- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

ZAAMSLAG, Netherlands — A photograph of a grinning boy riding a toy tractor is in a place of pride in the kitchen of Aarnout and Magda de Feijter, the owners of a 148-acre farm in the Dutch province of Zeeland.

The picture is of their first grandson, Louis, and the de Feijters have always dreamed that he will one day take over the expanses of wind-rippled flax fields that have been in their family since 1835.

But there are other plans. In the name of European Union environmental directives, their farm is earmarked for flooding — the first time in Holland’s centuries-long battle against water that a substantial piece of land is to be deliberately returned to the sea.

Some 230 years after its flat pastures were wrested from the waters, the de Feijters’ farm — their home for 33 years — is to be reflooded to reverse the disappearance of Zeeland’s mudflats and salt marshes.

For the family — raised in a province that owes its very existence to dike systems dating from the Middle Ages — the plan is “un-Dutch.”

Breaching dikes is behavior associated with invading armies, Mr. de Feijter said.

Flooding a “polder,” as land enclosed by a dike is known, “has always been an act of war,” he said. “In the Second World War, they did it.”

The de Feijters are proud of their land. They have planted chestnut trees and apple orchards, and resent hearing that it is ecologically less important than salt marshes.

“Isn’t this landscape beautiful?” said Mrs. de Feijter. “There are birds; there are flowers. It’s green. I’ve seen wetlands elsewhere; they say nothing to me.”

The final decision must be ratified by parliament next year, but chances of a reprieve look slim. Dutch officials support the project, part of a scheme to reflood 1,500 acres of land on the banks of the Western Schelde estuary.

In any case, the officials have little say in the matter. The reflooding has been imposed by the EU Habitats directive and the EU Birds directive.

The end will be quick. Engineers will build a new dike behind the de Feijters’ land and demolish their 150-year-old farmhouse. Then they will breach the high, grass-sided dike at the bottom of their drive, and the sea will rush in.

Mrs. de Feijter was eight years old during the great flood of February 1953, when almost 2,000 people died across Holland. Her grandparents, two farms away, had to be moved out with all their cows.

Now, their farm is serene behind its modern dike. There is no feel of the coast about their polder. You could imagine yourself a hundred miles inland — until you notice the top decks of a container ship slowly slide past behind the dike.

Anton van Haperen, a wetlands expert with the Dutch national forestry service, is blunt. Since 1960, Zeeland has lost two-thirds of its wetlands, he said. “Farmland has less value, ecologically.”

Yet he has no doubt that, without EU laws, Dutch politicians would not dare to flood farmers’ fields.

The de Feijters will be given compensation, worth perhaps $2.5 million. They talk bravely of buying a new farm and starting again, though they are both in their 60s.

They do not rail against the EU, instead blaming “environmental extremists.”

But arguably, their foes are the shoppers of Holland and Belgium, with their boundless appetite for cheap goods from the Far East.

In order to allow ever-bigger container ships into Antwerp harbor, a new, deeper shipping channel is to be dredged. That will greatly speed up erosion of the estuary’s banks.

It is that loss of habitat that must be compensated for, under EU directives, by the flooding of new wetlands.

Gerard van Overloop, the provincial government official who will oversee the flooding, said: “For hundreds of years, Zeeland was built by taking land from the sea. Now we are doing the opposite, and it goes against our nature.”

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