National Geographic Channel
c.2003 National Geographic Channel
(Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

It was a Cold War scar that separated East and West Germany for
four decades _ a narrow strip of land 866 miles long, from the Baltic Sea to
the Czech border, land-mined, barb-wired and guarded by about 38,000
soldiers from both sides.
Now, though, the zone that Germans called the "Death Strip" is soon
to bloom end-to-end in a new incarnation _ the Gruenes Band, or Green
Inspired by the German project, a new international movement, Green
Belt Europe, is under way to preserve the entire 7,000-mile-long Iron
Curtain border strip, from the Barents Sea to the Adriatic.
The German greening points the way. "It's going to be Germany's
longest nature sanctuary," says Hellmut Naderer, an agricultural engineer
and head of the conservation department at the German state
environmental bureau in Plauen. "We're connecting piece after piece of the
former border until there is just one long green belt for wildlife and plants to
thrive in."
A bird's-eye view shows a green swath cutting across the German
landscape. Patches of forest and vegetation interrupt towns, villages
and farmlands. The strip's width varies from 30 yards to 1,000 yards. About
60 percent of the area is forests, grasslands, lakes and rivers,
encompassing 109 different habitat types.
Animal populations within the Green Belt are sometimes three times
as large as those just a few miles away. Creatures thrive there because
business didn't locate too close to the border _ for fear of proximity
to "the enemy."
Among countless other creatures in residence are species on
Germany's endangered "red list," including the fish otter, black stork,
red-backed shrike and flowing water dragonfly.
Bird watchers have long noticed that the no-man's-land is a
sanctuary. During the Cold War era, hunters were kept away.
"Animals and plants that couldn't survive on East and West
Germany's extensive farmlands found the Green Belt a haven of protection,"
says Liana Geidezis, a wildlife biologist and project manager of the Green
Belt project, in Nuremberg, which has helped coordinate the conservation
The idea for the conversion has circulated for 30 years. In 1989,
German conservationists appealed to the government to preserve the
Former border as a wildlife sanctuary. In 1998, BUND, a German
conservation organization in Berlin and now the administrator of the Green
Belt project, stepped up the process by leading a fund-raising campaign
that enabled the purchase of select pieces of land in the zone.
Because the government owned more than 65 percent of the land, BUND
and other German environmental organizations like NABU in Bonn
campaigned hard to persuade the government to donate border land.
This year, at a "Perspectives on the Green Belt" conference in
Bonn, Juergen Trittin, Germany's environment minister, announced that the
federally owned land would be given to the conservation organizations and
to the German states encompassing the border. "It was a big success for
Germany's Green Belt and the conservation groups," says Geidezis, who
has worked on the project for five years.
Now the Green Belt may replace the entire Iron Curtain, the former
border along the so-called Communist Bloc countries.
Already, a Russia/Finland green belt project is under way. Czech
Republic conservationists recently held a first meeting to discuss
Greening the common border with Germany and Austria. Conservationists
are hoping that Hungary and other Eastern European countries will follow
Green Belt groups are also working with government agencies to
preserve historic sites and memorials along the border. For example, at
the Grenzland Museum, along a former border strip in Eichsfeld, Germany,
conservation and nature displays stand next to Cold War machine guns and
military uniforms
"It's really been exciting to see the government and the
conservation groups come together to preserve both nature and the special
history of the old border," says Horst Dornieden, Grenzland Museum
director. That a Death Strip can become a Green Belt is a potent symbol of
reunification and rebirth.