Speech by Johan De Vriendt to the international congress 'Heritage care and active citizenship' in Mechelen, 24 March 2009
Is it a good cause to swallow up a paradise as Doel for the sake of economic profit?
Heritage a human right, also in Doel
Doel is a small, 700-year old village in the Flemish polder on the left bank of the river Scheldt, north of the city/port of Antwerp. By the early sixties, the ever expanding port of Antwerp started to build an extensive network of docks, interconnecting channels, and locks at the left bank, to the south of Doel. From the early 1970s on, the Port Authority ignored farmers' and villagers' protests and started to expropriate houses in several polder villages. Hereby they were sacrificing local rural communities and heritage (farms, villages and landscape) to industrial and economic interests.
Successful actions by protest groups and local politicians in the late seventies, however, managed to temporarily put a halt to the Port Authority's voracious expansion plans and the village of Doel experienced well over a decade of renewed hope and revival. Thanks to the ferry service, the cosy polder village even became a flourishing tourist attraction.
Yet, its survival dreams were relatively short-lived. As of the mid-nineties, plans for a new containerdock again tightened the industrial noose around the community's neck. This prospect led many disillusioned villagers to "voluntarily" sell their houses to the government. Although the government promised to keep the village intact until there would be a decision about building a second dock, the government refused to temporarily rent vacant houses to candidate dwellers, preferring instead to let the properties go to ruin. This premeditated process of neglect undermined the village's chances of survival and caused the number of inhabitants to drop from 900 to 380 people.
By the end of 2005, however, the plans for the second container terminal that would definitively wipe Doel off the map were shelved for an indefinite period. This sparked renewed hopes that the expansion of the port may stop at the village's southern border. But the Flemish Government decided that Doel will be demolished anyway as of 2009, even if the Saeftinghe terminal never materializes...
This month the inhabitants received an official letter notifying them their houses should be evacuated by 1 September 2009.
Demolition politics in Doel
To make it clear. Today a further expansion of the harbour is economical not viable. The village of Doel is legally and in fact still a village with, according to the last census 380 official inhabitants. The village and the surrounding environment are still designated as a residential and agrarian area with historical value.
But the government did everything they could to leave the properties they acquired susceptible to decay and plunder. That gave rise to the argument that the architectural heritage could be demolished. This policy resulted in a plan to demolish more than 70% of the properties that were acquired by the devolved Flemish Executive.
Heritage in Doel
The publication, 'Inventory of architectural heritage of East Flanders' counts no less as 65 buildings in the village of Doel. A part thereof is in the meantime demolished. The structure of the village is still according the original draughtboard layout of the 17th century. This draughtboard layout is unique in Flanders. The Dutch dike builders who revived Doel after the war against the Spanish occupation imported it.
't Hooghuis, the high house, dates from the 17th century and is a protected monument, as is the windmill on the dike of the river Schelde.
The windmill is the oldest brick built mill in the country. The windmill originates from the year 1611. Restoration works to the church were carried out only a few years ago. The church organ is also a protected monument.
Typical are also the harbour of Doel & Prosperpolder, the dikes, the hamlets Ouden Doel and Prosperpolder, many monumental farmsteads, the presence of the world-famous Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens and his father in law, Jan Brant.
Together with the river Schelde and the saltings is the polder in Doel a major European bird habitat. The interwoven connection of cultural, agricultural, natural and historical heritage is the trump card for Doel.
Doel has a moving war history: the Spanish occupation, the Austrian occupation, the Napoleonic era, the Belgian rising in 1830, WW1 & WW2 were all troubled times for Doel, but the village survived every flood or war disaster.
Heritage a Human Right! Also in Doel
Heritage is more as some relic of the past. Heritage is a living entity of beacons in a lasting environment, building bricks for a qualitative rich life. Heritage and environment are interwoven. They exist always in proportion to humanity. Humanity is responsible for its level of importance, but therefore heritage is a factor in identifying our identity and our welfare. Heritage and environment are however changeable data. Economical, social, demographic, cultural and ecological factors are all influencing. Therefore change must be guided in cooperation by all the relevant actors, which include also individual stakeholders as for instance barkeepers and beekeepers.
The Convention of Faro (Council of Europe 2005) we saw the introduction of the notion "heritage community", that is each group of people with a partial stake in (the preservation) of a particular piece of heritage. According to the Council of Europe heritage is a human right. In the Netherlands there are already 200 agrarian nature organisations (or rural communities) active where farmers, rural dwellers, environment preservation organisations, businesses and hunters are spontaneously cooperating with each other. Since the introduction of the Belvedere Note in 1999 an integrated policy of nature conservation, cultural-historical heritage conservation & spatial planning/ordering in the Netherlands is a fact (www.belvedere.nu).
Doel is above all a village, a living community of people. New and old inhabitants, tens of thousands visitors and friends of Doel are making up a strong heritage community which shouldn't be taken too lightly according to the Convention of Faro. It is an international community open to everyone, it reflects, agitates and aspires to a partnership with the government to safeguard the future of the Schelde's left bank for future generations. The heritage community of Doel aspires for a policy where a good quality of life is top priority.
Therefore the demolition policy needs to be stopped forthwith and one should focus on a biography study of the region. Out of this work could a plan develop that is acceptable to all involved and where all stakeholders can identify with. It is the heritage community Doel that started this process with our document "The hub Doel-Lillo".
This important document is a sort of master plan. It includes the manifesto of KunstDoel. KunstDoel or ArtDoel is an international organisation that stands for an artistic alternative for the village, in respect for its identity as an historical village. At this very moment ArtDoel is busy turning the village into the first open air museum village of the world. World-famous artists as Luc Tuymans and Michelangelo Pistoletto are taking part, beneath hundreds of other painters, photographers and other artists. The World première will take place the 24th of May.
The master plan 'The Hub Doel-Lillo' also contains the Plan for a future for Doel: a village in the Port of Antwerp'. This plan is the result of the cooperation between the Heritage Community of Doel and Doel 2020, the Juridical and Action group of the citizens of Doel.
The joined action groups, Doel 2020, ArtDoel and the Heritage Community of Doel, stand for an alternative that integrates soft values and hard values. The two corresponding villages on both sides of the river Scheldt can become the link, the hub, between the hard values of the city and port of Antwerp and the soft values of the open space of the polder with her small historical villages and the natural, agricultural and cultural heritage.
The name of the village is a statement in itself: Doel does mean in English 'Purpose', 'Goal' or 'Cause'. Our government can make it a 'Good cause', a paradise for heritage, art, habitants and people who are looking for peace and air in one of the busiest areas at this earth. Instead of swallowing it up, our government can make it a meeting point of industry, culture, heritage and nature, a source of inspiration, a true home for a drifted society, a centre of anew rooting active citizens of all kinds: industrials and heritage workers, environmental activists and farmers, artists and other strange birds, in cooperation.
Instead of swallowing it up, we want to keep this village a paradise for swallows, the living link between nature, culture, art and infrastructure. The swallow has become the symbol of our struggle. Doel still owns one of the biggest colonies of swallows, of martins. A swallow flies each winter more than 10000 kilometres but always returns to its old nest, their and our home! We all are connected by heritage. Heritage is a connecting force. That's true active citizenship, that's the social goal of heritage care!
Johan De Vriendt
Heritage Community Doel (Erfgoedgemeenschap Doel)