Legacy of the Cold War: Germany’s Green Belt


After the split between West and East Germany, Communist planners in the east worked out a 870-mile border fence that moved from the Baltic Sea through Bavaria. On the East German side, the actual border control system started 5 kilometers from the real border, writes Christian Schwagerl, a Der Spiegel writer, in Yale Environment 360. There needed to be room for 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.” Now, with the Cold War over for some twenty years, efforts are underway to preserve the relatively pure nature that took form between the antagonists and expand this “Green Belt” into the backbone of a bold new ecological corridor running throughout Europe.

Friends of the Earth and other conservation groups have joined with German federal and state governments to turn this former “Death Strip,” where escaping Communists were shot, into one of the “world’s most unusual nature preserves.” Schwagerl says the belt is between 30 and a few hundreds meters wide. While not expansive, biologists view the site as ecologically valuable because it was a “safe haven for rare wildlife and plants” for so many years while development occurred on either side of the old borders.


Dieter Leupold, a biologist with Friends of Earth, said: “The European otter, which is endangered throughout Germany, really likes the ditches that were meant to stop vehicles from crossing. We have black storks, moor frogs, white-tailed eagles — basically you can meet the Red List of endangered species here.” In fact, to date, more than 1,000 species from Germany’s Red List of endangered species were identified in the area by teams of volunteer ornithologists, entomologists, botanists, and other biologists. 

Now, the idea is to not only continue to preserve the habitat for endangered species within this Green Belt but also connect 20 large protected areas around the old border into a “continuous, pan-European nature preserve stretching from northern Finland to the Black Sea along the route of the former Iron Curtain” so that migratory species can move more easily. Within Germany, the Federal Agency for Conservation has come up with a proposal for the German piece of the system: a national network of ecological corridors branching off the Green Belt. Many of these reserves are also pretty big: the Harz National Park covers more 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres), while the Schaalsee Lake region features a “15,000-hectare landscape of moors, fens, forests, and meadowlands.”

To ensure the network functions as an ecological corridor for migrating species, a plan for long-term economic sustainability needs to be put in place. According to Schwagerl, much of the land was purchased by the German government, but parts of the area have already been privatized to compensate people for property expropriated by the communists. Political support for the Green Belt is solid, with most German parties seeing the preserve as an environmental success. Even so, Schwagerl says what’s important is to make “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.” For now, that means encouraging neighboring communities to earn income from ecotourism and birdwatching.

He says major upcoming work includes “turning as many sites as possible into formally designated protected areas and closing the 200 kilometers of gaps in the Green Belt.” With the federal government, the Friends of the Earth are trying to buy up much of the remaining private land to use for conservation. Inevitable conflicts with local farmers’ and business groups are expected.

Read the article

Also, check out the 155-mile-long demilitarized zone in the Korean peninsula, an inadvertant border zone park. In this case, where there’s no peace, nature has also thrived. See an interview with environmental journalist Caroline Fraser, who makes a clear case for valuing and preserving “trans-boundary” parks as ecological corridors.

Image credits: Green Belt / Wikipedia Commons

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