With the world facing climate and nature crises, UNESCO’s designation today of the Mura-Drava-Danube (MDD) as the world’s first ‘5-country biosphere reserve’ represents a historic step towards a new era for people and nature in Europe as well as an international model for regional conservation, climate resilience and sustainable development.
Stretching across Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia, the biosphere reserve covers 700km of the Mura, Drava and Danube Rivers and a total area of almost 1 million hectares in the so-called ‘Amazon of Europe’ –making it the largest riverine protected area on the continent.
Due to its size and ambitions, the MDD represents an important contribution to the European Green Deal and contributes to the implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy in the Mura-Drava-Danube region. The Strategy aims to revitalise 25,000 km of rivers and protect 30% of the EU’s land area by 2030. MDD’s recognition is a mandate to all 5 countries to jointly advance the protection and revitalisation of the Mura-Drava-Danube area, and boost sustainable business practices. It also showcases how the protection of our unique international natural areas can be connected with the development of sustainable business practices.
‘This landmark cross-border designation is a powerful demonstration of a shared green vision that builds on, and reinforces both regional cooperation and unity in Europe. It is a significant step forward in protecting the region’s natural and cultural treasures and serves as a striking example of how nature conservation can bring countries together’ – Andrea Johanides, CEO of WWF-Austria.
With its rare floodplain forests, gravel and sand banks, river islands, oxbows, and meadows the so-called ‘Amazon of Europe’ offers a unique natural and cultural landscape., The area is home to continental Europe’s highest density of breeding white-tailed eagle (more than 150 pairs), as well as endangered species such as the little tern, black stork, otters, beavers and sturgeons. It is also an important annual resting and feeding place for more than 250,000 migratory birds.
‘Five countries have agreed to jointly protect an area which is one of the most unique river corridors of Europe. The healthy freshwater habitats have a significant role in climate change adaptation and their preservation should be an obvious step for being prepared for the dire climatic conditions in the future’ – Katalin Sipos, CEO of WWF Hungary.
A model region for nature conservation and sustainable development
The region’s identity, as well as the livelihoods of almost 900,000 people living in the biosphere reserve highly depend on the Mura, Drava and Danube River lifelines. Intact floodplains protect settlements from floods and ensure clean drinking water supplies, whereas spectacular landscapes enhance the potential for sustainable tourism development.
‘In times of the climate crisis and the vast extinction of species, it becomes a matter of survival to protect our last natural areas. Proclamation of the biosphere reserve is an important step towards a green and sustainable future where there is no room for negative practices such as new hydropower projects, extensive river regulation or sediment extraction. We see the Amazon of Europe as a great example of how people and nature can thrive’, says Natasha Kalauz, CEO of WWF-Adria.
In parallel to the designation of the biosphere reserve, additional projects for nature and people are already being implemented in the area. These have a combined funding of around 20 million Euros and are co-financed by the European Union. The projects put river revitalisation, sustainable business practices enhancing cross-border cooperation into focus. It is expected from the European Commission to support such showcase projects more strongly in the future. One such project is the Interreg Danube Transnational Programme-funded Amazon of Europe Bike Trail, a long-distance cycling trail following the pristine Mura, Drava and Danube River landscapes for over 1250 km. The 27 stages offer a unique opportunity for nature cycling holidays with a cultural experience. When booking this cycling adventure, part of the spending directly supports nature conservation initiatives in the region.
The protected area was designated with considerable support of WWF, environment ministries, nature protection authorities, UNESCO Man and Biosphere Committees and many local conservation partners in all five countries.
For more than 20 years, WWF has invested a great deal to achieve a better protection of the rivers’ natural values. We are very proud of the achievement of this designation which will preserve the unique Mura-Drava-Danube Rivers for us and future generations. However, it is important to stress that only if the rivers can continue to flow freely and thus ensure the quality of the unique nature and life of local people, the biosphere reserve can go down in history as a truly European model of success’, concludes Arno Mohl, Mura-Drava-Danube Program Leader at WWF and campaigner for the protection of the Mura, Drava and Danube Rivers from the beginning.