Memoir: Millingerwaard 20 years on

Inspiring a new generation at the Millingerwaard. Image courtesy of Twan Teunissen
My first steps in the field of nature conservation
Recently I was featured in a story about the Millingerwaard. The reportage appeared in the TamTam, the magazine of the WNF Rangerclub (the youth organization of WWF Netherlands). Exactly 20 years ago I had the honour to open the first part of the Millingerwaard on behalf of the WWF.

“Back in 1992, as in… you were 12?” Hey, what can I do? I had an early start :) Back then I already had a fascination with everything nature. Nature for me was exploration, fun, learning, relaxation, curiosity, magic, captivation and most of all: life. Having two nature minded parents didn’t hurt either, so a lot of my spare time was spend with exploring, wildlife observation and accompanying my father while hunting. I guess I have to expand on the hunting bit a little as this is not something most people (more specifically urban dwellers) connect with a passion for nature. Back then however hunting was just another way of experiencing the outdoors, live off the land in a sustainable way and respecting your quarry. I have long since moved to capturing my quarry on film, although my MSc thesis focused extensively on the subject.

Back in the day... Bart (age 12) in the middle of the table during a WWF press conference, announcing the opening of a new part of 'De Gelderse Poort'
Back in the day... Bart (age 12) in the middle of the table during a WWF press conference, announcing the opening of a new part of 'De Gelderse Poort'

Anyway, the thing I was (and still am) most passionate about is nature conservation. I simply couldn’t understand human’s enduring negative effect on their environment. I JUST DIDN’T GET IT (there… capital letters for dramatic effect). Nothing wrong with making a living, making money, trying to survive, using natural resources or developing one’s quality of life, as long it is sustainable. Yeah, I know… it’s has become a complete political catch-all. Still it’s meaning is very logical and from my point of view the only way forward. So let me explain this concept in the most simplest of phrases:

  • “Healthy” planet = healthy conditions for supporting life (including humans).
  • “Sick” planet = crappy conditions for supporting life (possibly not even humans).

I also noticed on an early age that during my mandatory visits to church on Sunday mornings, people where whining on and on about respecting each other. While in the meantime not many fellow churchgoers where putting this into practise to begin with and more specifically… where not respecting life itself. In fact, for most people living on our planet then and today, we humans often look at themselves as being outside the whole of nature. In my young mind we had to respect the grand total of biodiversity, it’s chaos and and it’s intricately woven and interlocking web of relations. Needless to say I since moved on to greener pastures, in which a healthy mix of atheism and humanism gives me all the perspective I need.

Anyway, here comes WWF into play. Their philosophy and mission resonated with my own believes, so aged 10 I became a pretty motivated supporter. I especially liked their yearly campaigns in which supporters where asked to help with fundraising and raising awareness for projects focusing on certain areas or specific species. Some of which I had never visited or seen. From tropical rain forest in Costa Rica, turtles in Greece and – a lot closer to home – nature development in the Millingerwaard. For three consecutive campaigns I managed to raise the most amount of money in the Netherlands. This was still in the social network-less world mind you, so that meant door-to-door operations, approaching local media like newspapers and radio shows, and putting up flyers. Being pretty good at raising money had its perks, since from 1991 till 1994 I became a figurehead for the WNF Rangerclub, enabling me to:
  • ask questions to the State Secretary of the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment about our foreign policy regarding the conservation and use of tropical rain forests;
  • open a new exhibition about the tropical rain forest in the Museon;
  • make a short documentary about the Millingerwaard with Dutch tv personality Carlo Boszhard;
  • open the first part of the Millingerwaard with the then mayor of Millingen aan de Rijn (Thea de Roos);
  • represent the WWF in various other shows for national TV networks.

I also received a surprising gift of the late HRH Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld (the Founder President of WWF International and the grandfather of the reigning king of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) in the form of a silver plated turtle statue and a note telling me to keep up the good work. That meant all signs were green and it was pretty obvious which direction I wanted my life to take. Obviously these early experiences influenced me a lot. So I wanted to share some lessons with you I learned along the way:
  • no matter how young or small, if you really want something… you really can make a difference;
  • persistence usually pays off;
  • follow your passion in life and you will live a good one.

Fast forward to the present. As an environmental scientist and biologist with a career in nature management and conservation I really enjoyed being asked by the WWF to go back to the Millingerwaard in 2013. Guided by fellow nature enthusiast Twan Teunissen and accompanied by present-day WNF Ranger Rebecca we went off in search of Beaver, Black Tern, Konik and Natterjack Toad. We had a wonderful evening and I was amazed to see how much the area had developed. Rewilding – despite lengthy debates – obviously works!

Nowadays I am the proud father of a beautiful 6 months old daughter and potential WNF ranger :) I am very much looking forward to explore the natural world together and to inspire her about its wonders. We will begin right in our own backyard.


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