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.