Conservative, religious Bavaria has just passed some of the world’s strongest environmental protections

One of the greatest victories for environmental protection in decades recently took place in the German state of Bavaria, and went nearly unmentioned in the English-language media: an extraordinarily strong people’s referendum was approved by a wide margin and has become law. It beggars belief in both the strength of its protections and the overwhelming popular support it received in a famously conservative part of Germany. It flat-out mandates organic farming, ecology education in schools, and stream conservation, among many other things, and stands in stark contrast to the surprising environmental laggardness of Berlin and other parts of the country.

Equally astonishing is the way it became law. Bavarian law prohibits referenda from appearing on election ballots, and it prohibits the gathering of signatures in public. Instead, signers must each make a special trip to their city hall, which is the only place where the petition may be signed, during a two-week signature-gathering period. Eighteen percent of all registered voters in the state did this – double the minimum threshold of 10%. Many signers had long waits in lines stretching down the street in freezing temperatures – more than 11,000 on the first day at Munich city hall alone. The mayor was the first in line.


This referendum is an actual bill that will become state law and not just a petition or list of demands, and under Bavarian law such referenda can only be amended by another referendum and not by the legislature (which is not the case in Berlin, where the administration is allowed to do an end-run around a referendum and simply pass another law that essentially repeals it: “Laws can always be changed”, one commissioner said, referring to a referendum that had just passed although the commissioners personally were against it. To further diminish the influence of citizens on their elected representatives, the commissioners went on to repeal a law that forbade the government from campaigning against citizen referenda.)

The environmental protections are sweeping: 30% of farmland must be organic by 2030; all pastures and meadows are designated as strictly protected natural habitats even when used for grazing and growing fodder; ban on pesticides in nature protection zones; ban on alterations to the 5-meter-wide zone along stream and lake shorelines; ban on new outdoor lighting near nature areas and searchlights everywhere; strict rules on plowing and mowing fields; mandatory curriculum on ecology and agriculture in all schools including farmer education, and more (full details below).

The bizarre part of the story emerges when you know a little about Bavaria. Bavaria is sometimes called the Texas of Germany – conservative, religious, boastful, vain, located in the south, and the biggest state (except Alaska is bigger than Texas). Like Texans, Bavarians are vocally and insistently proud of how their state is better at just about everything than the other states.

Unlike Texans, however, Bavarians can point to facts that back up the boasts. Bavaria really does have a stronger economy, better education, less crime, prettier and  greener scenery, more efficient, high-functioning government, and higher quality of life than the rest of the country. Not in absolutely every detail, but in broad strokes it’s a fair generalization.

To round out the picture you need to know, further, that many Germans – Bavarian and otherwise – see this as a contrast to Berlin, whose reputation is a sort of un-Bavaria: insolvent, crime-plagued, ugly, dirty, party-tourist-infested, only superficially eco-conscious, and above all incompetent. They concede that it’s fun, in small doses, like that friend who’s great fun to be around but always broke and a sloppy drunk who gets thrown out of bars. (Berliners either don’t agree, or agree but say it’s part of the charm.)

This may all be a surprise to Americans but it’s regularly documented in the German media, polls bear out the opinions, and hard data bear out the objective claims. (“In Love with Failure” was the title of a recent 7,000 word cover story on Berlin in Germany’s equivalent of the New York Times Magazine, English version here; “a city forever missing the point of itself” said the New York Times ; further explanation here: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8).

Bavaria harbors contrasts that are unimaginable in the U.S. It’s the most conservative state, and the most eco-conscious, and the richest. In the U.S. those are mutually exclusive. Public buildings including schools, courtrooms and hospitals are required to display crucifixes. Meanwhile Muslim headscarves are banned in courtrooms because Bavarian courts have ruled that they’re “displays of religion” and crucifixes aren’t.

