‘Port heroes’ keep eye on Antwerp’s ecological and economic future


As the port of Antwerp prepares to expand across the Scheldt river, a new campaign has recognised locals who protect the environmental and economic interests of the region’s residents

I need a hero

How do you sell the idea that expanding a major sea port is good for everyone, especially when it is surrounded by villages, farmland and fragile nature reserves? By linking it to various development goals such as jobs, nature, housing and recreation, explains an agency responsible for the development of the area around the port of Antwerp.

Through the Havenhelden (Port Heroes) campaign, Ontwikkeling Havengebied Antwerpen (OHA), or Development Port Antwerp Area, is spotlighting individuals who contribute to these goals, from creating mini biotopes or guiding nature walks to organising port tours equipped with iPads.

The port introduces the public to these “port heroes” working behind the scenes online and via an email newsletter. One of them is Rene Maes, a retired dockworker, who has dedicated his life to the preservation of local wildlife. 

“Growing up, I wasn’t interested with toys,” says the 60-year-old (pictured). “I played with chickens, pigeons and other creatures. Later, I became interested in the flora and fauna around the port of Antwerp, and I decided to get involved in conservation projects to protect them.”

In 1978, while employed by the Antwerp Port Authority, Maes founded Natuurpunt Wase Linkerscheldeoever, dedicated to the conservation of the natural areas and open spaces on the left bank of the Scheldt river and the surrounding villages.

Saving wetlands

He was determined to protect the fragile nature around the expanding port, but, as its employee, he faced a dilemma. “To avoid a conflict of interest, I would take time off work during the difficult negotiations,” he says. “In the end, we managed to save 200 hectares of valuable wetlands.” 

Since his retirement, Maes has been working as a guide and volunteer at the Waasland nature reserve, where, he says, he gets to indulge his passion for nature and wildlife.

Waasland, stretching between Antwerp and Ghent, contains some of the largest brackish tidal marshes in Western Europe. It’s home to Liparis loeselii, a rare European wild orchid with glossy yellow and green leaves, and grey seals that come here at low tide.

When you see how beautiful it is, you realise that the work we’ve put into saving it – it's all been worth it

- Rene Maes

“This is a unique piece of wetlands” Maes says. “When you see how beautiful it is, you realise that the work we’ve put into saving it – it’s all been worth it”. For his 40-year efforts in nature conservation, OHA recognised Maes with the Port Hero title. 

The port of Antwerp is the second largest in Europe, and, as an important shipping, logistical and industrial centre, it’s also the economic heart of Flanders. In 2009, the government of Flanders announced plans for its expansion.

Because of the nearby border with the Netherlands, development to the north was not possible, so the only option was to expand the port to the left bank of the Scheldt river. But this meant that some small villages would have to be demolished and that green space would be developed.

‘Each and every opportunity’

OHA was tasked with looking into the area’s development prospects. “OHA is concerned with more than just the economic development of the port,” explains process manager Jan Hemelaer. “The expansion of the port is a very complex process and involves a wide range of issues, so we like to emphasise that development has as much to do with the residents’ quality of life as it does with economics. The people we call heroes in our campaign – they each represent a part of what it means to live and work in this area.” 

The campaign was launched last March, when a drone steered by a superhero character flew over the area. But it only really took off in July, with the naming of the first Port Hero. Bio-engineer Tom Rommens, who works as a sustainability manager for the drywall manufacturer Gyproc Belgium, was selected because of his efforts to pair environmental protection with economic development.

Under Rommens’s stewardship, Gyproc, based in Beveren, East Flanders, has minimised the environmental impact of its production processes. “My job is to use each and every opportunity to maximise sustainability; that’s the big challenge,” Rommens says. “In our factory’s immediate surroundings we have created small conservation areas that provide breeding opportunities for birds. And along the car park, we’ve established a biodiversity zone.”

Expansion vs liveability

According to Rommens, economic growth and ecology can go hand in hand. “Plants and animals are often the first victims of developing a business,” he says. “But I know it’s possible to create natural zones, even if they are relatively small or temporary. We try to convince other companies to follow our example.”

But the second largest port in Europe is a different story. People opposed to expansion question the claims that a mega port would lead to more jobs and secure Antwerp’s future as a world-class logistics and distribution hub.

Instead, there is a valid concern that expansion would entail breaching environmental regulations, worsen the dire traffic situation and further alienate the local population that’s already forced to live in the shadow of stacks of shipping containers.

An important part of the port expansion is creating as many jobs as possible, but mobility and clean air and water are equally important

- Jan Hemelaer of OHA

“An important part of the port expansion is creating as many jobs as possible,” Hemelaer admits. “But mobility and clean air and water are equally important. We want the port to be in balance with its surroundings. That’s also why we’re showing how residents’ everyday activities and initiatives are all about maintaining this balance.” 

The campaign, he continues, aims to show how different people work towards the six goals OHA is trying to achieve during the port’s expansion: job creation, liveability, agriculture, mobility, environment and heritage.

So far, eight people have been recognised with the Port Hero status. They include a family of fossil collectors, an owner of a bird sanctuary and a pub owner. “What we are trying to achieve with this campaign is to highlight the effort and passion each individual contributes to the overall success,” Hemelaer says. “That could be creating jobs, nature conservation or the protection of the region’s heritage.”

Bus tours in trouble

The port, he continues, needs to expand, in order to provide new business opportunities. But in Antwerp, known as one of the most congested and polluted cities in Europe, any large undertaking must take into account its impact on residents. 

Hemelaer mentions the creation of new cycling routes, which, in combination with efforts like the new water bus service, should help ease traffic congestion. “You would be surprised how popular the cycling routes have become,” he says.

Another port hero, Laurens Van Lieshout, says he’s always been fascinated with the Antwerp port and “the variety of people and characters” it brings together. In 2014, he set up a company that provides guided bus tours through the most iconic parts of the port.

The port’s expansion is inevitable, but all plans should keep in mind that people still need to live and work in the area

- Laurens Van Lieshout of Antwerp Port Tours

Each participant is equipped with an iPad preloaded with photos, videos and interviews that add an extra element to the story. In 2015, Antwerp Port Tours was named the most promising start-up at De Nacht van de KMO (The Night of the SMEs), an annual event recognising the best in small and medium-sized enterprises in Flanders.

In the past, Van Lieshout organised three to four tours a day, but he’s now down to two or three a week. “I had to cut down on the number of tours, simply because people can’t get to me,” he explains.

The reason is road works that make mobility in his neighbourhood problematic. He sees the inconvenience as part of a larger problem.

Staying afloat

“The port’s expansion, like the growth of this city, is inevitable, but all plans should keep in mind that people still need to live and work in the area,” he says. “At the moment, regulations, licences and, of course, the traffic situation make it difficult for small businesses to stay afloat.” 

During the road construction, he says he’s been prevented from putting up signs that would allow people to get to his business from another direction. “There is little room to be spontaneous or resourceful,” he says. “You really hit a wall.”

This has made him increasingly worried about what might happen when the port’s expansion begins and the impact it will have on the local economy. “Whatever growth is foreseen,” he says, “it should take into account everyone’s concerns. Otherwise, instead of reaping the benefits, we will all just suffer the drawbacks, which, for a new company like mine, have been disastrous.”