An ecofeminist perspective on the Oostvaardersplassen

 

One of the most beautiful nature reserves in the Netherlands is the Oostvaardersplassen (OVP); a 56 km2 swamp like area in the Flevo polder. This land, created in 1968, was originally meant for residential and agricultural use but when biologists observed a multitude of bird species nesting there they pleaded for it to become a designated nature reserve. Over the past forty years the ecosystem has developed greatly and is now also serving as a home for red deer, konik horses, heck cattle and sea eagles. It is a symbol of rewilding; letting nature evolve with minimal human interaction and intervention  and thus allowing the system to reach an equilibrium by itself. The intent was to create a serene yet dynamic habitat, allowing Dutch people to experience what “wild nature” looks like in their own country.

However, last Sunday  this serenity was interrupted when hundreds of people went to protest at the OVP, leading to five arrests. Demonstrators rallied at the entrance of this nature area to show their discontent with the current management practices of Staatsbosbeheer’s rangers. They did so by bringing large hay bales to the reserve with the intent of feeding the animals inside. Due to the harsh winter, food availability was at an all-time low, and since the animals are fenced in the area they have no possibility to go elsewhere in order to find new food. This year over 57% of all large mammals in the area did not survive the winter (Staatsbosbeheer, 2018). Demonstrators claimed the rangers did not feed the animals enough, and that they were dying unnatural deaths. This raises the question: are the OVP natural, and if so how should we manage them, if at all? Ecofeminism is used in this blog post to connect the idea of the binary opposition between man and women, and the power dynamics within this dichotomy with that of nature and mankind.  This blog aims to show how ecofeminism can show us the way forward

 

 

In order to understand how ecofeminism will help in the decision making process it is important to first understand the core concepts related to this school of thought. Eco-feminists argue that the exploitative power dynamics between mankind and nature are very similar to those between men and women. As described in Simone de Beauvoir’s book the Second Sex, the “master mentality” lies at the root of the problem (Beauvoir, 2015). This ideology assumes a dualistic view on the world, whereby everything is grouped in two opposing categories. These two categories are always subject to a hierarchical structure where one category is “higher” than the other. Furthermore, the role of what is lower is always to serve what is higher, thus giving the higher category the ability to exploit what is below. This mentality has been present throughout history and since the 17th century has licensed and endorsed the patriarchal capitalist exploitation of nature. The same processes, same logic and historically speaking the same people are responsible for the domination of nature and women (Curry, 2011). It has led to the anthropocentric view that nature is a resource to be exploited for the benefit of mankind, just as women have been consistently exploited by men.

To be able to solve any problems in nature, and therefore the relationship between mankind and nature, humans first need to address their internal issues. As Salleh put it: “you cannot address the oppression of nature by men without simultaneously addressing the oppression of women by men” (Salleh, 2010: 88) (Curry, 2011). Once these internal issues are addressed and the hierarchical structure has been removed, mankind can begin to address the issues within nature. This should be done as well by further identification with the other, in this case the fauna in the OVP. Before doing so however the different stakeholders first need to be able to see eye to eye.  These are the ecologists who first conceived the idea of rewilding the polder (“creators”) with the rangers who manage the reserve, and the angry public demonstrating last week. All stakeholders ultimately want the best for the animals, but are unable to agree upon what the best option would be. Following the eco-feminist framework they should remove all hierarchical boundaries between the different stakeholders and agree upon how they view the OVP.

According to the public the creators and rangers hold the highest responsibility as they are the reason these animals are present in the polder in the first place (NRC, 2018). Their main arguments are that the OVP is not natural at all, and that therefore it should not be treated as such. Their reasoning is understandable; the land was raised out of the sea by humans, the animals were put there by humans, and the fences were also made by humans. How can something that would not have existed if it were not for humankind be natural? Extra hay feeding is therefore needed..

On the other hand, Frans Vera, founding father of the OVP and leading ecologist in the field of Dutch ecosystems, argues that the OVP are indeed natural, reasoning that all nature parks have fences, be they natural (river, mountain) or anthropogenic (fences). The nesting of the vulture (monniksgier) in the OVP, only seen 3 times in the Netherlands since 1800, exemplifies for Vera the capability of the area to support complex ecosystems (NRC, 2018). Furthermore, he states that the ecosystem is still very young (40 years) and that death inside a population finding its equilibrium population inside an ecosystem is only a natural part of life. A small area like the OVP only has a limited population capacity (exemplified by the high death rates this winter), like any other ecosystem. Feeding the animals extra in the winter would therefore only interfere with the natural dynamics of survival of the fittest, allowing the population to grow outside the ecosystem’s capacity. This would result in even more dying in the following winter, unless more food is provided then, bringing the system into a human dependant cycle.