Despite the high levels of environmental awareness, the overwhelmingly most-popular party is Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (technically it’s a Bavarian affiliate but it’s essentially the same thing) which has made little real progress on climate change by any objective measure, and shamelessly sides with the German car industry in its diesel cheating scandal. It staunchly defends Germany’s agriculture-industrial complex, which is the single largest cause for the dismal condition of Germany’s natural environment. For example, the collapse of its insect biodiversity recently made international headlines; the country’s rivers and lakes are ranked #21 out of the 27 European Union countries in terms of ecological condition, triggering multiple legal actions for violations of  E.U. environmental protection laws.

Merkel’s agriculture minister from this party lied to her and the German parliament by saying he would cast the deciding vote in favor of banning Monsanto/Bayer’s notorious cancer-causing Roundup herbicide – which is banned in France and has incurred billions in fines in U.S. courts – in a close Europe-wide vote, then went ahead and cast the vote that torpedoed the ban. Neither the minister nor the party suffered consequences.

These are some of the reasons why Bavaria would seem unlikely to be pro-environment. But it is. Bavaria had Germany’s first national park, its first environmental protection law and first Department of Environmental Protection (the first in all Europe, according to one source). And now this year, support for the massively pro-environmental reforms was so strong that the Christian Democrat-led government ended up letting the referendum stand. They could have proposed their own alternative bill and held an election where voters choose between the two, as is allowed under Bavarian law. Instead they accepted the referendum, which is an actual law (not just a petition of support) and even went on to strengthen it.

In fact, some of the act’s provisions are already on the books in some other German states. Bavaria, though, has gone beyond them all in the new law. Hence the aforementioned pride. Further confirming the generalizations, Berlin (which is its own state, exactly like if Washington D.C. was its own state) has not adopted any of the measures nor is it even considering them.

Below is my translation of the referendum – the only English translation that exists, as far as I know. You will notice it keeps mentioning pastures and meadows. This is because pastures and meadows with moderate intensities of use – that is, livestock grazing on pastures, and growing hay on meadows – are an important and biodiverse part of nature in Germany and all of Europe, which have almost no forest wilderness like the U.S. does.

Centuries ago, the last natural acre on the continent was settled, the forest cleared, and the land put into use, leaving a hybrid human-influenced nature on all but a microscopically small number of remnant old-growth patches. The kind of wildnerness or second-growth forest that I would estimate 95% of Americans can reach in an hour or less is almost nonexistent in Europe, and so for biodiversity Europe looks to pastures and meadows with low intensities of use, and this is why they’re emphasized in the new law.

One very peculiar  thing about the referendum is that it never once uses the words ‘environment’, ‘ecology’, ‘ecological’ or ‘ecosystem’. They barely even show up in the associated document that provides detailed explanations of each clause. This is downright bizarre and I have no explanation for it. The law does talk a lot about species diversity and species protection. This does not conform with the standards of environmental policy, science, and management of the last two to three decades, which now recognize that species are just one part of ecosystems.

Species are components of ecosystems and indicators of ecosystem health, but they’re not the whole thing. Other components include water, soil, nutrients and chemical compounds, along with things that are not discrete objects but instead processes, such as food webs, pollination, and the cycling of nutrients through the flora and fauna and soil. Thus it’s become standard to refer to the environment, or ecosystems, rather than just species and diversity.

The point has real-world consequences. We now understand that in the real world, it doesn’t work to try to preserve isolated species as though they’re in a zoo. It’s become a given that the only conservation that truly works is one that considers whole systems and functional networks. Much of this is implicit in the text of the referendum, but it should have been explicit. The omission won’t cripple the law by any means but it could make it less effective.

Request for approval of referendum “Save the Bees!” – Species Diversity and Natural Beauty in Bavaria

The undersigned registered voters request a referendum on the following draft law, “Draft of a Law for Alterations to the Bavarian Nature Protection Law to support Species Diversity and the Beauty of Nature in Bavaria”

The Bavarian Nature Protection Law is altered as follows:

1. Organic farming and nature education

Article 1a: Species Diversity

Existing Bavarian Nature Protection Law requires the long-term safeguarding and development of floral and faunal species diversity and the preservation and enhancement of habitats in order to prevent further loss of biodiversity. The target is to have at least 20% of agricultural land be farmed organically by 2025, under the European Union definition of organic, and 30% by 2030. State-owned lands are already required under existing law to be farmed organically by 2020.

