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All in one boat

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​​​​​​​​​​​​Land is a finite resource. We need it to grow food, to generate energy, to build houses or to extract raw materials. Last but not least, it is the habitat of plants as well as animals and therefore needs to be protected. How can all these competing types of land use be reconciled? Which innovative concepts actually work in real life? Nine innovation groups are dealing with these questions throughout Germany, linking research and practice. A team from Brandenburg is accompanying the project from a scientific perspective.

In the small village of Göritz in the Spreewald, somewhat hidden on the backside of a farm barn, there is a green monster made of sheet metal and steel. Through a peephole in the front hatch you can see a glowing inferno and feel the heat coming from it. The texture of the material being burned inside is barely recognizable. They‘re bales of hay. This "hay oven" is the result of a lengthy negotiation process and decades of conflict. It is a sign of change – and of compromise. Whether it also solves the problem for which it was developed remains to be seen. There are conflicts all over Germany that have their origin in land use. Gardens, fields or meadows make way for housing developments, motorways and factories. The land which is transformed in this way amounts to more than 60 hectares. Every single day. This adds up to over 220 square kilometers per year. Land becomes a contentious issue in many places: The wind turbines that arose with the energy revolution, the competition between the cultivation of food and energy crops on agricultural fields or the reutilization of the former airport Tempelhof in Berlin, which was fought over for years – interests are clashing. There are often deep divisions between the various actors. Politics is beginning to take countermeasures. This is why the Federal Ministry of Education and Research launched a new research approach in 2014. Since then, nine "Innovation Groups for Sustainable Land Management" have been looking for ways to reconcile land use interests – together with local people.

 

Ideas for new land use

​And this is what makes it so special: The nine research groups do not rely on science alone. "The problems are taken directly from practice", explains Dr. Jana Zscheischler. She and her colleague Sebastian Rogga accompany the work of the groups at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) from a scientific perspective in cooperation with the inter3 Institute for Resource Management. They investigate how science and practice can be combined in order to find viable solutions. And this is not an easy task. "There are different demands on land use. And there are always people who win and people who lose", says Zscheischler. 

Solar modules beneath which cows graze, regional cultural landscapes as a brand or blossom strips as habitats for plants and animals – there are many ideas for breaking new ground. With technical input, networking and coaching, the innovation groups are addressing the challenges in order to establish a future-oriented land management system that uses land resources efficiently. "The rationally acquired knowledge of science and the more experience-based knowledge of local people are brought together here", explains Sebastian Rogga. At the interface of these two types of knowledge, the potential for innovation is particularly high. The "hay oven" is now the result of such a process, which experts refer to as "transdisciplinary". But why on earth is there an oven in the Spreewald to burn hay? What may at first sound strange has a serious background. It has to do with agriculture and nature conservation, tourism and wetland meadows. And a changing landscape. ​

 

Moist meadows in danger

Meadows and alluvial forests, through which countless small streams and channels are running, and many places can only be reached by boat – this is the Spreewald, which is admired by over a million tourists every year. It is a landscape that man has been molding and shaping for centuries. The water level was once lowered with artificially constructed watercourses in order to reclaim the marshy land of the Spree Valley. Small-scaled meadows, which usually only covered a few hectares, were mowed by hand so the hay could be dried on local haystacks and fed to the cattle. In the GDR, the land use underwent an enormous intensification. The dairy cattle were on the pastures, the water level was drastically lowered once again. 

Reunification gave nature conservation greater significance in the Spreewald. The water was given more freedom to preserve the unique wetland habitats, which are home to rare meadow-breeding birds such as the lapwing or the snipe. But as the water level increased, so did the farmers’ discontent, because the small-scale areas, which are hardly profitable anyway, can now only be cultivated in dry periods. Reeds and sedges are gradually conquering the meadows and rendering hay useless as animal feed. Now the grassland is in danger of becoming over-grown. In some places the changes are already visible: Alders and grey willows can be found on the first meadows. If this development continues, the land will turn into an alluvial forest. As a result, not only the cultivated landscape but also the meadows will disappear – and with them many endangered animals and plants. 

"Some farmers are upset", Maria Busse acknowledges. She has been addressing this problem since 2014 in the "ginkoo" Innovation Group. The path to a solution is long. In the Spreewald, she has started to bring all those involved together. Agriculture, nature conservation, tourism and the community are exploring together, accompanied by science, to identify the problems and to try to get to know each other better. "I want to be a farmer, not a landscape conservationist", is how Jana Zscheischler sums up what many farmers think. Agriculture and nature conservation often have different interests, but are nevertheless in the same boat. In addition, there is the tourism industry, which also has a great interest in preserving the enchanting cultivated landscape.

 

New opportunities through thermal exploitation

Now a partial solution to the problem is in sight with the "hay oven". The wetland meadows are preserved by continuing to cultivate them. In addition to being used as animal feed, hay can now also be used as heating material. The pilot plant in Göritz already supplies the entire farm on which it is located with heat from Spreewald hay during the winter months. Even if the furnace still needs technological improvement, the concept seems to work. "The raw material is cheap and locally available. This offers great potential for the region", emphasizes Michael Petschick, who as deputy head of the Spreewald Biosphere Reserve is closely involved in the conflict and the attempts to resolve it. He can well imagine that the Spreewald hay will establish itself as a local source of heat and will not only supply farms, but also hotels and schools. 

Maria Busse is now exploring what the people of the region think of the idea of a "hay oven". What conditions must be met for them to participate? Over the course of several weeks, the scientist visited the Spreewald regularly to meet and interview local farmers. She wanted to reveal how incentives for innovations can be created, whether and why people accept new ideas and how best they can be taken on board. The concepts developed by Busse should also be transferable to other problems and regions. 

Her discussions showed that: Decisions are also determined by ethical concerns. Simply burning hay? A raw material that could theoretically be used to feed animals? The thought of this puts some people off. Others need time and arguments in order to come around to accept it. "It is important to people that they are listened to and that they can express their concerns", says Busse. Dialogue and communication are her most important tools. "Only then is it possible to implement ideas." 

"Only by using science, without the wealth of practical experience, we would have failed here completely", she admits. Land use is a complex issue whose problems cannot be solved piecemeal or from the outside. It needs people, who have known the region since their childhood, who have experienced and can describe the changes, who work here every day. With their help, the research teams are developing a roadmap for sustainable land use and in doing so can always take the local challenges into account. But even in the Spreewald there is still a lot that is unclear, in spite of all the optimism. Nevertheless, the oven keeps on roaring and creating value out of a material that appeared to be worthless. However: "It is not clear how things will continue", Zscheischler emphasizes. Perhaps one day the oven will turn out to be either impractical or inefficient. Perhaps it will be further developed and the Spreewald hay from the moist meadows will become an important local source of energy. What will certainly remain, however, are the new networks that have been established and that will continue to provide inspiration and bring new ideas to the region. "This process will never be completed", says Maria Busse. The ZALF team will continue to accompany her on this path.

 

Text: Heike Kampe

 

The Team
Sebastian Rogga, Maria Busse and Dr. Jana Zscheischler are part of the "Co-design of Change and Innovation" working group, which is conducting research at ZALF on innovation processes in land management.

 

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