This article was originally published by ARK Rewilding Nederland, you can find the original post here.

Representatives of Commonland and 23 of its international partners, gathered for a global learning summit, made a visit to Kekerdom. They are all working – in a variety of places around the world – to restore landscapes that are under pressure. Areas where the decline of nature has continued for years and it is high time for a turnaround. Much like the situation in the Millingerwaard until recently.

Taking a Step Back

“The lands here have a long tradition of intensive agricultural use, mainly as cornfields. This resulted in a continued loss of biodiversity,” says ARK director Esther Blom at Wilderniscafé De Waard in Kekerdom. Thirty-five years ago, ARK entered the area with a vision. “A hopeful idea of how it could be. By putting a dot on the horizon. And getting started with a pilot of just three hectares. Focusing not on one species or plant, but on the entire ecosystem.”

From the beginning, the organisation implemented rewilding. “In other words: giving natural processes space,” Esther explains. “Introducing grazers, giving predation a chance, restoring river dynamics. But mostly: taking a step back. Letting ourselves be surprised instead of wanting to control every square meter.”

A Shift in Thinking

The internationals see the impact with their own eyes as they roam the area. The land now flourishes. Four thousand hectares of new floodplain nature in the Gelderse Poort followed the pilot. “Look, this is a beaver trail,” proudly shows ARK ecologist Bart Beekers. One of the many species that have found a place again.

Human impact can be disastrous, Bart adds while walking. “In the Netherlands, we know very well how to drive away nature, how to dominate it. Then it is an art to make a shift in that thinking.” ARK had a clear strategy to achieve this, Beekers states. “We had to find economic fuel to make the idea succeed and establish a strong connection with the local community.”

The Big Impact of Small Initiatives

“How green it is here,” was one of the first thoughts Indian Akanksha Choudhary had when she arrived in the Netherlands. “I thought: what is there to restore in this country? It’s already finished, right? Quite shocking to find out that this country is in a biodiversity crisis.”

She draws parallels with her home country India, where she actively works with local communities on forest restoration. “In those forests, you might also think at first glance that nothing is wrong. But if you have knowledge of the area, you know that rice fields are encouraged by the government, and logging keeps increasing. If we do nothing, the landscape will keep on degrading.”

What appeals to her about ARK’s work is starting with a pilot. “It’s inspiring to start on such a small piece of land. It shows that small initiatives can have a big impact on a large scale. And that people with vision can achieve a lot.”

Nature as a Continuously Developing Process

For Jan-Willem Jansens, visiting the Millingerwaard is ‘a trip down memory lane.’ He was born and raised in the Netherlands but has been working and living abroad for almost 40 years. He is currently working on landscape restoration in the United States.

“This is what I dreamed of before I left the Netherlands,” he says. “I was still a young landscape architect then. At that time, nature was mainly seen as one bird, one tree, one butterfly. Quite a stamp-sized view of nature.”

He is glad that rewilding has come into the picture. “No longer viewing nature as a fixed image, but as a process that is continuously developing. Where birth, life, and death are part of it. In this area, ARK is a pioneer, facilitator, and provider of knowledge.”

“I like how ARK identifies local benefits in nature development. Farmers here were given the opportunity to extensify. The hospitality industry benefits from it. It created jobs. And the whole community now reaps the benefits of recreation.”

Making Youth ‘Ambassadors of Change’

“Landscape restoration is not an easy path to walk,” knows Mubita Nyambe, who works in Zambia to combat deforestation by providing local communities with sustainable cookstoves. “You don’t get it done overnight. You need dedicated people who are willing to make an effort. And resources.”

He sees education as one of those resources. “ARK involves local primary school students in this project from the beginning. They gave them a connection to the area with love and passion. That is very valuable.”

“In Zambia, we also focus on children and young fishermen. We try to level with them and build on what they already know. My goal is to make young people ambassadors of change and give them a sense of nature. And central to that is the idea that balance is crucial for an ecosystem.”

Finding Local Partners

The Spaniards Rodrigo, Elvira, Laura, and Antonia discuss rewilding in the Millinger Tea Garden. They work in various organisations focused on restoring dry areas in Spain. “There is sometimes a perception that rewilding means doing absolutely nothing,” says Elvira Marín Irigaray. “It is interesting to see how ARK gives a nudge here and there, so nature can regain its strength.”

For Laura Núñez, it sparks a dream. “In Spain, many pieces of land are abandoned as young people move to the city. Near my house, there is a plot of land owned by a retired farmer. Four hectares, with forests. If farmland can become nature, maybe that can happen there too.”

She still struggles with practical questions. “I can’t buy something like that on my own. But this project encourages thinking about local partners and donors, as ARK has successfully done. Together you are stronger.”

We Can Rebuild Nature

Rodrigo Vargas Villegas is fascinated by the water in the Millingerwaard. “I find it especially interesting that main and seepage channels have been dug, allowing water to flow freely again.”

“In our projects in Spain, attracting water is a major challenge. It is wonderful to see how water plays a dynamic role here. And as a result, water brings back life. Add water to the system, and the restoration process accelerates.”

“This area gives hope a voice,” he concludes. “We as humans can easily destroy nature, but this place shows the other side. With the right vision, we can help nature make a comeback. That is a message we must continue to share with each other.”