Currently 10% of all farmland in Bavaria is organic. The requirement that all state-owned farmland is a spectacular development which ought to be known by everyone who has an interest in conservation or agriculture. I don’t know how much farmland in Bavaria is state-owned. It might not be very much given the sweeping privatization in the German economy starting in the 90s. Even if the amount is small the symbolic value is great.

Article 1b: Nature Protection as an Educational Duty

The goals and tasks of nature protection and land management are to be incorporated in education and pedagogy, in teaching and education plans and instructional materials. The impacts of nitrogen inputs, field sizes, crop rotation, pesticides and other agricultural practices on species richness and soil life are to be communicated.

The aim here is not just a revolution in environmental education in schools but complete transformation of farmer education in order to bring about a seismic shift away from the harmful practices of industrial agriculture, according to statements by the authors of the referendum. Industrial agriculture is the greatest single source of harm to the environment in Germany, more than cars or coal. The initiators focused at every point on supporting and educating farmers and showing how they are just as much victims as everyone else of globalized industrial agriculture corporations and the politicians who work with them to throw ordinary citizens, and future generations, under the bus.

Nitrogen inputs – excessive nitrogen from overfertilization entering the soil and water, one of the gravest problems caused by industrial agriculture

Field sizes – This refers to the problems of large-scale monocultures, which are ameliorated by having smaller diverse fields.

Soil life – an odd word choice because it doesn’t include the soil nutrients, minerals, water, and pollution which affect all living things but are themselves not “life”. The accepted terms for encompassing all this are “soil systems” or “soil health”.

2. Biodiversity in state-owned lands and preservation and enhancement of pastures and meadows

Private commercial forestry must observe the Bavaria Forest Law and other applicable regulations, whereas state forests have the primary goal of retaining or reaching biological diversity.

I’m not sure but reading between the lines here, it sounds as though the primary goal for state forest land was, until now, earning income by leasing state forestland to private companies for logging, rather than biodiversity. Or, perhaps no primary goal had been explicitly declared at all and goals were set ad hoc. I honestly don’t know why they’re saying private commercial forestry must observe the Bavaria Forest Law – that would seem self-evident.

The following clauses protect the ecologically important pastures and meadows discussed above.

In agricultural land uses it is forbidden to:

1. convert long-term pasture, meadow and grasslands, whether currently used or abandoned, into other uses such as crops or buildings
2. lower the groundwater level in naturally wet grasslands and meadows; existing drainage practices may remain unchanged
3. interfere with small thickets of trees, hedges, stone walls and piles, dead wood piles, unplowed field borders, and streams, all of which are structural elements of significance to nature; each such interference, especially the plowing-under or filling in, is a material harm to or reduction of the element; existing commercial horticultural plantings are excluded from this
4. perform long-term pasture and meadow management measures such as plowing or seeding on agricultural lands that are designated as protected habitats under §30 par. 2.2 or article 23 par. 1
5. mow areas larger than one hectare from outside to inside; steep slopes are excluded from this

Mowing fields from the outside inwards pushes animals and insects into a smaller and smaller patch in the middle from which they can’t escape. The alternatives are mowing from one side to the other or inside out, which allows them to take refuge in neighboring unmowed areas.

6. mow before June 15 of each year, starting in 2020, on 10% of the meadow, pasture and grassland area in Bavaria

Currently the figure is 5%. Mowing earlier in the year is harmful to food sources for insects and to the biodiversity of plants that need to mature in the time before June 15. The law doesn’t say anything about which areas will comprise the 10%.

7. roll (flatten) pastures, meadows and grasslands after March 15 of each year, starting in 2020

Allows time for ground-nesting birds to nest before farm machinery flattens the plants and soil.

8. use pesticides and herbicides extensively on long-term pasture, meadow and grassland starting on January 1, 2022.

3. Annual reporting on the state of nature and organic farming

The highest nature protection authority is obligated to report on the status and development of biological diversity in Bavaria, based on selected indicators, in each legislative period (State of Nature report). A status report on organic agriculture lands is to be presented annually to the state assembly and the public.

