Nieuws - 12 mei 2011

Goodbye to the birds and the flowers

The current Dutch government has swingeing cuts in store for nature conservation. Wageningen research institute Alterra is not escaping unscathed. Nature conservation is out. So where to next?

Herman Eijsackers
Former academic director at the Environmental Sciences Group, now advisor at the Ministry of EL&I:
'A difference of just one seat between the VVD and the PvdA [the conservative and labour parties], and we wouldn't be seeing 60 percent cuts to spending on nature now. But long before the elections, a policy committee had declared that the nature policy would have to change. It was time for a more dynamic conception of nature. With a focus not just nature conservation but on adapting to environmental factors and climate change. And with more attention to the functional aspects of nature, the ecosystem services.'

Jack Faber
Team leader of Ecology and Wildlife Management at Alterra:
'We should pay more attention to the value of nature, in the form of ecosystem services. For instance: a good soil absorbs water in wet periods and drains it off gradually. For this process you need rain worms as part of a complex ecosystem. That will only become more important with the advent of climate change and extreme weather conditions. And that makes a good soil valuable to farmers and water managers, but this is not something that is appreciated by society as a whole. I expect to see new sources of funding being created from which to pay these managers. And Alterra could play a key role in working this out.'

Herman Eijsackers
'A lot of ecological research has been integrated into legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive and Nature 2000. But I sometimes wonder whether ecologists know what the average Dutch person sees in nature. What kind of nature doe people need? For this reason, I expressly draw attention to the urban ecology, everyday nature in and around the cities. Nature on housing estates and industrial estates is a niche market. I argue that ecologists should cater for the whole range of needs for nature. The EHS is still seen as the key structure for nature in the Netherlands, but Wim Timmermans' Jungle Bus in Rotterdam meets a need for nature too.'

Robbert Snep
Researcher on the Urban-Rural Interactions team at Alterra:
' Through the attention we have paid to the conservation of threatened species in recent years, we have started to think that nature is dependent on human beings. Nothing is further from the truth: people cannot manage without nature, but the other way round there is no problem. Our dependence on nature is coming in for increasing recognition by industry and government. Take the current drought - it makes that dependence visible in practice. Knowledge needs are changing. Nature is no longer just something that deserves respect and protection; it is also something that provides opportunities. There is more and more demand for ways of letting nature contribute to sustainable towns and sustainable business enterprise. The question is, though: how do you define that sustainability? I can describe any square metre of greenery as Ecological Main Structure, as a living environment, as a landscape or as a site at which industrial decontamination is under way. But we should not impose all this jargon on society. We should first make sure we know what is going on, what the needs are and then identify the concrete services that will meet those needs.'

Joop Schaminee
Professor of Nature Management and Plant Ecology:
'Popular support for nature conservation has gone down and we should learn our lessons from this. The nature policy has been too much based on legislation. The implementation of Natura 2000 led to complicated rules and regulations for farmers and outdoor workers, which they are not comfortable with. The rules for agricultural nature management are far too complex - too much paperwork, too much supervision, and too little vision and trust. To add to that, the main nature conservation organizations have behaved too much like autocratic big landowners. They have taken enough inspiration from other parties in the rural sector. And that is working against them now. The nature sector is not sufficiently in touch with people, and does not work enough with water boards or agricultural and leisure organizations.'

Jurgen van der Heijden
Law professor at the University of Amsterdam and spatial planning advisor at AT Osborne:
'The Dutch economy is a loose collection of monomaniac activities. Everyone just does their own thing, and other people often have to foot the bill. But an activity can have a positive effect on other sectors too. I try to apply this principle in nature policy. I look for business cases in which I can link nature with education, sport or recreation. The nature policy depends entirely on tax revenues. You shouldn't forget that. So you need partners who can share the costs of research and development. A good soil retains water and reduces the number of plant diseases - you could get users to pay for that. This way of thinking is now taking root at Alterra, as well as in consultancy firms such as Arcadis and in construction companies.' 
Joop Schaminee
'It is good that we distinguish between top nature - outstanding areas that require special care - and a broader category of nature, where it is perfectly OK to have a bridle path going through the area. We need to look at the ecological corridors in this light. Maybe some of these corridors are not necessary at all, since for many plants these zones don't work at all. Our country is an old cultivated landscape in which 99.9 percent of the land is managed. The proposed migration of wildlife between zones is mostly a romantic idea. Nature-oriented farmers can maintain the landscape and the broader category of nature area perfectly well: Natuurmonumenten doesn't need to do that. But they cannot manage the top nature areas. You have to set limits. You simply cannot allow a motorway alongside the Naardermeer.
There is no disagreement about the value of nature as such. If I show people plants, they think they are beautiful. I sometimes give talks on nature at the Rotary Club, for developers. They start out suspicious but by the end of the evening we are speaking the same language. They want a sustainable living environment too; nobody is dismissive about that. The essential thing is to listen to each other and allow space for development.'

Tia Hermans
Researcher on Rural Dynamics at Alterra:
'The species policy is out and there is less money for research on ecosystems this year too. We have got to think differently now; we still think too much in terms of our supply as researchers. We need to think in terms of the demand from the top sectors. Not just from agriculture and horticulture and water management, but also from the other six (energy, life sciences, logistics, creative industries, chemicals and high-tech). Landscape and nature could form the link between the top sectors. For this to happen, we should avoid the term 'ecosystems services', because it is too supply-oriented from the point of view of the green sector. We should translate the term, thinking in terms of the needs of the top sectors. That means we should enter into dialogue and form new alliances. This opens up new prospects for Alterra. Some people here are already working on this, but others are still in the phase of realizing that the world has changed.'