Man and Biosphere in the Etna region

Nature conservation and environmental education for a biosphere reserve - Overview

In an ecologically valuable region between three nature parks in Sicily, Manfred-Hermsen-Stiftung is involved in land use and environmental education with the participation of young international volunteers and students.

We work together with the local partner Giacche Verdi Bronte, an ecologically oriented horse-riding organization.Through our support, Giacche Verdi Bronte developed into an active nature conservation organization in the region and implemented several projects, such as the rescue and protection of the monumental oak trees of Monte Egitto.

Our commitment in Sicily began in 2005 with a large environmental education project and awareness campaigns about the wild cat at Mount Etna. The aim was to preserve the wild cat habitat in the forests of the Etna Nature Park, where pressure from planned new tourist infrastructure was increasing. Together with many NGOs and the nature park authority, we were able so far to prevent the construction of ski lopes. We encouraged the Etna Nature Park and the University of Catania to conduct the first scientific study on the presence of the wild cat, which we supported by interviewing farmers about sightings of the animal.

During this project we became aware of the value of the river valleys of the Simeto and Alcantara, which are characterized by small-scale agriculture. They form the geological border with the Etna to the west and north and an ecological corridor to the forests of the Nebrodi mountains. The wildcat and other animals use these structurally rich agricultural and river landscapes for migration. Considering that, as everywhere in Europe, more and more small farms are abandoned in favour of large, mostly intensively working farms, we strted to promote the preservation of traditional farming methods since 2009, e.g. by providing marketing support for high-quality olive oil. The small farms selected for this purpose are guarantors of a species-rich agricultural landscape and commit themselves to good nature conservation practice in a catalogue of criteria. See here: Biodiversity and Agriculture in the Etna Region

Also, in 2009 the idea was born to connect the two natural parks of Etna and Nebrodi by a biosphere reserve „Terre della Biosfera – le Valli fluviali dell’Etna“. Since then we developed this idea even further and created an association combining several NGOs with the purpose to promote the initiative of the biosphere reserve politically and in the public domain. We aim specifically to improve the protection of the rivers, to preserve this structurally rich landscape, and to promote organic farming. For this purpose, we want to highlight the ecological value of the region through projects of environmental education, partner agreements with farms (a kind of certification of recommended farms and their products), tourist guides, and awareness of the local population, and through the promotion of sustainability in the region. During the planning period, a feasibility study and nomination dossier for UNESCO (in Italian and English) was prepared with stakeholder and NGO participation. The Ministry of the Environment in Rome is currently examining the dossier (status July 2020).

Zoning of the planned biosphere reserve
Zoning of the planned biosphere reserve

Since 2010, around 160 volunteers and interns have been contributing to our projects, particularly in the context of environmental education. They worked under the European Voluntary Service scheme, which we implemented together with Giacche Verdi, or via the European student programme ERASMUS, primarily assigned to environmental education projects. Some bachelor and master theses on topics related to the planned biosphere reserve have resulted from these foreign deployments.

Our environmental education activities have been an integral part of Giacche Verdi's work since 2010 and are unique in the region. Every year, 1-5 thousand pupils across the entire area "Terre della Biosfera" participate in these activities, reaching a total of around 20,000 children and their teachers. Topics to date are rivers (project "Fiumi Puliti"), forests (EUKI project "Boschi per la Biosfera"), agriculture, horticulture and nutrition ("Mille semi per mille bambini" and the EUKI projects "Humus per la Biosfera" and "Frutti per la Biosfera"). And starting in autumn 2020 bees and wild herbs ("Api per la Biosfera") were added. All of these projects have a dual structure in common: a classroom session, where volunteers also get involved presenting a suitable aspect of their home country, and outdoor activities. Excursions take place along rivers, in the forest and on organic farms. The practical activities are carried out in the schoolyard or in a city park. As a result, vegetable gardens have been created permanently at nine schools and three environmental education parks have been created in our project region (in Bronte the "Bosco Brignolo", in Mascali the "Blue Garden Bio-Parco" and in Piedimonte Etneo a central park). In Santa Domenica Vittoria a children's club ("Piccole Guide") formed, which is now regularly supervised by employees of the Nebrodi Nature Park and us. Together with these children, we developed the "Bufo bufo" nature trail, which displays various nature conservation and sustainability topics in a child-friendly manner from the perspective of the common toad, which can also be observed spawning in the area during spring.

Since the end of 2019, we focus more intensely on sound ecological practice in agriculture as well as on the economic needs of those (small) farmers who cultivate according to natural and partly still very traditional methods. In a study involving our partner Giacche Verdi, the University of Catania, the Italian bird protection association Lipu and the German NABU, almost 100 farmers were interviewed. The results were evaluated in 2021 and recommendations made to all those involved in Sicily: The farmers themselves, the communities and, above all, the Sicilian region, which has a decisive influence on the future of Sicilian agriculture by interpreting the requirements of the European agricultural policy in the form of support programmes and conditions. Results can be found, in new ecologically oriented funding programmes.