Countries once divided by Iron Curtain join to protect environment

Photo: Smaack, CC BY-SA 3.0

The European Green Belt is a stretch of wilderness running along the former Iron Curtain, which once divided the continent. It has evolved along the border for more than four decades and today is the longest and largest ecological network of its kind not only in Europe, but in the whole world. The European Green Belt is also an ecological initiative that joins 24 states, which were once divided by the impenetrable borderline.

Photo: Smaack,  CC BY-SA 3.0
For more than 40 years, the Iron Curtain separated Western Europe from the Communist countries, stretching all the way from the Barents Sea in the north to the Black and Adriatic Seas in the south. With its watch towers, barbed wires and mine fields, the border zone became a sort of no man’s land, which few were able to cross or even enter.

At the same time, the absence of people allowed Nature to take control of the area and gradually turn it into a piece of wilderness. The deserted and unused strip of land served as a retreat for rare animal and plant species, such as black storks, bee-eaters or otters that were driven away from the heavily used landscape.

Jan Skalík is an expert from Friends of the Earth Czech Republic, an environmental NGO, which is in charge of the European Green Belt initiative here in the Czech Republic.

“A vast majority of land in Western Europe was used for agriculture, industry or urban development. On the eastern side of the Iron Curtain were areas with high environmental pollution, with high concentrations of chemicals, pesticides and so on. This part of land connecting the two sides remained pristine and in many areas remains so to this day.”

Ever since the Iron Curtain was brought down in 1989, many of the precious natural landscapes were threatened to be destroyed by road construction and other human activities. To preserve the unique piece of land, the 24 states that were once divided by the Iron Curtain joined together and in 2003 officially launched the so-called Green Belt Initiative.

“The border of the Green Belt stretches along the Finnish-Russian border and the Baltic States and by the Polish and German coasts. It then follows the former border between East and West Germany and the Czech Republic and from Austria it continues to the Balkan states, Greece and Turkey.

“In the Czech Republic, the Green Belt starts at the western border, close to the town of Aš, and runs along the southern border, that is Český Les, Šumava, Novohradské Hory and the South Moravian region. It ends near the town of Břeclav and then continues to Austria.”

With more than 12,500 kilometres, the Green Belt is in fact the longest and largest ecological network in the world. It connects natural areas with different protection status, such as national parks and biosphere reserves, which are linked by unprotected areas that serve as connecting corridors.

Jan Skalík,  photo: archive of Masaryk University Brno
Liana Geidezis from BUND Germany, a member organisation of Friends of the Earth, explains why it is so important to keep the area interconnected and to prevent its fragmentation into isolated islands of wilderness:

“The Green Belt is the only habitat connecting system that exists in Germany. There are a lot of threatened habitat types that only exist in this particular area. The unique thing is that the Green Belt connects these habitats and a lot of threatened species can move from one region to another. So it is very important to maintain this unique ecological corridor in Germany.”

In the Czech Republic, the Green Belt is particularly important for large carnivores, such as bears, lynxes and wolves, which need large habitats, but, as Jan Skalík points out, it is equally important for various plant species:

“As the environmental conditions are changing from south to north, plants need a corridor to migrate, to move away from the areas where conditions are no longer suitable. This belt running through Europe gives plants a possibility to move, because they are in many cases blocked by agricultural or urban landscape.”

According to Jan Skalík, the Czech Republic has done quite a lot to protect its part of the European Green Belt. He mentions for instance the recently adopted Act on Natural Protection. At the same time, he says, it is essential to cooperate with the neighbouring countries in protecting the area:

“You can see this very well on the example of the Šumava National Park, which lies on the borders of three countries, which together with its Austrian and German parts forms one of the largest areas of wilderness in Europe today. Because of that, it really doesn’t make sense to protect just one part of the national park with no respect to the other states.”

Mr Skalík says neighbouring Germany, which recently gave the Green Belt the status of a national natural monument, can serve as a good example of how to protect this unique stretch of land. Liana Gedeizes from Germany’s BUND outlines more details:

“We are doing a lot of projects and activities. We as the Friends of the Earth Germany purchase land along the German Green Belt to protect it for the future.

“We also conduct tourism projects along the German Green Belt. We invite people to go hike there or cycle there. Sustainable tourism is a very important tool to protect the Green Belt as an ecological corridor.

Despite a number of successful conservation projects carried out within the European Green Belt Initiative, there are still spots of agricultural land with no hedges or trees which threaten to break up the permeability of the unique natural corridor.

Lynx,  photo: CC0 Public Domain
The European Green Belt Initiative recently adopted the so-called Eisenach resolution, which calls on the governments of individual member states to step up their efforts in preventing the ongoing loss of biodiversity and the increase of habitat fragmentation in Europe.

According to Liana Gedeizes, the European Green Belt is the only positive legacy of the Iron Curtain and should be preserved for future generations:

“The Green Belt is a symbol of overcoming the division of Europe, it’s a living monument to recent European history, it’s a memorial landscape and in fact the only positive symbol of the Iron Curtain.”