"This Program Has Hit a Nerve"

Their initiatives strengthen rural communities and revive entire regions. Now, the successful commitment of the “Land Reclaimers” program participants has attracted the interest of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. At a meeting at Bellevue Palace, he wanted to get to know these people who are committed to increasing the quality of life in the countryside.

Alexandra Wolters | January 2019

[DE Copy] Neulandgewinner Bellevue
Jörg Gläscher

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier chatting with program participants about their ideas.

Empty houses, empty streets, no jobs, the bus stop the only place in town for people to meet. That describes Wangelin in southern Mecklenburg a few years ago. Today, all houses and farmsteads are inhabited. Blossoming medicinal plants and wild herbs attract tourists to the Wangelin Herb Garden, its coffeehouse and B&B. Guests from all around the world visit the European Training Institute for Earth Building. The locals also meet in the gardens, frequent a swap center, take part in workshops, and sell craftwork or regional products.

Steinmeier_NLG Besuch
Jörg Gläscher

“We should not misinterpret the situation in rural communities, which some describe as ‘left behind,’ as a done deal,” said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a meeting with program participants at his official residence, Bellevue Palace, in late January where thirty teams presented their projects, “because there are those who get involved, who tackle things, and create change, just like you do with your rural projects.” Today, Wangelin’s population is growing. “More people are interested in living here than the town can accommodate,” says Sylvia Hirsch, program manager of “Land Reclaimers. Shaping the Future Locally“ at the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Since the start of the program in 2012, the Foundation has supported committed people whose actions improve the quality of life in rural areas of East Germany and strengthen cohesion.

Federal States as Partners

The fourth round of funding for the “Land Reclaimers” program began in January 2019. This time, the Foundation is providing some 20 people and their projects with up to 50,000 euros each and an in-depth accompanying program with many meetings, workshops, and mentoring. Almost 1,500 people from the states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia applied. The Foundation was able to attract East German states as partners. In each round, the cooperating ministries each select their prize-winner, who then receives support from both the state and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. “Our program has put an issue on the political agenda,” says Ms. Hirsch, emphasizing that the states have recognized the benefit of promoting and supporting the initiatives of people in rural areas.

[DE Copy] Neulandgewinner Besuch Steinmeier
Jörg Gläscher

From lunch preparation for the daycare center to reviving cultural sites: Program participants actively make change happen and fill free spaces with their ideas.

Stop complaining, start doing and change things

Who are the program participants? Many of them are new to rural living or are returning after many years away. They range between 20 and 80 years of age, with almost all age groups represented. Most of them share a willingness to take things into their own hands and not wait for others to do something. Many want to bring people together in their small towns, combat social isolation, stimulate exchange, and strengthen community. To this end, they engage in projects that have a positive effect on the community and draw in as many locals as possible.

I didn't want to live in a ghost town.

The range of supported projects is broad: There are small projects, such as setting up a driving service, community gardening, or inviting people to share an after-work beer in the front yard. Other projects draw locals in but have an impact far beyond their actual location. One of these is Kulturhaus, a culture center in Mestlin, which was revived and renovated by a participant of the Land Reclaimers program: It attracted nationwide attention when it received Germany’s most prestigious preservation award in 2017. Another committed program participant is psychotherapist Corinna Köbele, who has triggered a veritable art frenzy in her hometown of Kalbe in Saxony-Anhalt. “I didn't want to live in a ghost town,” she explains. So she launched a summer and winter art campus in Kalbe: During the 80 days the campus is open every year, artists from all around the world – most recently from Chile, the UK, and South Korea – come to Kalbe to realize their ideas. Each artist has a local sponsor to strengthen the community. Various festival formats have also become a staple of the small town life, offering a platform for improvised music, street theater performances, and workshops – and of course more art.

[DE Copy] Neulandgewinner Bericht Steinmeier
Jörg Gläscher

Corinna Köbele (right) thinks big: To give arts a permanent space in her hometown of Kalbe, a farmstead is currently being converted into a 1,750-sqm culture center with event spaces, artist studios, and apartments for grant holders.

“Once Land Reclaimer, always Land Reclaimer”

Ms. Hirsch has often received positive feedback from program participants who are grateful for this form of support. “We help jump-start some initiatives and serve as an accelerator for others. Often, we are the first program people apply to and receive support from.” In 2017, program alumni founded the “Neuland gewinnen” association in order to continue their exchange after the end of the official support period and help other committed people in rural areas. The in-depth exchange in the network also shows the model nature of many projects, which may spark additional involvement in their immediate surroundings. Ms. Hirsch often senses a special spirit, a solidarity, and a persistent will among participants: “Once Land Reclaimer, always Land Reclaimer.”