Rügen is well known in Germany as a place of natural beauty, with its rugged coastlines and protected forests. It is also home to a biosphere reserve, which is aiming to combine this nature with unique rural traditions.
Rügen's coastlines are the key attraction for the island's tourists.
Just off the coast of northeastern Germany in the Baltic Sea lies the island of Rügen. It has been a popular destination for seaside holidays for more than a hundred years. The chalk sea cliffs are the main attraction for most of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the island each year.
But the landscape of Rügen is, in fact, much more varied. Rolling green pastures sweep down to coastal grasslands and temperate broadleaf forests. The banks along the island’s inland waterways are covered with reeds and grass.
In 1991, a biosphere reserve measuring some 200 square kilometers was set up in the southeast corner of the island. Here, human development exists alongside the natural wonders.
Promoting organic farming
Biosphere reserves are made up of a core, buffer and transition zone. The core area is not subject to human activity. The surrounding buffer zone includes activities, which do not hinder the conservation objectives of the core area, but rather help to protect it. Finally, there is the transition area extending outwards, which may contain a variety of agricultural activities, human settlements and other uses.
The majority of land in the South-East Rügen Biosphere’s transition zone is used for farming. Michael Weigelt, head of the biosphere authority, works with farmers and fishermen in the area to encourage them to take on organic, traditional farming methods.
According to Weigelt, such organic practices help preserve the traditional landscape and culture, as well as produce healthier food. “Debates on this issue surface again and again, and there has just been one scandal after another in the agricultural sector,” he says.
Mad cow disease, swine fever and other problems arise repeatedly. “And in the end, we come to the same conclusion: that we can only prevent these scandals by returning to a regional perspective.”
This concept allows farmers to check animals from birth through to processing, to ascertain which animal is which, how it has grown up, what it has been fed, and how it has been treated, says Weigelt. “In a huge global market, everything can’t be controlled like this.”
A unique farm experience
In the town of Groß Zicker, for example, a farm run by Frank Westphal and his father fits into the biosphere concept. They are raising a native animal species otherwise faced with extinction.
Westphal’s sheep are a special breed only found in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomernia. “They’re an endangered species, which we use here to conserve the landscape, to make sure some plants don’t grow out of control,” he explains.
Westphal has to compete with less expensive products coming from overseas. He thus had the idea to supplement his income by creating a tourist attraction on the farm, where people can see the sheep and buy the wool and meat.
Even now, some of the best wool is spun and sold to tourists in shops in town. Westphal counts on making his money from these tourists, who are willing to pay a little more for a regional product.
The whole emphasis is on diversity, on people wanting to experience something from the region, like his animals, which are supposed to taste delicious. “The sheep mature slowly,” he explains. “They are not fed conditioning pellets, but grow up eating grain produced here and grass from our fields and stay healthy from our fresh sea air.”
The biosphere as a job motor
A further aim in the biosphere is protecting cultural diversity. Rügen has its own traditional music, dance and local dialect. The culture reflects in many ways the hard working, rural past of the island.
But Rügen has a lot of problems with high unemployment. The biosphere authority’s Weigelt has attempted to change this by encouraging the sale of locally made handicrafts. Since 1999, a scheme called the “Biosphere Job Motor” has given more than thirty people the chance to gain employment or to create businesses that fit into the biosphere concept.
Weigelt is a pioneer in this respect. Much of what is taking place in the biosphere is being attempted for the first time and he would like to see more long-term monitoring of the impact biosphere projects are having on the environment
“According to UNESCO, research and monitoring is an important task for biospheres, but for that you need money and personnel, and we don’t have either,” says Weigelt. “We work a lot with universities and, since 1993, we have had partnerships with several technical colleges. But as for a proper, area-wide monitoring program with all the parameters, so that we can check whether everything we are doing is really having the desired effect, we don’t have that and we really don’t have the capacity to put one in place.”
Publicity through personal interaction
The biosphere has received little publicity so far. Weigelt talks of slowing winning partners by personal interaction. The authorities offer visitors educational activities, and brochures explaining the concept are available for both tourists and residents.
Visitors come to Rügen to experience the natural environment and unique culture. But although tourists want to get away from modern culture and big cities, they do still expect all the regular comforts at a reasonable price.
This has resulted in some tension in South-East Rügen between the growing tourism sector and the environment. Some of the residents of the biosphere oppose conservation when it prevents development, because development means jobs and unemployment in Rügen is high.
Gunnar Hübner rents apartments and holiday houses in the region. He argues that to keep tourists coming you have to give them what they want: a protected natural environment and the chance to experience a different way of life.
“That’s where this feeling comes from, when you say, when I was a child that was around, and I want to show it to my children, I want to show it to other people,” says Hübner. “I want to see that again, I want to experience it for myself again, I want that ‘revival effect,’ to feel happy and for people to feel happy when they leave the island.”
He says only happy people will bring more tourists and help create a lasting long-term perspective for Rügen.