The mean bees in the Oostvaardersplassen

Inclusive Economy04 Jul 2011Bram Büscher

Day two of the Nature™ Inc conference, and a special day indeed. We only had one round of sessions in the morning, and one plenary session. The rest of the day was devoted to a fieldtrip to the Oostvaardersplassen. More about that in a minute: first the sessions. I chaired a session on Consumption, Media & Nature, with several wonderful presentations. Nick Dommett (King’s College London) spoke about ‘the political ecology of place-making in the West Bank’.

His argument was that Israelis have attached themselves to the land on the West Bank through the planting and nurturing of trees in order to make a clear statement, ‘We are not leaving, we are staying here’. By taking care of the landscape, they created a sense of belonging to the area, while trying to create legitimacy for their occupation of the land at the same time. The argument reminded me a lot of David Hughes fantastic book ‘Whiteness in Zimbabwe’, where he argues that white colonisers turned to nature and ecology as a way to escape social problems and ‘the (black) other’.

In Zimbabwe, this happened in extreme form: whites constructed irrigation dams, a major lake and many pockets of people-free, biodiverse ‘Edens’. Through such landscape engineering, they tried to belong to the country and to Africa. Yet, Hughes writes, ‘By writing themselves so single-mindedly into the landscape, many whites wrote themselves out of the society’ (p.25). It is incredibly interesting (and also worrying!) to see this process happening in other societies as well.

The next paper was by Rifke Jaffe of Leiden University. She talked about Ital Chic, or ‘rastafari environmental ethics’ in Jamaica. She argued that the formerly looked-down-upon rastafari underground culture was turned into a strategy of green consumption, of course after thorough processes of (social and material) sanitisation. Rivke, together with Bart Barendregt are actually organizing a very interesting conference, that those who are interested should definitely check out. It is entitled ‘Eco-chic: Connecting Ethical, Sustainable and Elite Consumption’. It will be held in Linköping, Sweden on October 11-13.

The next paper was by Conny Davidsen (University of Calgary, Canada), who spoke about the tar sands in Canada. She hightlighted the media war that has erupted over the tar sands, and that many people don’t even speak about them in that term anymore, but prefer the (again more sanitised) ‘oil sands’. Conny showed some pictures from a documentary she co-produced, entitled Oilliteracy, which also deals with the media war around the Canadian tar sands. Check it out here. The last paper, by Byron Miller (also University of Calgary), nicely followed up on Conny’s presentation by discussing how the tar sand boom impacted on the overwhelming growth of Calgary city, and the environmental impacts this has had. While recognized by the city government, the process to actually take a more sustainable city expansion path proved incredibly hard, Miller showed.

Next on the agenda was the second keynote of the conference by Prof Amita Baviskar of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, India. Amita’s talk was entitled ‘Commodity Fictions: The Lives of Nature in Liberalized India’. She started by making the important point that capitalism shouldn’t be attributed more power than it deserves. Yes, she made clear that rapid neoliberal development had a negative impact on social equality and the environment, but also that people stand up against these developments and resist all types of dispossession. I believe everyone was truly inspired by Amita’s great talk.

After these stimulating sessions, it was time for the fieldtrip to the Oostvaardersplassen. To get us all prepared, Jamie Lorimer and Clemens Driessen (both of King’s college London) introduced the history and some of the current debates around the site. They also did so on a very instructive and beautiful website.

There, they write: ‘Half an hour’s drive from Amsterdam, in the middle of the densely populated and intensively farmed Netherlands, white tailed eagles breed and herds of wild horses and cows roam in one of Europe’s most intriguing nature reserves.

Welcome to the Oostvaardersplassen, which the German periodical ‘Der Spiegel’ designated as the ‘Serengeti behind the dikes. This piece of land was reclaimed in 1968 and projected to be a site for heavy industry. It was never developed and, inadvertently, a unique wetland emerged. Rare birds have even adapted their transglobal migration routes. At the beginning of the 1980s, Dutch governmental nature managers decided to introduce herds of large herbivores to maintain the open and dynamic character of this breeding ground by recreating the primordial landscape of northwestern Europe.’

For more information on the site, I think people should definitely check out the site Jamie and Clemens prepared. During the actual fieldtrip we were guided by Frans Vera, the ‘godfather’ of the Oostvaardersplassen (for more info – in Dutch – see here). Frans was most entertaining, and gave lots of very interesting information about the ecology and debates on the area. He often likened the Oostvaardersplassen to the Serengeti, and is still trying to see how best ‘wilderness’ can be (re)created in the Netherlands.

This, of course, might sound like a funny proposition. We don’t have wilderness in the Netherlands, I can hear many think. Well… not so fast. While walking through the park, we encountered the wild in an expected way. While the whole group walked passed a bee-hive, the bees got upset, waited until the last person had walked past, and then attacked this poor individual! He got stung at least 8-10 times, and immediately started feeling the effects. Back at the information office, he had to sit down, and his arms started swelling, he got all red, and started itching and hurting all over.

We called an ambulance, which came over very quickly, and thankfully could help the poor guy. With some anti-venom he rapidly recovered, but still felt weak. At least he could join us to return to The Hague, but still felt unwell for over an hour. Thankfully, he was OK during the conference dinner, back at the ISS, but we all realized that wilderness in the Netherlands can be wilder than anyone expected…