The European Green Belt is the backbone of a pan-European ecological network that runs for 12,500 kilometres from the Barents Sea in the north to the Adriatic and Black seas in the south.
It spans 24 countries and an immense diversity of habitats ranging from arctic tundra, boreal forests, alpine peaks, mires, bogs and lush flood plains to coastal areas and grasslands.
Following the route of the former Iron Curtain, it connects 3,272 protected areas, including 40 national parks.
When Winston Churchill, speaking in March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, famously stated that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent”, he surely could not have imagined that anything good could have come from it. But in the end it did.
Over 43 years later the Iron Curtain was finally raised in a series of events that included the highly symbolic opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
During the four decades of the Cold War the borders between the Eastern Bloc countries and the West were heavily fortified with guard towers and watchdogs and separated by a no-man’s land (in some cases hundreds of meters wide) demarcated by barbed wire and electric fences, armed with spring-guns and sewn with land mines.
Moreover on the eastern side the border lands were mostly off-limits for a distance of several kilometres, while some villages near the border were razed to the ground and their population forcibly resettled in the interior.
Although no such restrictions were applied on the western side, places close to the border were seen as unattractive by investors, which left them free of any major infrastructure development.
Yet, ironically, this symbol of human conflict and misery proved to be a boon for nature. The creation of a strip of land largely devoid of human occupation and development became a refuge for many species of birds, animals and plants, some of them quite rare.
The richness of these natural habitats became obvious long before the demise of the Iron Curtain. For example an ornithological survey carried out by Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) in 1979 found that a number of highly endangered bird species such as whinchat, red backed-shrike and woodlark clearly preferred to breed inside the border strip while avoiding areas of farmed land.
Once the opportunity presented itself, it did not take long for conservationists to leap into action in order to preserve what had been gained so fortuitously.
On December 9, 1989, exactly one month after the opening of the Berlin Wall, some 300 environmentalists from East and West Germany met to pass a resolution to preserve this “green belt” before it was re-occupied and developed.
This proved to be the starting point for the German Green Belt project and helped to set in motion the movement for a pan-European Green Belt.
However it took some time for the idea for a European Green Belt to mature. At first countries along the route of the former Iron Curtain launched a series of independent conservation initiatives.
The idea of a pan-European Green Belt was first formally articulated in 2002 and it was established at an international conference in Bonn in 2003 attended by around 150 governmental and non-governmental organizations who agreed to merge various existing regional initiatives into one common European initiative under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In September 2004 a second international conference in Hungary established a work programme and a coordination structure for the initiative.
The guest of honour at the Bonn conference was none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, the former President of the Soviet Union and founding president of Green Cross International, an initiative that he had established in 1993 to address the challenges of security, poverty and environmental degradation.
Gorbachev agreed to become the patron of the Green Belt initiative, which seems particularly appropriate, given the key role he played in the raising of the Iron Curtain.
The European Green Belt was not only about protecting nature. It was also intended to act as a memorial to the inhumanity of the border regime. To this end it includes the remains of border fortifications, including watchtowers, patrol paths, ditches and border buildings.
These ugly relics of the Cold War were to be retained to preserve the memory of what had happened and to act as a warning for future generations.
The Green Belt consists of four regional sections: the Fennoscandian, Baltic, Central European and Balkan Green Belts.
To help maintain a unified approach, regional coordinators have been appointed for each section.
The Fennoscandian Green Belt stretches along the borders of Norway, Russia and Finland from the Barents Sea to the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic. This is an area of old-growth coniferous taiga (boreal forest), with extensive wetlands, while further north this vegetation gives way to arctic tundra.
It is home to some characteristic birds of the north, such as black throated loon, as well as many mammals including bear wolf, lynx, wolverine, elk and reindeer. Much has been done to promote sustainable tourism in the region, including modernized visitor centres and improved trail networks.
However threats from mining and logging remain.
The Baltic Greenbelt extends along the Baltic Seashore from Russia to Germany through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. It is the only part of the European Green Belt that does not run along the former borders between the Eastern Bloc states and the West.
However, during the Cold War access to the coast was severely restricted and many existing houses were demolished in the interests of more efficient surveillance. As with the rest of the Green Belt these ruthless measures created a haven for nature.
As soon as the Cold War ended, conservationists launched a series of campaigns to protect key areas from the islands of Estonia to lagoons along the German coast. A number of plants are unique to this stretch of coast.
It also features huge numbers of aquatic birds (including the famous grey cranes) as well as whales, seals and otters.
Nevertheless, the area faces huge pressure from tourism development and the waters of the Baltic are under threat from the discharge of agricultural nutrients.
The Central European Greenbelt begins on the shores of the German Baltic Coast in the north, running southward through Germany, along the borders of the Czech Republic (Czechia), Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia and then branching to follow two routes, one along the Italian-Slovenian border to the Adriatic and the other along the Croatian-Hungarian border towards the Balkans.
It connects up a whole string of national parks, nature conservation areas and pristine landscapes to form a last retreat and migration route for many endangered species in an otherwise intensively exploited part of Europe.
The species in this part of the Green Belt are as diverse as its landscapes and include lynx, Eurasian otter and wildcat. Among the many bird species are the black stork, white-tailed eagle, whinchat, corn crake, little tern, bee-eater and roller.
However, in spite of its undoubted success, this section remains under threat from intensive agriculture and infrastructure development.
The Balkan Greenbelt traces a path on the eastern border of the former Yugoslavia (which, although communist, was not part of the Eastern Bloc), surrounds Albania and continues along the borders between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, ending at the Black Sea.
It links important coastal wetlands, rivers and lakes with the mountain ranges of the Balkan Peninsula as well as traditionally cultivated landscapes. Among the mammals found here are the Balkan chamois, bears, wolves and the critically endangered Balkan subspecies of the Eurasian lynx.
Notable birds include the Imperial Eagle, Black and Egyptian vultures and the globally threatened Dalmatian pelican. This section of the Green Belt faces a number of threats including tourism-related infrastructure, hydro-power, illegal logging and wildlife poaching.
This is a long-distance hiking and cycling trail that more or less follows the Green Belt, starting near the Norwegian town of Kirkenes on the Barents Sea and ending at Tsarevo, Bulgaria on the Black Sea, passing through 20 countries on the way.
The trail is still under construction, although many parts of are already complete, particularly in the central section, including most of the German part and along the Czech border.
When it is completed the Iron Curtain Trail will run for 7,650 kilometres. The target date for completion is 2020.
This initiative has been promoted by the European Parliament as a “tourist trail that would preserve the memory of the division of the continent, show how it has been overcome through peaceful European reunification, and promote a European identity.”
You can learn more about the European Green belt on their website. For other resources have a look at the following books:
- The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain
- Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain
- Iron Curtain Trail 1 Barents Sea – German-Polish Border, Iron Curtain Trail 2 Cycling Guide, & Iron Curtain Trail 3
Finally if you enjoyed this post, please help us by sharing it: