Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Chris de Stoop: into de-poldering along the Belgian Scheldt

During the last weeks I read two books (written in Dutch) by Belgian author/journalist Chris de Stoop. 'De bres' (the breach - 2000) and 'Dit is mijn hof' (this is my yard - 2015). I found them quite intriguing – especially because they deal with the perspective of Belgian farmers regarding de-poldering plans and actions along the Belgian side of the Scheldt river. Although what follows below is far from a review (you may want to read this, although it is in Dutch), a short outline of his story is presented below. To start with the my main conclusions, drawn from the books: 1) de-poldering is not typically a Dutch thing, and 2) when it comes to driving forces, it is not only water/nature coalitions, but in this case also the harbour of Antwerp that drives the practice.

Both of de Stoop’s books deal with the region of Doel (or Waasland), located on the western shore of the Scheldt river, and west of Antwerp and its harbour. Due to its fertile clayey soil, this predominantly agricultural land yields some of the highest production in western Europe in terms of livestock production and potatoes measured per acre. In the 1960s and 70s, parts of the region were still wetlands (for example, het Verdronken Land van Saeftinghe, located just across the Dutch-Belgian border) which were planned to be drained, reclaimed and added to the ‘granary of northwest Europe’.

But by the 1980s and 90s, the farmer communities started to be confronted with plans to use this land in a different way: to enable the geographical expansion of the harbour of Antwerp. Plans, politics and actions to de-polder and to turn farm lands into docks and container terminals took hold, resulting in many farmers that were expelled from their lands. This took a heavy toll on individual farmers (de Stoop mentions at least one suicide) as well as the farming society as a whole, who saw many of its members departing or quitting with farming entirely. He describes the politics and games that are played in a very moving way, but also as classic good guys versus bad guys way.

In the 1990s, ideas about ‘nature compensation’ following the harbour expansion, and also allocating space for water from the perspective of water safety, were added to the agenda of de-poldering agricultural lands. The de-poldering of the Hedwige/Prosperpolder (on the Dutch-Belgian border), in which 900ha of agricultural land in both countries is being opened up to tidal dynamics, comes back as a case at several places.

On the upper map (source: http://www.kuleuven.be/pdl/uitstappen/2008doel.html) with Doel as a central dot, you see the area is fully in use for agriculture, with polders and canals adjacent to wetlands (het Verdronken Land van Saeftinghe in the northwest). On the lower map (source: http://www.doel2020.org/index.php) you see Doel as well, but now including existing (in blue) and newly planned docks (in pink)/terminals following the expansion of harbour activities, at the expense of farm land.

In his books, de Stoop is very critical towards nature organizations. In the past, he argues, nature organizations were partners of farmers in their continuous battle against, for example, their expanding neighbour. This changed when nature organizations stopped their alliance with farmers - nowadays, they partner with the harbour of Antwerp itself. He argues that they follow an agenda of searching for agricultural areas that can be (temporary) turned into natural areas as compensation for the harbours’ expansion and dredging work to keep the Scheldt at depth. Cynically, he adds, some of the new docks turn out to be obsolete, and many new nature areas do not develop as desired, requiring additional ecological engineering. Nature organizations, in their turn, argue that working together with the harbour would give better and quicker results, compared to resistance to any plan.

De Stoop’s descriptions are clearly from the perspective of the farmers and in that sense biased and dichotomized. But he does so with a purpose: returning to his homeland after his brother passed away gave him the chance to take up the work in agriculture again as well as explore how the farming community has experienced the plans and actions to expel them, for over 20 years. What is most striking are the political games that are played, as he describes the merciless measures that are taken to get farm land free for other purposes.

I’m now searching for books or viewpoint that tell the other side of the story ;p. 

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