Do the government’s latest plans for the environment offer new opportunities for innovative conservation, or do they represent the end of the Dutch countryside? Fierce discussion has been raging in recent months regarding cutbacks planned in the Dutch environmental policy.
The new Dutch term to come out of this is ‘verblekering’ or ‘bleaching’ of the countryside - wordplay on the surname of the Dutch agricultural minister Henk Bleker, meaning ‘bleacher’. The term refers to the results of the cuts: reducing the size of the national ecological network, freezing the land acquisition that accompanies it, abandoning plans for connecting zones, reducing the influence of nature conservation groups, and offering farmers and businesses more scope in their contribution to the management of the countryside. ‘Nature should be given back to the people’, says Bleker, without indicating what it is he means exactly.
The discussion in question involves a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. On the one hand you have the so-called eco-cracy, crying out that the Dutch countryside is about to disappear, and thereby their own right of existence; and on the other hand you have the ‘new businesses’, who have an economic interest in using the Dutch landscape as a ‘unique selling point’ - preferably floating shares in the countryside on the stock market. A third group represents the proponents of agrarian conservation, who are happy that this discussion is on the table, and who argue for a less clear distinction between nature and culture; they see scope for renewed close collaboration with farmers for a more pragmatic form of conservation in multifunctional landscapes. But is this in fact where Bleker is heading?
The discussion in the Netherlands fits in nicely with international debate regarding nature and conservation. Here it is generally recognised that worldwide fragmentation of forest areas due to population growth and increased exploitation has led to the development of mosaic landscapes, requiring coordinated management. ‘Landscape restoration’ propagates the idea of restoring the equilibrium between ecological coherence (nature) and human welfare (culture). And in cases where a sound equilibrium is not possible, then both ecological and social-economic criteria need to be weighed up. Restoration does not necessarily mean a complete return to the landscape’s original state, but simply a restoration of its functions with respect not only to nature, water regulation and CO2 storage, but also with regard to agricultural production, culture and leisure. The management of such multifunctional landscapes is not a job for the government, but for joint stakeholders, brought together in consultation. In fact, nothing less than ‘poldering’, something we are good at here in the Netherlands.
So is this the direction Mr Bleker wants to take us? If this is the case then ‘bleaching’ might not mean a decline but, in actual fact, progress for the Dutch countryside: less government involvement, less expropriation of land, less multifunctionality, and more local ownership; accompanied by participative management structures striving towards a common goal and joint learning; and subsidies to enable restoration and sustainable management of the threatened Dutch landscape with all its multifunctionality. In other words, back to the polder. The question remains, however, whether this will result in any savings, since landscape restoration, preservation of biodiversity, collaboration, mutual trust and joint learning all come at a price.
But if ‘bleaching’ comes down to a simple cutback operation, with not only less government involvement, but also less collaboration, fewer possibilities for participative management structures, and reduced financial stimulus for local private initiatives supported by smart spatial planning, then it does indeed form a threat to the countryside, and a deterioration of both nature and culture. And this is exactly what happens in a polder: if you stop pumping, then you're flooded before you know it.
Cora van Oosten
Centre for Development Innovation, Wageningen UR
Photo: Adriaan Westra