Hundreds of nature reserves in densely populated areas across Europe are falling into public neglect and are threatened because of the limited resources engaged in their promotion and maintenance. Ignace Schops has realized their untapped potential and has found a way to dramatically enhance both the environmental and economic value of these areas through concerted development. In the province of Limburg, Belgium, he has piloted the first citizen movement in Europe to claim the custody of a 6,000 hectare natural reserve into a national park, leading to the compatible development of a 20,000 hectare area. In doing so, he has mobilized a new generation of entrepreneurs to create calibrated investments that foster business opportunities while supporting local ecological quality. Ignace is now using this park to anchor an economic development model adaptable to small and large nature spots and reserves in densely populated regions across Europe.
The New Idea
Ignace has anticipated and seen the rise of a movement of citizens shifting their focus away from consumption and materialism and looking for a renewed relationship to nature. He has been organizing these concerned citizens around various nature reserves and preserved regions by giving them a direct access to beautiful natural areas in their vicinity and multiplying entry points into nature, adapted to all socio-economic and age groups, through the creation of biking networks and the engagement of local, regional and international conservation organizations.
Over the years, he has connected hundreds of thousands of citizens with nature, in Flanders and beyond. With the support of these citizens, Ignace has found bringing together businessmen and conservationists around the protection of nature reserves in densely populated areas to be a great opportunity. Indeed, unlike the usual divergent ways of nature conservationists and the business sector, Ignace is providing a new local development approach: He is showing to businessmen the value of nature in the eyes of consumers and encouraging entrepreneurs to invest and leverage nature reserves to foster proximity tourism and economic development, with a focus on authenticity. He is hence avoiding big resorts and packaged vacation experiences that typically destroy beautiful landscapes and have a high ecological footprint.
Simultaneously, he is demonstrating to conservationists that working with businesses can create economic and social value, but also and foremost can generate a stream of resources to reinforce nature conservation if they agree to bring down the fences they typically build around nature reserves.
In order to facilitate and deepen the cooperation between all these stakeholders, Ignace is forming new kinds of public/private partnerships around the combined economic and ecological development of natural areas. Representing the united voice of citizens and local governments, he is leveraging public and EU funds to bring conservationists and entrepreneurs around the same negotiating table, which allows him to tap into budgets not earmarked for environmental preservation and to combine these new investment streams with funds from a broad range of private sources. He thus sustains these public/private partnerships and reinforces them through payback systems for long-term investments in the maintenance, improvement and further preservation of these areas. To facilitate and accelerate the replication of his model across Europe, he is constantly developing new financial tools and mechanisms.
The potential of proximity nature tourism in Europe is very strong and yet untapped. The European Tourism Forum in Budapest in 2004 has underlined dramatic new trends in tourists’ aspirations which have changed and should deeply transform the sector’s reality in the years to come. The rise in the number of retirees, the new aspirations and limited budgets of families, and the increasing costs of airline transportation explain a rising demand for proximity tourism and more authentic experiences in relationship to nature. According to a 2007 survey in Europe, more than 70 percent of European tourists are looking for a renewed connection to nature during their holidays. However, more than half of them fear that they cannot find the type of experience they are looking for nearby, and favor further destinations.
This constitutes a missed development opportunity in Europe. Many densely populated, transitioning areas are struggling to convert their coal mining and heavy industries into healthier local economies. Years of industrial focus explain overlooking nature and biodiversity as potential sources of growth through tourism. These regions are particularly numerous in Belgium in the province of Limburg and the south of Wallonia; in the U.K. (Wales, Scotland, and North Eastern England) and the North and Northeast of France. For example, the province of Limburg in Belgium is only 80 kilometers away from Brussels, Belgium’s capital and most densely populated region. Formerly one of the coal-mining capitals of Europe, it has been struggling since the closing of its last mine in the early 1990s, and unemployment levels are 7 percent, among the highest in Flanders.
Yet, the region is rich in natural resources, with more than half its surface covered by natural landscapes, and includes more than 20 regional nature reserves. Nature tourism is underdeveloped. Only 1.2 percent of the regional income comes from tourism, and most of it is concentrated in cities.
Governments have a key role to play in capturing these trends and capitalizing on their potential benefits. As underlined in Nicholas Stern’s Report for the World Bank and U.K. government published in October 2006, it is crucial for modern economies to invest now in nature preservation to limit the costs incurred by global warming and trigger new forms of development. Stern particularly remarked on the role played by tax incentives and public subsidies in Western Europe and Northern America, which have typically been encouraging industrialization at the expense of nature preservation since the end of World War II and the necessity to change this paradigm in the 21st century.
In March 2006, Ignace Schops inaugurated Hoge Kempen in Maasland, the first national park in Belgium and provided undeniable demonstration that a new form of ecological development was possible. When the WorldConservation Union (IUCN) validated the creation of the park, it found most striking Ignace’s ability to mobilize a broad citizen movement “to create the first national park from a bottom-up approach”, as opposed to a governmental initiative. Indeed, Ignace has been working over the years to make nature more accessible without fences or fees, and to capture the interest of a new urban culture of young adults and retirees aspiring to a renewed connection to nature, focusing initially on Flanders and the Province of Limburg.
