The Biosphere Reserve Schorfheide-Chorin is located in the scarcely populated area of the former East Germany known as the Uckermark. It’s a region blessed with natural beauty, but plagued by high unemployment.
Schorfheide-Chorin is a natural gem still waiting to be discovered.
The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Schorfheide-Chorin north of Berlin was set up just days before German reunification in 1990 by the East German authorities. It was a last minute attempt to give this region something special, something to make it stand out and put it on the map.
And that it is, says Eberhard Henne, head of the reserve. For him, the Uckermark, with its rolling hills and unspoiled landscape, is a natural gem still waiting to be discovered.
"For me, it’s one of the nicest landscapes in Europe. It really is!" he says. "There are lots of wonderful lakes, moors and forests. Landscapes that have long disappeared in other parts of Germany have been preserved here because of the region’s small population."
"There are tiny villages, much smaller than you would find elsewhere in Germany," he adds. "And there are lots of rare animal and plant species, too. For anyone who’s open to nature, this is a true dorado."
A paradise indeed: this is one of the few areas in Germany were you can walk for hours without encountering another person. Visitors are more likely to see eagles, cranes, red deer or beavers, to name but a few of the animals that live in the protected environment of the biosphere.
For the local communities though, this natural paradise is a difficult place to make a living. Since the collapse of communist East Germany, state-subsidized farms and industries have disappeared -- and with them, thousands of jobs. In the years following reunification in 1990, when hardly any West German companies chose to settle here, many locals blamed the biosphere’s strict environmental guidelines.
But Manfred Birthler, the farming and environment minister of the state of Brandenburg, disagrees. "I personally see a very different picture," he says. "I see lots of initiative from the nature reserves to promote the region, and help create jobs. Within the area of the biosphere reserve, there is far less unemployment than outside it, because we have created jobs here."
Slowly, people are beginning to see the potential in that special status. The biosphere reserve has discovered that it has huge marketing value for the region. It has created a regional brand, which stands for high-quality farming produce and eco-friendly nature tourism.
"Over 60 businesses have so far been awarded the regional brand of the biosphere reserve," says Birthler. "This is creating and securing jobs in the countryside."
So far, only about three percent of German consumers regularly buy organic products. But Henne -- who’s seen the reserve’s own organic shop in Berlin fail -- admits that it’s a difficult market, which is growing more slowly than many expected. He believes farmers in the biosphere only have a chance if they work together, not just using the same seal, but also sharing the same logistics.
"I know there isn’t much buying power here in the region with over 20 percent unemployment, but that’s why we have to do something now to counteract that," he says. "The people who live here and who produce or process food here have to work together. Say, for example, when it comes to transporting their products to Berlin. We can’t have everyone driving there separately. Berliners already know a certain amount about our produce, but we have to create more awareness about what sustainable agriculture really means and that’s a slow process."
To speed things up, the reserve is counting on tourism. Visitors to the region are introduced to local products and learn about the importance of sustainability, in agriculture and in tourism.
"People always say that tourism destroys what it discovers," says Henne. "But that means we have to channel it in a way that is responsible. That’s why we’re building things like a fish otter enclosure right next to the visitor’s center. People can see the animals close up in their natural habitat without causing harm. There will be areas where we can allow only a very small numbers of visitors, but there will be places where many people can go."
A tricky balancing act
Those involved in tourism know that attracting visitors without compromising the reserve’s environmental regulations can be a tricky balancing act.
The people who enforce these regulations and explain them to the public are the biosphere rangers. Klaus Christian Arndt is one of the rangers, who is in close contact with the local community. He says visitors are often more understanding of the biosphere’s measures to protect the environment than many locals.
Many people who live in the biosphere, for example, are annoyed by the old cobblestone roads, he says. In other parts of eastern Germany, they’ve long been paved over. But they serve a useful environmental purpose, because they slow down traffic and allow rain water to trickle through into the ground.
"Very few people know about the special status of the region they live in," says Arndt. Many take the area for granted, and think they don’t need the reserve.
"They think they’ve always done fine without it, and that’s why it’s difficult to explain that we are trying to find new ways for people to live and work in a sustainable manner, and to find ways how more people can find work here again."