Referendum for nature conservation law: 170,000 bee-loving bavarians

For stricter nature conservation: On the very first day, numerous eligible voters sign the "Volksbegehren Artenvielfalt" (petition for a referendum on biodiversity).

Celebrity support for petition for a referendum: Actress Michaela May in Munich Photo: dpa

170,000 Bavarians voted for a stricter nature conservation law on Thursday, according to counts by the biodiversity initiative "Save the Bees!". "Volksbegehren Artenvielfalt – Rettet die Bienen!" is the title of the draft law that the Ecological Democratic Party (oDP), the state association of the Greens and the Bavarian Society for the Protection of Birds have launched. 170 organizations and associations support the initiative.

Among the legislative changes called for is to increase the proportion of ecologically managed fields in the Free State to at least 20 percent by 2025 and to at least 30 percent by 2030. The petition also wants to see the protection of important insect habitats such as flowering orchards and meadows, environmental education in the curricula of schools and farmers in training, and a ban on pesticides in nature reserves and legally protected biotopes.

The petition for a referendum already cleared the first hurdle in October last year: The alliance collected almost 100,000 signatures for a vote on the bill, 25,000 were needed.

Since Thursday, Bavarian citizens can now cast their vote in the second step: If 10 percent of those eligible to vote, or about 950,000 people, register at their local town halls by Feb. 13 and vote in favor, the bill will land in the state parliament for a vote. If the deputies reject the law there, a "referendum" is held within 3 months. If the majority of voters vote in favor of the proposal, it becomes law.

Scientists support the demands

"If our initiative is successful, it will also send a signal to the rest of Germany," said Markus Erlwein, spokesman for the petition for a referendum. Then, he said, it is likely that other German states will also review their nature conservation laws.

"In Bavaria, many animal and plant species are massively declining in population or even dying out," the petition for a referendum’s website says. The decline of insects, it says, poses a "concrete threat" to the future and disrupts the natural pollination of plants. "We therefore want to minimize the decline of the species by improving the Bavarian nature conservation law in essential parts."

Scientists from the Max Planck Society also support the petition for a referendum, saying the required changes would be easy to implement and could halt the decline of animals and plants.

"There has been a dramatic decline in the populations of many bird species," explained Manfred Gahr, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute. Even former common species are now rarely seen or have disappeared altogether, he said. "There are many reasons for this, but the massive use of pesticides, the clearing of the landscape due to the disappearance of small farms and increasing land consumption are major contributors."

Bavarian Farmers’ Association: "Label fraud".

The Bavarian Farmers’ Association announced bitter opposition to the plan, calling the petition for a referendum "farmer bashing" and "labeling fraud." Secretary General Georg Wimmer believes: "This is not about a nice signature campaign for bees, but about bans and restrictions for agriculture!"

The new measures would eliminate funding for many environmental measures without replacement, which would primarily affect flowering areas and riparian strips. "If you want to achieve something for biodiversity in Bavaria, you should work together with agriculture on additional funding programs, instead of using the proposed law to smash what farmers are already doing in terms of environmental protection and nature conservation."

CSU and Free Voters are skeptical

Josef Schmid, farmer in Neufraunhofen and state chairman of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft bauerliche Landwirtschaft, disagrees: "The rumor that a legal stipulation would prevent the promotion of nature conservation measures must be resolutely opposed."

In implementing the referendum, he says, it is important to promote the willingness to make land available for conservation purposes accordingly. "That is definitely a better perspective than continuing to produce cheaply for the world market."

Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Soder (CSU) is "very skeptical" about the referendum because it could "lead to smaller farms in particular giving up in the long run."

Soder’s coalition partner, the "Freie Wahler" (Free Voters), is also unenthusiastic because agriculture is seen in the referendum as an "opponent" of nature, although the protection of the environment is a "task for society as a whole." The group will not support the petition for a referendum, but finds binding proposals such as biotope networking positive.