He multiplied bridges between people and nature, for example by creating the largest bicycle network from private initiative in Europe which attracted over 100,000 tourists a year in the area as early as1996.
Since the opening of the National Park, more than 700,000 tourists have been stepping through the gates of the park, and many more have discovered nature reserves nearby. More than half of them were living in neighboring cities.
To strengthen the links between people and nature, Ignace created a brand for Hoge Kempen, embodied by nine stones positioned in the shape of a footprint. With it, he certifies the quality of the nature experience in the Park, starting with the gateways into the park and the partnering businesses investing in nature custody.
He is taking every opportunity to educate the public about its environmental footprint and responsibility and engages themas much as possible outside of the boundaries of the park to lessen the burden on local ecosystems.
What Ignace has achieved in Hoge Kempen is merely the cornerstone of his strategy, demonstrating an insight he is also leveraging in several smaller nature reserves in Flanders, and the shape he is giving to new projects. He is leveraging nature conservation and business networks to test his approach in Wales and the North of France, and developing funding schemes to facilitate private-public partnerships for the spread of his model. Indeed, in choosing and making nature areas in Kempen and beyond, accessible, Ignace is sending an open invitation to conservationists and businessmen to sit around the same table to work on the healthy economic and ecologic development of regions that combine nature and high population densities.
Because of the massive number of citizens he has mobilized, Ignace was able to convince local entrepreneurs to ignore the roads and industrial districts that were polarizing investments and to look at preserved areas and beautiful landscapes as a business opportunity for the tourism industry in which to invest. This led to the creation of over 100 businesses and hundreds of jobs around Hoge Kempen as well as smaller nature reserves in Belgium.
Simultaneously, hand in hand with conservation leagues, he is coordinating and monitoring very strict preservation rules that allow for tourism but guarantee the maintained and even enhanced ecological quality of the region, thanks to the financial support of local businesses through the development of tourist payback systems and a tourism tax. These unique partnerships between the conservation and business sector have led to Ignace being awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2008. This in turn opened the doors of many international conservation and business networks, which Ignace wants to leverage for the fast spread of his economic/ecological development model.
Because he has created the first coalition of citizens, businesses and conservationists and given them a united voice, Ignace has managed to bring on board local and national governments, but also the European Union. He is catalyzing their support to invest in preserved areas, tapping into budgets earmarked to economic development, industrial reconversion, business creation and tourism rather than the typically limited conservation budgets. Since most of this financial support requires matching funds, it has been encouraging local businesses to invest further in the area. For example in Hoge Kempen, this has allowed for an investment of €10M in the environmental rehabilitation of the area, with an added €30 to €50M of public and private investment in economic development. This is already yielding a turnover of over €24M a year for the tourism industry, with seven times as many visitors over the past two years. These results provide a strong incentive for governments across Europe and for the EU to support Ignace’s new endeavors, especially since new EU regulations make ecological conservation a compulsory element of every economic investment. To expand his model beyond the boundaries of the EU and in areas where the government would not have the necessary budget, Ignace is also working on the development of new financial instruments and tools, especially an investment fund.
A nature lover at heart, Ignace Schops engaged early in nature and conservation movements as President and later Vice-President of Natuurpunt, Flanders’ Conservation Union. Breaking away from his fellow conservationists, he worked over the years to make nature more accessible to all, both in his voluntary nature conservation activities and his position as a social worker.
In 1994 and 1995, he embarked on the creation of a vast bicycle network, the largest of private initiative in Europe. It showed him that his insight was correct: people in modern societies aspire to establish a strong connection with nature and to have authentic experiences. Over its first few years, the bicycle network was used by 100,000 tourists every year. The scale of this impact on the local economy and landscape allowed him to mobilize citizens, local entrepreneurs and local governments to create a “Masterplan” for concerted improvement through a combination of economic and ecological development. The milestones of his Masterplan have allowed him to create a strong coalition between all local stakeholders, develop his tools and concepts, and progressively understand their full potential. He multiplied experiments across Flanders, and in 2003, convinced the Belgian government to provide matching funding to focus the industrial reconversion of the area on environmental preservation, at a level of over €28M, allowing for the opening of a national park in Hoge Kempen in March 2006 in the presence of Stavros Dimas, EU’s commissioner for the Environment.
Since then, he has been developing financial tools to guarantee the sustained interest and further preservation of development of the park and other natural areas in Flanders, including payback systems and tax incentives. Ignace’s work has been exciting IUCN and progressive conservationists worldwide, because it is demonstrating that environmental preservation can be compatible with economic development and offers a new dimension for future investments and innovative conservation processes in Europe and beyond.
This recognition has reached its full scope in March 2008 when Ignace won the Goldman Environmental Prize, which opened the eyes and the doors of business and conservation networks. Ignace is thrilled to tap into this new interest to spread his model and is already working closely with organizations in France and the U.K. He is also exploring alternative paths independent from public funding with the possible creation of the fund to which he was the first contributor in giving a third of his Goldman Prize money to kick start a project in Latvia.