Belgium gets its first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with the cross-border KempenBroek reserve

Today in Agadir (Morocco), the International Coordinating Council for the UNESCO Human and Biosphere Programme decided to recognise KempenBroek as a cross-border Biosphere Reserve. KempenBroek thus becomes the first cross-border UNESCO Biosphere Area in the Benelux, the first in Belgium and the second in the Netherlands. 

Big celebration in the KempenBroek Border Park, both provinces of Limburg, North Brabant and in the Kempen and Maasland Regional Landscape.

An international network and 'strong brand'
The UNESCO Man and Biosphere programme was established in 1971. It focuses on the relationship between humans and their environment. It translates the principles of sustainable development to a local context, making the connection between science, society and policy. Putting sustainable development into practice is done by all stakeholders: from local governments, residents and businesses to schools, knowledge institutions and NGOs.

Globally, there are 748 biosphere areas in 134 countries (2023) that serve as icons for sustainable development. Only 23 are cross-border, with KempenBroek now being the 24th. Belgium had no Biosphere Reserve until now; in the Netherlands, the Maasheggen became the first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2018. 

KempenBroek immediately becomes a "strong brand" as part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves, a dynamic and interactive network of areas that promote harmony between people and nature for sustainable development through participatory dialogue; knowledge sharing; poverty alleviation and improvement of human well-being; respect for cultural values and society's ability to cope with change.  

A new jewel in the crown
The Kempen and Maasland Regional Landscape is already the driving force behind this recognition. With the Hoge Kempen National Park, the RivierPark Maasvallei and now the cross-border KempenBroek reserve, it is once again setting an international standard in the field of nature, heritage and landscape development with a strong societal support base and a great socio-economic return. 

The cross-border KempenBroek reserve is a unique, nature-rich and quality mosaic landscape and lies at the crossroads of the two provinces of Limburg and North Brabant, where the Regionaal Landschap Kempen en Maasland has been working for 24 years with a lot of partners including all Flemish and Dutch municipalities (Bree, Bocholt, Maaseik, Kinrooi, Weert, Nederweert and Cranendonck) and the provinces of Limburg (B), Limburg (NL) and North Brabant (NL). 

Eight years ago, in 2016, the application procedure was launched at the request of the provinces and municipalities of which KempenBroek is part.  To prepare the content of this candidature, a master plan was drawn up together with the partners to develop the region sustainably. The candidacy was submitted by the Flemish and Dutch UNESCO Commissions on 29 September 2023. 

The response in both the Netherlands and Flanders has been enthusiastic. The municipality of Weert was already recognised as the world's greenest region in 2014 , among other things due to its investments in the KempenBroek. The province of Belgian Limburg gains - after two national parks (Hoge Kempen and Bosland) and three landscape parks (RivierPark Maasvallei, Hart van Haspengouw and Grenzeloos Bocagelandschap) - a new jewel in its crown with this UNESCO recognition.

Ignace Schops, director Kempen and Maasland regional landscape: "Not only for the protection of nature, landscape, heritage and agriculture is this recognition very important. UNESCO is also a very strong brand in marketing terms. The baker and the butcher; the hotel or café owner; the farmer and the conservationist; the mayor and the entrepreneur ... the whole local community benefits from this UNESCO recognition. In short, this is a feather in everyone's cap for years of support and belief!  And what I find so powerful is that the UNESCO recognition has no direct authority, but status and with high appreciation by the general public. I count on the Flemish and Dutch governments to also invest in this recognition financially."

"With the recognition of the KempenBroek as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Kempen and Maasland Regional Landscape and the province of Limburg set another milestone in Flanders and the Netherlands in terms of area-based cooperation. It demonstrates once again that protection of nature and landscape can go hand in hand with sustainable socio-economic development," said Bert Lambrechts, deputy for the environment and nature and chairman of Kempen en Maasland regional landscape.

What does it mean?

Biosphere zones are areas where local communities work together to build a positive, sustainable future for themselves and their region - say, their part of the biosphere, the thin layer of our planet where life is possible. Biosphere zones are characterised by their dynamism: innovative methods for protecting biodiversity go hand in hand with socio-economic development. It is therefore about the sustainable development of an area, and also has a scientific character, with research and educational activities as important pillars. 

Typically, the areas do not operate 'top-down' from a central government, but form a lively partnership of local authorities, residents, companies, schools, knowledge institutions, and NGOs. 

A Biosphere Area must have important natural and cultural values and contain some protected areas. The area must be representative of a type of landscape and/or marine area so that the results of the Biosphere project can be used elsewhere. Biosphere areas can consist of both natural and cultural landscapes. Pure nature or wilderness is not a necessity.

No additional rules

UNESCO has no legislative powers and therefore recognition as a Biosphere Reserve does not lead to additional policies or protection for the entire area. UNESCO expects Biosphere Areas to achieve their goals, not by creating additional legislation or imposing restrictions, but through active dialogue between the various area stakeholders. Moreover, nothing changes the rights of citizens to their properties.

KempenBroek, a best-kept secret of the Netherlands and Flanders!

Thanks to centuries of interaction between man and nature, KempenBroek consists of a particularly varied landscape where wet and swampy areas alternate with dry sand ridges. It is a true mosaic of landscapes with marshes, stream valleys, fens, forests, heathland and agricultural areas. The villages and some towns are also scattered in or at the edge of the area on the higher ground and today house some 75,000 inhabitants in total.

This landscape diversity is reflected in a rich biodiversity and the area has an important role in the conservation of habitats and species in Flanders and the Netherlands. For the conservation of some species, the area even plays an essential role!

In economic terms, the area, both the Flemish and Dutch parts, is an important agricultural area responsible for food production. In recent years, the importance of tourism as part of a sustainable rural economy has been rising sharply.

For centuries, man drew borders on the canvas of the area, one last time in 1839 when it became a border region between Belgium and the Netherlands. Traces of this centuries-old border past and present in the form of boundary posts, defence systems, ... are legible in the landscape or are part of the common oral heritage. 

It is an area of quiet, unassuming history. In this region at the edge of the Kempen region, the food supply on poor soil necessitated a daily struggle for existence for centuries. A rich cultural history therefore does not translate into showy cathedrals or monuments, but in functional buildings such as the many wind and water mills. A rich culinary tradition and (traditional) festivities are living witnesses to the resilience of the people who enjoyed life despite the daily drudgery.