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 PHOTO GALLERY

“Peter
Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale