Planting the energy for wetland conservation in north Hungary | WWF
Planting the energy for wetland conservation in north Hungary

Posted on 25 April 2008

Making the right decisions on how to use land and plants in rural Europe can bring many benefits for business, nature and rural development.

Outside Europe´s cities, in those massive stretches of land we still call the `countryside´, there are plenty of opportunities for plants to grow. What actually grows in a specific location has usually been the result of people making decisions about `land-use´- - whether it´s to use the land for growing crops for food, growing crops for `bio-fuels´ or managing lands so that natural grasses nourish grazing animals such as cattle. Decisions have also been made to protect and conserve lands, often within the confines of national parks, to ensure the existence of special habitats and species.

One inevitable result of all of that has been competition and arguments between different people with different interests favouring different land-uses. Take, for example, recent debates about bio-fuels processed from plants such as corn and sugar cane. Earlier supported by many as a promising alternative to carbon-based fossil fuels and climate change cure, a growing population of critics is now blaming them for taking land away from food crops and thereby contributing to rising food prices. The bio-fuel debate actually reflects one key reality about land-use decision-making – it can be extremely complicated.

Despite the complexity, one probable certainty is that land-use answers cannot be globally applied. Rather, a decision that may be good for one place may not be good for another. It really all depends on the place and what it has to offer, naturally. At one site in northern Hungary´s Tisza region, WWF believes it is helping to guide good local decisions about land-use, and the kinds of plants that should be growing there.

Biomass, bio-energy, incomes, profits and conservation
In a pilot project managed through WWF´s `One Europe, More Nature (OEMN)´ project near the town of Tiszatarjan, WWF mediated an energy deal between the local municipality, farmers and the nearby energy company AES Hungary. Here, a new local company was created to cut and collect `biomass´ from local vegetation, which in turn sells it to AES, which burns it to produce energy. The project began with cutting invasive acacia shrubs that had overtaken large areas of former natural vegetation. After the nasty invasive shrubs disappear, the area´s floodplain forests, wetlands and grasslands will be restored through a re-investment of sales of native willow trees which will provide the AES power station with a long-term supply of biomass.

“The project shows that the supply of `biomass´ to produce renewable energy, tailored to a region´s needs, can have multiple benefits for business, nature and rural development,” says WWF Global Bio-energy Coordinator Jean-Philippe Denruyter.

“The grasses and willows are an excellent local and sustainable energy alternative to the former use of fossil fuels which contributed to climate change,” says local Project Manager Csaba Vaszko. “Local residents, many of whom face difficult economic circumstances, now have new incomes and jobs. AES will profit. And the new energy source will help encourage other businesses to become established in this economically depressed area.”

Perhaps most interesting of all, the WWF deal requires landowners to set some of their lands aside for conservation purposes -- to restore important wetlands (formerly lost because of agriculture and then invasive species) which are vital for flood protection, water purification and as a habitat for globally important endangered species. In this way, the landowners will get an additional income, coming from some of the revenues made from the sale of the bio-energy, to subsidize the continuous management of the protected wetland grasslands.

The project will also release beavers which play a natural role as “wetland restorers” into the wild next month. And later, Hungarian grey cattle and water buffalo will be re-introduced to keep the invasive species back and to slowly restore the grasslands through their grazing. As the former wetland and grasslands meadows are restored, the beautiful landscape and flourishing species will then drive increased eco-tourism to the area -- another new source of income.

“The lesson in this place is that producing bio-energy from plants makes good land-use sense,” says WWF OEMN Project Manager Charlie Avis. “If local vegetation can be used sustainably for positive local and global impacts, then we say: Use it! Biomass is driving a new, more sustainable economy here in this region. Everyone benefits. Nature and business can go hand in hand, and the services provided by nature are far more than just producing food. That is something the world increasingly needs to realize.”

WWF’s One Europe More Nature (OEMN) project uses an innovative approach to forge unusual partnerships so that business and nature can co-exist. Its mechanisms lead to win-win solutions for all, allowing Europe’s rural workers to make incomes from the countryside while protecting nature. OEMN, tested at many pilot rural locations throughout Europe, is now mainstreaming conservation into everyday European business life. 

Cutting invasive amorpha shrubs to produce biomass energy and restore wetlands.
© Csaba Vaszko