/ 16 April 2008

Nature oasis flourishes in Belgium’s coal belt

Fringed by dark hills of coal waste and long-shuttered collieries, Belgium’s first national park might seem a humble contender for the role of global model for conservation and economic regeneration.

The pine woods and heather meadows of the Hoge Kempen Park in north-eastern Belgium sit on a small plateau above criss-crossing motorways and cooling towers in one of Europe’s most crowded corners.

But conservationists say the park’s founder broke new ground by convincing politicians, after years of lobbying, that his project should qualify for economic regeneration grants, and not just conservation funds, which tend to be much smaller.

Ignace Schops, who dreamt up the park with friends over beers in 1997, estimates the €28-million granted by the regional Flemish government in 2002 was about three times the amount he got in conservation grants.

”That is extremely innovative and an example for the whole financing of protected areas around the world,” said Tamas Marghescu, director of the European office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Schops, the conservationist son of a miner, matched the government’s money several times over with other sources of financing. He says eco-tourism has given a boost to a region scarred by the loss of its traditional mining industry.

”Sustainable tourism is a niche and when you are the best in that niche, it’s a huge business,” said Schops as he took in the view from a hilltop in the park during a spring snowstorm.

This week, Schops will be awarded one of the six annual Goldman Environmental Prizes for grassroots environmentalism.

The prestigious awards, created by the founder of a United States insurance company, are worth $150 000 each: previous winners have included Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and executed Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Schops was honoured for creating a new model for financing nature conservation.

The nearly 6 000ha park, where ramblers can stroll on paths beneath trilling skylarks or cycle on lanes winding through the woods, opened in 2006 and visitor centres located around its edge are still being completed.

At first, Schops faced serious opposition from local businesses, which wanted to build factories on the largely publicly owned woods and meadows that lay next to the disused mines, a small oasis of untouched land in the industrial zone.

Free pies

Schops sensed he was winning the argument when a bakers’ association, happy at the prospect of more tourists, awarded his team a month’s supply of free pies shortly after the park opened last year.

And now the park has repaid Schops’ faith.

Last year, visitor numbers broke through the 400 000-a-year level, a feat originally only expected by 2011, with many tourists coming from over the nearby Dutch and German borders.

Originally, Schops forecast Hoge Kempen would earn local business €24,5-million a year through hotels, restaurants, bicycle rentals and other tourism revenues.

Those figures will probably now need to be raised.

Park officials say the project has created 400 jobs, including park staff and people hired by local hotels, restaurants and for other tourism-related business.

”It is a fantastic achievement to establish a national park in the midst of one of the most densely populated areas … in the world,” said the IUCN’s Marghescu.

”Nature in this part of the world is scarce and every square metre of land has enormous economic value.”


The IUCN, which brings together government and NGOs, hopes to use Hoge Kempen as an example of how to set up new national parks to boost conservation and help slow species loss.

Hoge Kempen is home to 6 000 species of flora and fauna including endangered nightjar birds, smooth snakes, grasshoppers and several kinds of plants, Schops said.

Conservationists from Georgia, in the Caucasus, recently sought advice on how to protect their nature areas and the IUCN suggested Schops should train them.

”Why should Brazil, for example, have to do something for its rainforests if we don’t take any responsibility for our own nature conservation?” Schops said. ”There is lots of interest in our model. What we need now is more political interest.”

And that is growing.

Mayors from towns close to the park now want the reserve expanded to their municipalities too, so they can also benefit from the growing number of visitors.

Local officials add they hope the park will push up property prices as people from outside seek second homes nearby.

Marghescu said persuading people that a park on their doorstep can be a money-maker will be key to efforts to preserve nature and biodiversity in the 21st century.

Work continues to finish Hoge Kempen park. Companies are still digging for sand and gravel within its boundaries but are speeding up their departure plans and a neighbouring industrial park will also be moved away in coming years.

On a railway line that once groaned under coal cargoes, old train carriages have been turned into sleeping quarters for eco-tourists.

Schops is also planning to build a carbon-neutral bungalow park close to Hoge Kempen to tap into what he sees as future demand for environmentally friendly breaks for city dwellers.

”This is tourism of the future. There are six million people within an hour’s drive of here, and that makes us an attractive investment,” he said. — Reuters