4. Species diversity in compensation for regulatory exemptions

Compensation measures under §15 are to be determined in the context of species diversity and with special regard to supporting old plant varieties.

This is referring to actions or payments that the government requires when someone, or a company, wants to be exampt from an environmental regulation. For example, when a developer wants to build on an environmentally sensitive site, the government might allow it if they pay for the preservation of a natural site somewhere else. This clause is saying that these compensation agreements will now have to enhance species diversity, especially old (“heirloom”) agricultural and horticulture plant varieties. Most of these varieties – tens of thousands – are extinct except in laboratories, seed banks, a few home gardens and a handful of very small specialized farms. Yet they are critical sources of genetic diversity. They provide tremendously useful genes that plant breeders often need such as for pest or disease resistance, fruit yield, drought tolerance, and countless other important traits. The traits can be bred into other varieties in the same way that farmers have done for millenia, or it can be done with genetic engineering.

5. Light pollution

Interference with insects by artificial outdoor lighting is to be avoided. Searchlights and devices with similar effects are prohibited. The effects on insects must be assessed and the goals of species protection must be considered in the installation of lighting equipment.

Lighting in the direct vicinity of protected landscape elements and habitats is only permitted in exceptional cases by the relevant authorities.

Lighting at night significantly harms insects and other fauna by disturbing their temporal and spatial orientation and activities. The need to reduce light pollution is great; piecemeal efforts to combat it have been made. Some other states such as Baden-Württemberg already have light-pollution laws.

6. Landscape and shoreline preservation

[It is forbidden]

to perform gardening or cultivation within a zone at least five meters wide from the shoreline along natural or semi-natural areas of flowing or still waterbodies (shoreline buffer zones)

Some other states such as Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia already ban this. I’m surprised they didn’t define “natural”. Now what will probably happen is that landowners will rush to plant, or clear, their shoreline areas before the law goes into effect. Then, once it does, the zones will no longer be considered “natural” and will be exempt from the law.

to fill in depressions as defined by §35 of the building code

Depression is here defined as naturally-occurring hollows in the land

to remove, harm or otherwise substantially interfere with allées on public or private thoroughfares

Allées are dual lines of trees along a path or road.

7. Habitat network

Bavaria establishes a network of spatially or functionally connected habitats (habitat network) to comprise 10% open land of the total area of the state [sic] by 2023 and 13% by 2027.

The original German has an odd, non-standard wording that fails to specify whether the area is to comprise 10% of the total area of the state or 10% of the state’s open, unbuilt area. The official explanation that accompanies the referendum also fails to make the distinction and in fact spells out both possibilities in the same paragraph without clarification: “10% of the state area” and then “10% of the unbuilt area”.

The highest nature protection authority is to present a status report on the habitat network annual to the state assembly and the public.

8. Meadow orchards, pastures and meadows designated as protected habitat types

This section adds two habitat types to the list of protected habitats in already-existing laws:

Meadow orchards over 2,500 square meters, with the exception of trees located less than 50 meters from a dwelling or farm building, and long-term pastures and meadows with high species and structural diversity

Meadow orchard: this term doesn’t really exist in English. It refers to pasture, meadow or other open land with scattered fruit trees used for low-density fruit production as a secondary income source. In recent decades it has been recognized in Germany as a landscape type in its own right which contributes to biodiversity.

9. Pesticide ban in protected natural areas

The use of pesticides (plant protection agents) is forbidden in protected natural areas, protected landscape elements and protected habitats, except in commercial agriculture and fisheries areas. The nature protection authorities can permit the use of these agents as long as it does not endanger the nature protection goals of paragraph 1 in the area in question.

This is saying that pesticides are banned in nature protection areas, with the exception of commercial agricultural lands that lie within these areas. “Nature protection area” has a different meaning in Germany. It includes not just nature reserves like in the U.S. (of which Europe has very few) but also areas with houses, businesses and farms and towns that have some nature-protection regulations but not as strict as in a reserve, and the new law would ban pesticides in these zones.

Numbering of articles and clauses has been removed, as has legal jargon and cross-references to other laws, and the section titles are my own.

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