An extraordinary ecological network and living memorial landscape has been developed along the former Iron Curtain, which divided the continent into East and West for nearly 40 years. Despite its brutal inhumanity, the Iron Curtain granted nature a pause to catch its breath along more than 12,500 kilometres from the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, and through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black Sea.
The absence of conventional land use, agriculture, and most forms of human disturbances along large parts of the Iron Curtain and the surrounding areas resulted in the conservation and emergence of large areas of pristine nature and a connected system of various natural habitats and landscapes. In the former Eastern Bloc countries, the border lands were mostly off-limits and unutilised, with some villages near the border razed to the ground and people forcefully resettled in the interior. In the West, by comparison, the remote border areas were less attractive for investors, were sparsely populated, and did not require any major infrastructure development.
Nature developed and became visible
Unwittingly, the Iron Curtain encouraged the conservation and development of valuable habitats and thus served as a retreat for many endangered species. The richness of these natural habitats was obvious long before the Iron Curtain fell. Already years earlier, conservationists throughout Europe had turned their attention to the flourishing nature and wildlife that had proliferated undisturbed. For example:
- In 1970, satellite pictures showed a dark green belt of old-growth forest along the Finnish-Russian border. Cooperation between Finland and the Soviet Union in the area of nature conservation was begun in the 1970s with the signing of a scientific-technical cooperation agreement. The term “Fennoscandian Green Belt” was first used in 1992.
- In 1975, the first observations of the inner-German border areas were made, though at the time these were possible only from the western side. A systematic ornithological survey, conducted in 1979 along a 140-kilometre stretch of the border by young conservationists from BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany), showed a richness of biodiversity. In 1989, BUND launched the Green Belt Germany project.
With the establishment of the European Green Belt initiative, various existing regional initiatives were merged into one Europe-wide initiative.
In 2002, BUND and BfN (the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation) first suggested the creation of a Green Belt along the entire length of the former Iron Curtain. This proposal successfully brought together a diverse range of approaches by organizing the first conferences on the European Green Belt. These conferences were supported and organised by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in 2003 and 2004.