Embracing curiosity: How a new nature conservation organization out of farmers is trying to conserve their traditions and livelihoods

By Maraja Riechers

Since about a year now I am doing qualitative and quantitative social research in the Lüneburger Heide (you can read about some of it here and about the Transylvanian counterpart here). As I am looking amongst others at different expressions of nature connectedness, I got introduced to a then newly created farmer’s organization (basically they approached the Leuphana in 2017). Its name is Vereinigte Heidehöfe für Naturschutz (United Heath farms for nature conservation) – an organization of farmers that own land which is to be managed for conservation. Their aim is to conserve the regions cultural heritage, their farms, and the traditionally used landscapes (health lands are highly managed and would not last without human influence). Within about one year they grew to have about 90 members and a total land mass of about 10 000 hectare.

It is safe to say they are stirring up quite some dust in the Lüneburger Heide. But it is not conflict they are after, but rather a balanced complex dialog in which the farmers have the felt leverage of making their own decisions based on transparent information. Naturally, I got intrigued by the success of the organization to attract so many members in such a short amount of time. And also by their line of arguments (admittedly, I am a curious person and get fascinated easily. But that does not diminish the actual worth for investigation!). So I stayed in touch with one of the founding members, Hans-Peter Bockelmann. Hans-Peter’s farm was first mentioned in 1380 and carries his family name since at least 1530. Since the beginning of the 20th century the farm lies in the middle of the large nature conservation area that is the core of Lüneburger Heide. When you stand on top of his hill looking over his gorgeous heath land and scattered juniper bushes, it does feel a bit like the scene of the Lion King where Mufasa claims: “Everything the light touches is our kingdom”. In this case, it would be Hans-Peter’s.

Photo by courtesy of Hans-Peter Bockelmann

Most of his heath land is leased to the local organization for nature conservation (Verein Naturschutzpark, founded already 1909) and the further development of his farm is constantly under question. If you are in the middle of a nature conservation area with strong touristic and ecological values, it is difficult to convince the decision-makers to grant you space for a new pig stall, new houses, holiday apartments or a biogas plant. Yet, in the current growth-driven system difficulties to invest can create an economic downward spiral that threatens the future of the farm. And this can feel like a trap.

But giving up is just not a trait Hans-Peter has. Instead he has enough curiosity to constantly change his perspectives to find alternative ways for his farm to stay in the hands of his family for generation to come. An example of some of his recent attempts: A new, or rather old, pig breed that lives longer before slaughtered, has more space and can run around outside (which is of course more expensive to buy and hence consumer demand is low); fancy holiday apartments to give tourists a holistic view of realistic farming practices while giving them the luxury the city-dwellers might want; And the establishment of a nature conservation organization. Will these attempts work to save his family farm? We can only hope so. Do they outline farming practices outside the current economic growth paradigms? Yes, they do.

Now a bit later my colleagues and I will help to assess some information of the organization’s steadily increasing members: How much land is managed how? Which is already managed as regulated by conservation laws (but not certified as nature conservation area)? What are reasons for the membership, and what are expectations towards the organisation etc. For now, this might just be a small collaborative research project but who knows where it might lead. Maybe our research sheds some light on how organizations concerned with farming and those with conservation can sit on one table and discuss their shared goals of conserving the cultural and biological diversities their landscapes engender. Maybe. I stumbled into this due to my curiosity, and the collaboration grew organically without effort. This is one reason, why I love empirical research and one reason more to keep your eyes open for fascinating stories.

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