Ten keys to co-ownership for nature projects

The Kruibeke Polders lie just south of Antwerp along the River Scheldt in Belgium. Until recently, the polders were a patchwork of private plots dedicated to agriculture and forestry, holiday homes and fishponds. However, because the entire area is prone to extensive flooding, the Flemish government saw the need for major plans to stem future flood risks in the region while, at same time, using the opportunity to improve the area’s nature and recreational values.

This meant flooding parts of the area, including the Kruibeke Polders, and turning them into nature reserves. Efforts to expropriate the land in the polders were initially met with strong resistance and weekly protests were held until 2010 when the land was finally expropriated. Local people did not believe in the usefulness of the flood area and feared that their land would become inaccessible and poorly managed.

The re-naturalisation of the Kruibeke polders went ahead nevertheless. 90 ha of alluvial forest and creeks - both EU protected habitats - were restored with the help of a LIFE project, to the benefit of many other species as well. But the project needed above all to engage local inhabitants in the process. After some effort, the local municipality was persuaded to become a project partner and soon evolved from being the project’s strongest opponent to becoming its biggest supporter.

Much effort was put into participation and communication, organising information evenings, monthly site walks and workshops to demonstrate the values of the area to local inhabitants. New recreational opportunities were created consisting of hiking trails, fishing spots, birdwatching spots, time capsules and works of art. These activities came about through regular consultation, which helped to change people’s perceptions and behaviour, and to generate enthusiasm for co-ownership.

The area is now regarded as a tourist asset, providing additional income and jobs. Four new bed & breakfasts and a company offering tourism packages have started. A water bus from Antwerp also sails to Kruibeke bringing more and more people into the area. In the end, all key stakeholders were addressed in a bottom-up and participative manner and encouraged to become ambassadors of ‘their’ polders in order to secure a sustainable future for the area.

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