Blog post

From ecology student to nature activist

Published on
May 20, 2019

In another time, in another place, Merijn Biermans could have been listening to the guide. Years later, he became the guide...

In another time, in another place, Merijn Biermans could have been one of the students listening to the guide from Natuurmonumenten talking about this society’s efforts to preserve nature around the Heelsums Beekdal (Heelsum Brook Valley). But Merijn was the guide during a recent field trip conducted by the Forest & Nature Conservation Policy (FNP) Group of Wageningen University.

Merijn is now public affairs manager in Natuurmonumenten, the society for the preservation of nature monuments in the Netherlands. He studied at Wageningen University and obtained his MSc diploma in FNP and Plant Ecology chair groups in 2008. He is passionate about using his knowledge to make an impact on society. During the field trip, Merijn told some 40 first year MSc students about different decision making models and illustrated these with real life cases in the area. The Heelsums Beekdal is managed by various groups from private landowners to the local and the state governments, including the Water Board. Decisions made can affect nature, as well as the inhabitants living in and around it.

For example, drinking water extraction from the area is essential to surrounding households. But this has caused some trees to shrivel, and the water levels in the brook to drop. As a result, negotiations among different stakeholders take place constantly, in which Natuurmonumenten also plays a role by, for example, proposing alternative means to obtain drinking water and improving the aquatic environment around the brook. Merijn is the liaison between the society’s members and decision-making bodies. When necessary, he organises conferences and petitions, meets with the press, writes to politicians and updates them on what is new in research, and has intensive contact with government and regional representatives.

The students were exposed to decision-making not only in the work of the landowners, but also in citizen initiatives and participation in the conservation of this area. Recently, Natuurmonumenten organised a landscape conference in October 2018 in which citizens were asked to discuss their own plans for the area around the Heelsums Beekdal. Of the 140 participants present, about 45 formed working groups afterwards and these are now working on these plans. “Some plans involve the development of more nature around the businesses located in the area and improvement of recreational facilities,” says Merijn. “Others are about communication and information sharing, and restoring the ecological connectivity of the brook around the N225 highway.” For more information, see here.

The field trip was led by FNP lecturer dr. Bas Verschuuren, who himself has worked for years on improving area-based conservation with local and indigenous people in many different places around the world. “After having moved to Doorwerth (in the Heelsums Beekdal area), I quickly discovered the impressive natural areas that surround it. I was invited to take part in the landscape conference and love playing a part as I was already looking for ways to contribute as a citizen, as well as an expert researcher.”

The trip is one of two in the FNP-32306 course (Decision making in forest and nature management). In addition to mostly Dutch students, other students are from Africa, South America, India, China and a few other European countries.

Miguel Ruiz and Cheyenne Rueda Lagasse, both from Spain, had cycled to this area early in the morning with their course mates. Both agree that the field trip and listening to Merijn and Bas have given them a better impression of what takes place in practice. “The way to make an impact on forests and society is to be working in the process,” says Cheyenne. “Just learning about how decisions are made is not enough. I myself would like to be part of such a nature society later on.” As such, he is echoing Merijn’s remarks to the current FNP students at the end of the field trip: “I hope to see you doing something for nature some day, either here or in other countries,” he says.

With 700,000 members, Natuurmonumenten – founded in 1905 – has the third largest membership of any society in the Netherlands. - by Keen-mun Poon

Re:actions 1

  • verina ingram

    Great blog Keen, nice to hear the new + old student perspectives!