2008 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Ignace Schops on Creating Belgium's First National Park

If it wasn't for Ignace Schops, one of the seven winners of the 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize, Belgium may have lost much of its natural habitat. A herpetologist, Schops studies amphibians and reptiles and has worked in the field since 1990. With tremendous effort and much help, the Belgium native was able to change his country's approach to conservation.

Belgian Beer and a Can-do Attitude
One night in 1997, Schops and a trio of friends (over a few Belgian beers) came to the realization that nobody else was going to work to create a nature preserve in northeastern Belgium: It was up to them. Schops used his many connections within government, the private sector, and at the Regionaal Landschap Kempen and Maasland (RLKM) , a partnership between Belgium's largest coal company and its leading nature conservation organization.

Over nine years, Schops was an important figure in fundraising efforts, coming up with a whopping $90 million to bring about Hoge Kempen, Belgium's first national park. The park is located in the northern region of the country, an area suffering from the effects of coal mining. Key to the plan was the idea that the park should provide jobs through eco-tourism -- and since opening officially in 2006, 40 jobs and 400,000 visitors to the 6,000 hectare park have made this idea reality.

TreeHugger (TH): In your Goldman speech, you said you were inspired by Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Why did it take so long for Belgium to establish a park?
Schops: Yellowstone has a connection with people. The phrase "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" is carved into the entrance gate. In my opinion, only people can make a change. A polar bear doesn’t know himself how valuable he is or how his appearance is connected to climate change. People know. People -- as in us -- can make a difference.

The environmental movement in Belgium was relatively late compared with other countries. Only in the early 1980's did Flanders -- the Northern part of Belgium where the Hoge Kempen National Park is situated -- have its first minister of the environment.

For many years, few people and politicians believed in the protection of nature. They saw environmentalists as weirdos: buying land, putting fences around it so nobody can enter or enjoy it. In the early days of nature conservation in Flanders, this was the only way to conserve. Otherwise, farmers and others just took the land for themselves. My friends and I brainstormed and came up with a better way: innovative projects, hard work (because we liked it!), and honest communication is the trick.

TH: How will the park aid in the conservation of biodiversity? What species at risk now have a protected homeland?
Schops: Hoge Kempen has a big advantage...space! The average size of a nature reserve in Flanders is 39 hectares. Hoge Kempen is nearly 6,000 hectares. All this space allows us to think in terms of an ecosystem approach. The diverse topography in Hoge Kempen is rare: dry and wet lands, forests, lakes, swamps, etc. There are species unique to this park. Over 7,000 species call it home -- from bees, butterflies, and beetles, to mushrooms and mosses, to the smooth snake and the great crested newt. There are 40 red-listed species, mainly associated with boggy land and wet heaths, such as the water lobelia and the lesser bladderwort plants, and the large white-faced darter or yellow-spotted white-faced dragonfly.

TH: How were you able to match the $41 million in funds provided to start the park?
Schops: On the one hand, this was hard work...but on the other hand, it was rather easy. Once we had the $41 million, we could go out and convince nearly everybody to help us. European money, money out of the municipalities, tourist organizations, private companies -- this and a team of wonderful and willing people makes it happen.

TH: In a video on the Goldman Web site, you mention that 800,000 people bicycle annually through the region. Why are so many bikers visiting Belgium?
Schops: Before we created the park, we introduced another project: the bicycle network. The story of nature conservation in Flanders is a story of many non-believers, but we’re convinced that everybody likes nature and beautiful landscapes! It's all in how you serve it.

So, in 1985 we invented a very simple but high-quality bicycle network based on the ecological beauty of our region. We believed that people would support nature if they are welcome in it. Nature reserves, stunning landscapes, the best drinks and food, multicultural societies -- all are available here. In addition to top quality cycling roads, helping the network along can be as simple as clear sign-posting. Now, the cycling business is really hot in both our province and our park.

TH: The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is considering the model you used in establishing the park for European and worldwide efforts. What is unique about this model?
Schops: A bottom-up structure -- nearly everywhere national parks are established via a top-down structure. And connection: 'connect nature to nature; connect people to nature, and connect policy with practice' is the credo. Also, an innovative concept, with new ways to access multiple gateways, new ways of financing, focusing on all target groups from the start of the project, and nature conservation as a tool for regional economic development and sustainable tourism.

Tourism is maybe the biggest threat for biodiversity, but sustainable tourism can be a fantastic opportunity. Recently I was in Georgia -- the IUCN asked me to help them. Unfortunately, due to the war, everything is on hold. Since we won the Goldman Prize, we've had a lot of requests for assistance from all over the world.

TH: How exactly did you appeal to companies in order to get them on board the park project?
Schops: The trick is to convince them of the advantages, advantages they mostly couldn't see before. Some companies get direct advantages -- parking places, camping places. Most of them didn’t know what was right in their backyard! We took them into the park, and what we saw was amazement. Then there are companies who are indirectly involved -- we convinced them that it was good for their companies and for public relations to communicate that their plants are in the neighborhood of the national park. I could say we created a project from NIMBY to PIMBY -- from Not In My Backyard to Please In My Backyard. And this is exactly what’s happening now -- though it is still a big job.

TH: How did you get individuals and communities interested in creating a national park?
Schops: Since we started from the beginning with awareness and outreach of the target groups such as the bicycle network, it was a normal evolution. The success of the bicycle network and our other projects gave us the benefit of the doubt with our target groups, and then the benefit of no doubt. We became an organization that stands for quality, and we work hard to keep it this way. But this was, and still will be, a constant goal. We also do so many projects -- from education to biodiversity, and landscaping.

TH: How can you keep the park from becoming too successful and too commercial?
Schops: Very good question! This is also my concern and I really mean this. My heart is an environmental heart. My team and I can only do what we have done because we are convinced that we have to take care of our environment. We -- together with friends, organizations and partners -- made a review of the biodiversity of the park in 2005, a review which includes more than 7,000 species. We will do it again in 10 years.

Also, the concept of the park is well thought out. For example, before the opening of the park, the area had walking paths everywhere. We closed down 142 kilometers of walking paths and increased the quality of existing paths (less is more!). So now there are actually more places where people can’t go. All the walking paths start from five local gateways. These gateways are situated outside the park -- sometimes more than three kilometers from the park.

The gateways are now of much better quality, and designed as places where you can stay for at least half a day. So a lot of visitors go to a local gateway without even going into the park. And –- interesting –- they think (and say) they were in the park. A good example is the barefoot path, located outside of the park. Last year over 40,000 visitors (paying 2.5 Euros to go barefoot) made a trek there. Later, nearly everyone said they were in the park. The attractions at the local gateways are all different, so if you've visited one, you'll still want to visit others. For example, one gateway has a planetarium, another has the barefoot path, etc.

We think the gateway model and concept can become a new overall approach, where possible pressures are taken into account. We think we can show that a sustainable approach leads to win-win projects in all aspects. After our biodiversity review, we have promised ourselves that if biodiversity is declining due to the pressure of people, we will take all measures for nature's sake. Be assured, we will keep our promise.

In a densely populated area such as Flanders, there is not much space left for biodiversity. We have to take responsibility. Why should we ask developing countries to protect their rainforests if we can't protect our own backyards? ::Goldman Environmental Prize

This is one in a series of interviews with the Goldman Environmental Prize Winners.

Tags: Animals | Belgium | Goldman Environmental Prize

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