“Borders are both a threat and an opportunity. A threat because of restrictions, controls, limits. An opportunity because of exchange, crossroads and trade.” Robert Brunner, Manager, Thayatal National Park (Austria)
Two dozen countries make up the European Green Belt – an ecological spine some 12,500 kilometers in length – of border lands, riparian buffer, and natural places from the Barents Sea between Norway and Russia to the Black Sea between Bulgaria and Turkey– with a shared vision and transboundary cooperation for nature conservation and sustainable development.
The Green Belt is considered Europe’s largest conservation initiative – no longer an East-West border controlled by political division – that includes forests, swamps, wild mountain and river landscapes. Europe’s large mammals can be found here (wolves, bears and lynx) as well as threatened migratory and nesting birds.
The 50-kilometer-wide “belt” is adjacent to many areas of high conservation value– 40 national parks and more than 3200 protected areas. The goal is to integrate the green belt with key habitats as an international network of valuable ecosystems.
This is no small achievement if you consider:
- Many of the frontiers and border areas that stretch along the spine were highly secure and forbidden to enter during the 40 years the Iron Curtain divided East from West. Curiously, that is exactly what kept people and land development from spoiling the rich, often fragile habitats that are home to rare and endangered species.
- A number of countries have remaining political, economic and social differences that could otherwise derail the collaboration that makes the Greenbelt a successful work-in-progress. At least a half-dozen countries (see below) are not yet part of the European Union, which offers legal mandates (directives) in EU member states for protecting birds and habitats.
- Some areas are open for ecotourism and visitors; others are wild and remote, and are mostly intended to stay that way.
A Pan-European ecological network
The concept of a “green belt” originated just after the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, with a group of 300 environmentalists from the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (then East Germany) who assembled and formulated the Green Belt Resolution of Hof (Germany). The first conservation projects were a strategic move to eliminate the internal border that made Germany – and valuable habitats –artificially divided into two countries for 40 years.
Other projects followed—then the idea moved to scale at the European level. By 2003 a conference on the European Green Belt resulted in a working group, with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as the coordinator. By 2010 individual countries were on board as part of the work program.
A landmark agreement signed in 2012 between Norway, Finland and Russia, makes possible development of the Green Belt of Fennoscandia – the vast area in Northern Europe uniting the three countries, spreading across the Kola peninsula, Finland and Karelia.
The most recent addition is the Baltic Green Belt, established in 2012, along the Baltic coastal terrain of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Russia.
This year, the Green Belt celebrates its official 10th anniversary with events and symposium held in May in Berlin.
A green belt of regions
The Green Belt has regional sections managed by NGOs, state agencies and management authorities to protect distinct biogeographical regions that are habitats for biodiversity. (NOTE: Countries in italics are working toward membership in the European Union; those in boldface are not members. All others are EU member states.)
Fennoscandian Green Belt: Norway, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia
Central European Green Belt: Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy
Balkan or South Eastern European Green Belt: Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Albania, Greece and Turkey
The Baltic Green Belt, established in 2012, along the Baltic coastal terrain of the former Iron Curtain, islands and mainland, includes Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Russia.
Goals: Europe Growing Together
Americans tend to think of Europe in terms of individual countries, cultures and political factions. The Green Belt is just the reverse — a major effort at unification to bring together the natural heritage and biodiversity assets of a continent as a Pan-European network. It’s bold, it’s complex, and it does not offer easy shortcuts to achieve.
- Maintain a Pan-European ecological network characterized by transboundary cooperation
- Celebrate common ecological and historical heritage
- Protect and provide active stewardship for habitats and species
- Assemble areas of protection for rare and threatened species
- Assemble large-scale biosphere nature reserves with cross-border initiatives ( there are only 40 national parks in the Green Belt along the former Iron Curtain from the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic Sea; only 16 are cross-border)
- Mobilize opportunities for sustainable regional development (nature tourism, small holder farming, cultural traditions)
Sustainability and Long Term Success
Today, in a globalized economy, there’s more at stake in the long-term protection of habitats and species because economic development and country advancement are eagerly sought by nations that were formerly disadvantaged.
Areas in the Green Belt are at risk from the development of infrastructure ( road-building, deforestation), plans for dams and chaneling that affect the natural flow of river systems with valuable aquatic assets (Danube/Drava/Mura), illegal hunting (especially of birds) and industrial-scale agriculture that includes major animal production for export.
At the Berlin 10th anniversary conference in May, Prof. Hubert Weiger, chairman of BUND Germany pointed out that the Green Belt must be an important driver for sustainable regional development.
“[E]cological wealth can only be maintained long term, if its value is also appreciated by the people. Numerous examples show how the Green Belt contributes to nature tourism development in disadvantaged border regions and can generate economic value.”
Christel Schroeder, President of EuroNature, concludes“ We all bear responsibility to ensure that this peace-making idea is not sacrificed by vested interests.”
Peace Unites Nature, article by Sonia Weinbuch (Environment and Society). Includes photo gallery.
Pan European Green Belt Conference (2012) in Macedonia