Dutch split on land issues

Published Oct 8, 2009


It's the classic Dutch battle, land vs. sea, fought for centuries in low-lying Zeeland province by proud farmers now aghast at government plans to surrender to the "enemy" and flood their fields.

"Look how beautiful it is, one cannot destroy that," Ewald Baecke, a 66-year-old a farmer in Nieuw-Namen, said incredulously - pointing to the poplar trees lining the dyke that shields vast fields of beets, potatoes and onions from the water.

The land, known as a polder, was reclaimed from the sea and protected against water encroachment by levees, or dykes, in this southwestern province. It is now cultivated by about two dozen farmers.

On Friday, however, the government is set to announce whether it will allow flooding of this area called the Hedwige Polder.

The measure is part of a 2005 deal with neighbouring Belgium to enlarge the Western Scheldt estuary - a key entry point in Dutch territory for ship traffic heading upriver to the Belgian port of Antwerp, Europe's second largest.

But a local outcry has tugged at the psyche of a nation that lies two-thirds under sea level, and transformed the Hedwige Polder into a potent symbol of man's mastery over water.

Baecke's farm lies partly on the Hedwige Polder - 320 hectares (790 acres) of reclaimed land isolated from the Scheldt River by a dyke constructed in 1904.

People here, he says, still painfully remember the 1953 floods that killed 1 835 inhabitants of three Dutch provinces, with Zeeland - which means "Sea Land" - hit the hardest.

"It would be wrong for mankind to duplicate what happened here in 1953, when the dykes broke and the water swept away houses and families!" he exclaimed. "It is absurd."

The flooding was proposed to create a nature reserve to compensate for environmental damage envisaged by dredging the estuary.

Public outrage, however, led the government in April to suggest keeping the polder - bordered in the north by 3,200 hectares of nature reserve, sand banks and reeds where many species of birds nest - and creating other riverside nature reserves instead.

This in turn triggered an outcry from environmentalists and prompted the Dutch Council of State, a government advisory body, to reject the new plan and order suspension of the dredging work.

The chain of anger continued, this time upsetting Belgium - which has continued work on its side of the project that aims to give larger ships easier access to Antwerp.

"People are horrified" by the government's plans, said Magda de Feijter of the lobby group "Save our Polder" which has gathered tens of thousands of signatures for a petition to stop the flooding.

"A Zeelander does not do that. For us it is unthinkable" to flood reclaimed land, she said.

The group has headed a vocal lobby of hundreds who travelled to The Hague a dozen times to make their outrage known in parliament, where a majority of parties now also oppose the flooding.

Belgium, meanwhile, is putting on pressure -- felt notably by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, as both head of government and a Zeelander himself, who said the flooding will have to go ahead if no viable alternative was found by cabinet-appointed research teams.

"In their deepest essence the Dutch are farmers, they loathe water," said sociologist Rob van Ginkel.

"In Zeeland, people say: 'We have fought against the sea and won: we laid dry the land and now we have to give it back ... and that for the benefit of another country'!" he told AFP.

The Dutch government has yet to decide on a mode of compensation for the Hedwige farmers, who lease what Baecke called this "extremely fertile" reclaimed land from a single owner.

"It is called marine clay: it is full of minerals," said Baecke, whose family has lived in a red brick farm on the polder for three generations.

"And now want to transform it into sand banks with reeds: pointless!" - AFP

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