The village dates back to the 13th century and gradually grew until the population peaked at 2,500 in 1876. Since then, it has steadily declined until in 2007 there were only some 360 residents left. Landmarks include the 17th-century stone windmill, one of the oldest in the country, and the cooling tower of the nuclear power station built there between 1969 and 1985.
The village has long been threatened by the expansion of the port of Antwerp, and its fate was apparently sealed in June 1999 when the Flemish government announced that Doel had to disappear. Since then, residents have fought to overturn the decision, claiming there is no actual expansion planned which makes the razing of Doel necessary, and no economic reason to consider expanding port facilities in the near future.
The plans, nevertheless, have gone ahead, with the demolition of unoccupied buildings, and an increasing state of siege for those who remain behind – some of whom, it has to be said, were not residents of the village until the protests started.
The organisation in charge of the removal of Doel, the Scheldt Left Bank Agency, began demolishing unoccupied buildings in the village, ostensibly as a safety measure, although most of them were in a perfectly habitable state, and also to prevent squatting by incoming protestors.
The court of appeal in Ghent in March of last year ordered that to stop, and a court in Dendermonde even threatened to fine the agency if it did not comply. Not only were the demolitions against environment laws, they also worsened safety, and had an intimidating effect on remaining residents, the court in Ghent said.
Finally, in August last year, when the official population of the village had dropped to 84 people in 49 households, of whom 45 were original Doelenaars, the right to remain in Doel, which had been granted to people whose houses were sold to the agency and which had been extended in 2007, finally ran out. That leaves only 11 families who did not sell out, and who may remain.
The court has now decided to extend the right of residence until a final judgement, expected in March or April next year. The ban on demolitions is extended, on pain of a €50,000 per day fine. In addition, the Agency is ordered to do more to maintain the empty houses and land in its possession, for example by protecting boarded-up houses against vandals.
“This is not a definitive solution,” said Jan Creve, spokesman for protest group Doel 2020. “It’s the same story we’ve heard so many times before. The question is whether the Flemish government is going to go ahead with this war of attrition, or whether it will look for a durable solution. From an economic point of view, there is no urgency in extending the port,” he said.