Following my interpretation of ecofeminism the creators need to realise that their priorities for the OVP are not in line with those of the public, and start viewing the public’s demands as equally important as theirs. However, the public also needs to realise that death is inevitable in nature, and that if the Oostvaardersplassen are truly meant to be “natural”, human interference by feeding is only bad. In my opinion the OVP will never really resemble our idea of “wild nature”, as the habitat is simply too small and too close to humans for this (see the following link for example: https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2005/08/17/zeldzame-gier-vliegt-zich-dood-10606171-a1373051). There will always be human influence, be it voluntary or involuntary. The key to good management is however communication between the managers and the public, so that the public is aware of why certain action is taken (support) and so that the decision makers can take the public’s wishes into account. This will both result in wider public support for management policies as well as increased understanding of the natural dynamics. I think the first step is to organise an information session between the managers and the public, where both sides can let their opinion be heard to together form a new plan for the sake of the OVP. Important is that this meeting focusses on nurturing reciprocity and cooperation between the two sides, allowing them to see their interests aligned.

 

References

Curry, P. (2011). Ecological Ethics: An Introduction. (ch9: “Ecofeminism”) pp. 127-134

De Beauvoir, S. (2015). The Second Sex. London: Vintage Classic.

NRC, (2018). Vijf arrestaties bij vernieling tijdens protest Oostvaardersplassen. Retrieved April 07, 2018, from https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2018/04/01/vijf-arrestaties-bij-vernieling-tijdens-protest-oostvaardersplassen-a1597849Venhuizen, G.

NRC (2018)Is natuurlijk beheer mogelijk in drukbevolkt Nederland? https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2018/03/16/is-natuurlijk-beheer-mogelijk-in-drukbevolkt-nederland-a1595978

Stadsbosbeheer. (n.d.). Over de Oostvaardersplassen. Retrieved April 07, 2018, from https://www.staatsbosbeheer.nl/natuurgebieden/oostvaardersplassen/over-de-oostvaardersplassenVeen, C. V. (2018, April 01).

 

4 thoughts on “An ecofeminist perspective on the Oostvaardersplassen

  1. Hey Tim, thx for the article! The Oostvaardersplassen holds a very special place in my heart since I grew up at the border of this nature reserve on the lelystad side. I’ve spend many weekends there ever since I could walk, and over the years I’ve seen it change completely. When I was younger there were a lot more trees, which due to the animals (and I guess storms as well) have been limited down to some dead tree trunks. I’m no expert but I think it’s overgrazed and at the moment simply cannot sustain the amount of animals it’s hosts (notably the horses). It’s way way way out of equilibrium, and honestly I don’t know whether it will correct itself because, as you noted, it is simply too small and too close to humans. However, I do think feeding the animals during the winter keeps it from reaching a stable state… even though it’s difficult to consciously let them starve… yes. I can see the dilemma.

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  2. Hey hey, I totally agree with you @judithnuria, the park is too small! I did a project on the OVP last semester for conservation biology, and I was able to interview some ecologists working at the park. It appears that the park will be enlarged! Obviously, the problem is that the park is located close to cities so, the park area cannot be enlarged by a lot. Still, this could maybe help the ecosystem to more rapidly reach an equilibrium and thus satisfy the public.

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  3. Hi Tim, I like your approach to the topic; eco-feminism seems a promising angle through which to reconcile public concerns with professional opinion. At the same time I’m wondering whether it would resolve the conflict if the public were to have more say in how the animals are treated. After all, one of the purposes of the OVP is to change the public’s perception of nature, and as Vera says, death is a part of that. I do agree that the people behind the project have an obligation of care. But if the feeding results in a larger population that may need to be culled at some point, then I believe the common opinion is wrong here. Of course it is hard to see animals die from starvation but I don’t see how it is more humane to support the population until there is no other option but culling. It seems to be very tricky to find a satisfying compromise for either side here, which makes me wonder how feasible this project is in the first place.

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  4. Hi Tim, very interesting blog post. The issue in the Oostvaardersplassen should definitely be addressed and a permanent solution has to be found, so that protests like this will not happen or be necessary every year. However, I’m not convinced that an ecofeminist perspective is useful in this case. Although I will immediately admit that I do not know much about this topic, and so I am definitely open to other opinions, the dualistic worldview of a lower, oppressed category and a higher, exploiting category, seems too simplistic in this case. I can see how mankind would be the ‘higher’ category, because we have the power to exploit nature and we decide what land is ‘allowed’ to be nature, but in case of the Oostvaardersplassen I don’t think we are exploiting nature in this area for the ‘benefit of mankind’. This area was ‘given’ to nature, it is protected by law and, as you mention yourself, ‘All stakeholders ultimately want the best for the animals’, which does not sound like exploitation at all.
    Furthermore, the quote that you mention from Salleh (“you cannot address the oppression of nature by men without simultaneously addressing the oppression of women by men”) does not seem applicable in the case of the Oostvaardersplassen either. Feminists in the past have done very good work fighting the oppression of women by men and I think that because of this, in 2018 there is hardly any of this oppression left in the Netherlands. To say that we have to solve this issue (if it even exists) first before we can address the Oostvaardersplassen issue doesn’t seem right or useful.
    I can see how the ecofeminist perspective can be useful in some parts of the world, or for the general attitude of mankind towards nature, but not how it is applicable in the Oostvaardersplassen case.

    I agree much more with the last part of your blog, which says that the key to good management of the Oostvaardersplassen is communication between managers and the public and your recommendation to organize information sessions would be a very good start.

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