In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, Austria’s Minister for Sustainability and Tourism, Maria Patek, spoke about her country’s involvement in the European Green Belt Initiative, as well as Austria’s role as a mediator for various European environmental projects.
Maria Patek has wide-ranging experience in government, having worked for Austria’s ministry for sustainability and tourism, with expertise in matters related to forestry, dam work and avalanche barriers.
Following the parliamentary elections in Austria on 29 September, it is unclear if Patek will keep her post in the new government.
Why is the ministry called ‘ministry for sustainability and tourism’, and not ‘environment ministry’?
My portfolio covers a wide range of topics, from agriculture, forestry and water management to the environment, climate and waste management, energy, mining, regional policy and tourism. With the restructuring in 2018, a different name was chosen to represent the diversity of the issues we deal with.
The German government has recognised the Green Belt Initiative as a national natural heritage and is running it as a beacon project for the protection of biological diversity. In 2009, it was even anchored in the country’s Nature Conservation Act. What is it like in Austria?
In Austria, too, the Green Belt Initiative is a beacon project as it covers 1,200 km of land and valuable natural assets, such as Lake Neusiedl, the March-Thaya floodplains and the Bohemian Forest.
Many of the areas are also protected, including three national parks (Neusiedler See-Seewinkel, Donau-Auen and Thayatal), ten cross-border nature parks, as well as numerous protected Natura 2000 areas. A UNESCO biosphere park called Mur-Drava-Danube with a total of 850,000 hectares located along the lower part of the Mur on the Styrian border with Slovenia.
Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia are also involved.
In contrast to Germany, Austria does not have a Federal Nature Conservation Act, as nature conservation remains a sole competence for the provinces.
However, when it comes to nationally significant projects, such as the national parks or the Green Belt, the federal government assumes its responsibility. It offers non-material and financial support to these projects and institutions.
Already since 2005, the ministry has had the patronage of “Das Grüne Band Österreich” (Green Band Austria) and continues to finance National Focal Point and Naturschutzbund Austria in their activities. The ministry also supports membership and cooperation via the environment ministry in the Green Belt Association.
Intensive agriculture, including in Austria, has been criticised as an obstacle to the preservation of the Green Belt. What is your position on this?
The so-called ‘Illmitz Declaration’, which was signed on 19 August 2019, strongly expresses the principle of sustainable use of our natural resources. With my and the signatures of all five nature conservation state ministers involved (Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Burgenland, Styria and Carinthia), a commitment was made. We committed to preserve the special natural environment and to develop green infrastructure further.
It is essential to preserve the enrichment of biological diversity that has been gained and to make future projects in the fields of infrastructure and tourism sensible. It is also crucial to continue sustainable forms of management.
The Green Belt connects 24 countries. How do member states of this initiative deal with coordination? In other words: How do they deal with the language barrier, different legislatures, different interests, different financial possibilities?
Ten pan-European conferences have already been organised, and several projects have been carried out, including with the support of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The working language is always English.
When it comes to projects, the differences in financial possibilities and legal structures are well-considered. There are excellent opportunities for rural development at the EU level, including with the help of funding schemes such as Interreg and LIFE.
Regular meetings of nature conservation experts and joint projects are essential to strengthen the feeling of togetherness. Moreover, the Green Belt Association, in which Austria is also represented, was founded in 2015. The association aims to optimise the structure and organisation of the initiative and ensure that all activities take place within a coordinated framework.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]