Raising more than $90 million by bringing together private industry, regional governments, and local stakeholders, Ignace Schops led the effort to establish Belgium’s first and only national park, protecting one of the largest open green spaces in the country.
After Coal, Conservation
The region around the old mines, a highly industrial and densely populated area owned by the government, is adjacent to Hoge Kempen, an area within the province that has retained its natural beauty, despite nearby development. Following the closing of the mines, jobs were badly needed in the region and several corporations wanted to build factories in the Hoge Kempen. However, very few precious open spaces remained in the province and a conflict arose between conservation and development.
In response to pressure from industry, the largest coal company and the largest NGO for nature conservation in Belgium, Natuurpunt, founded Regionaal Landschap Kempen and Maasland (RLKM) in 1990. Their goal was to conserve the land in the province and continue to provide jobs and economic development.
Through his engagement in nature conservation and his field study on herpetology (amphibians & reptiles), Schops began to see that nature conservation and biodiversity could be helped with a different, progressive approach based on enthusiasm and connectivity.
In 1997, Schops and a group of friends began working with RLKM to campaign for permanent protection of a piece of the Limburg landscape through the creation of Belgium’s first national park. They believed that the park could provide jobs and revenue through eco-tourism, as well as conserve open space for the future.
Since beginning his work in conservation in 1990, Schops had built a network of politicians, including mayors, parliament members and ministers who were willing to work with him. For six years, RLKM, Schops and his friends lobbied the government and funded the national park campaign. Under Schops’ leadership, over the next four years, more than $90 million was raised from sources such as the Flemish government, the European Rural and Regional Development Fund, municipal and provincial development funds, the European Union, local stakeholders and the private sector. Many of the funds he secured were new funding sources for nature conservation and sustainable development that had not yet been utilized. In 2002, the minister of environment agreed to protect the area if a master plan was created and funding was secured. In 2004, Schops became director of RLKM and has spearheaded the final steps to securing the park’s future.
Belgium’s First National Park
The World Conservation Union (IUCN) plans to use Schops’s model of creating and funding the national park as an example for other member countries, not only in Europe but around the world. His model demonstrates how a successful public-private partnership in the use and management of nature can be an asset for local and regional development. Schops, as the director of RLKM, will oversee the management of the park and its continued development, and other conservation projects in Belgium.
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