The world is experiencing unprecedented biodiversity loss; dubbed the Sixth Mass Extinction, with 60 per cent of animal populations wiped out since 1970. Human activity has significantly affected three-quarters of land; with agriculture, urbanization, industry and climate change decimating ecosystems and biodiversity. In response, a growing conservation movement – ‘rewilding’ – could help restore natural processes and degraded ecosystems, provide habitat connectivity, as well as protect biodiversity through the reintroduction and recovery of keystone species.
Accidental rewilding can occur as an unintended consequence of warfare. The Iron Curtain once divided Europe, separating Western Europe from the Communist countries with barbed wire and watchtowers. Since its demilitarization in 1991 at the end of the Cold War, it has become a wildlife corridor and ecological network. Once heavily fortified borders are now meadows and forests, with flourishing ecosystems and wildlife populations. Barriers that once divided people created a haven for wildlife.
During the Cold War, rural settlements and agricultural land were forcibly vacated. This formed a border strip and exclusion zone; an area of several kilometres wide free from human occupation and development. For four decades the Iron Curtain remained relatively untouched and was reclaimed over time by nature. This isolation generated a resurgence in wildlife populations with insect numbers increasing in the absence of farming and pesticide use. Moreover, the reintroduction of large predators, including bears, wolves and lynxes has helped reshape ecosystems into a balanced and self-sustaining wilderness with has allowed herbivores and vegetation to thrive. This Green Belt is now home to more than 1,200 rare and endangered species.
The European Green Belt (EGB) is a stretch of wilderness which follows the route of the former Iron Curtain. It is the world’s largest and longest ecological network; it spans 12, 500 kilometres (7700 miles) from the Barents Sea in the north along the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Seas in the south. It connects 24 countries (including 16 EU countries) and 40 national parks with diverse habitats ranging from arctic tundra, boreal forests, alpine mountains, to bogs, coastal areas and grasslands.
It began as a grassroots movement; when the Cold War ended, conservationists began campaigning to protect wilderness and promote sustainable development along the border strip between East and West Germany. In late 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall saw conservationists from East and West join forces to devise a plan to create Europe’s longest and largest nature reserve. Germany’s Grünes Band (Green Belt) was established and then in 2003 the European Green Belt (EGB) was initiated, with 24 countries engaged together in the conservation project.
The Green Belt has become a living monument of Germany and Europe’s reunification. Its transformation from a conflict zone to a symbol of peace through transboundary co-operation symbolizes Europe’s shared natural and cultural heritage. This is reiterated by Liana Gedeizes from the grassroots NGO, BUND: “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.” Conservation initiatives can be a positive aspect of post-conflict peacebuilding, and rewilding helps reconcile people after war ends. The EGB promotes a platform for peaceful relations in the border regions of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia through civil-military co-operation in nature conservation.
Rewilding and the reintroduction of large predators can be associated with a romanticized vision of wilderness which excludes human activities. However, the EGB seeks to promote sustainable development and coexistence. Rewilding is revitalizing both rural and urban communities. The initiative aims to harmonize human activities with the environment to create opportunities for the socioeconomic development of local communities, through nature-based enterprises and eco-tourism. In addition to a wildlife reserve, it doubles as an outdoor recreation area, with cycling and hiking trails. The EGB facilitates collaboration between neighbouring countries, which offers formerly marginalized regions the chance to choose a sustainable approach for their future development.
There are other conflict zones that could potentially benefit from such an initiative, such as the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The success of the EGB has inspired South Korean officials to consult with conservationist, Kai Frobel, one of its founders. According to Frobel, “Conservationists are already preparing a so-called Green Belt Korea, and are in close consultation with us.” He states that the Korean Demilitarized Zone, home to “a well-preserved biodiverse habitat,” is the “only region in the world that can be compared with Germany before 1989.” If reunification ever eventuates, the border line could be transformed into a protected wildlife area using Germany’s Green Belt as a model.