"You invest in nature out of passion, not as an investment"

reading duration
12 min.
related tags
Nature, Agriculture, Forest, Hunting
Kris Van Hamme

Gabriel de l'Escaille ©Diego Franssens

Nature in Flanders can count more and more on the money and time of entrepreneurs and the wealthy. They expand biotopes and launch nature management plans on them. Not for returns, but as a moral duty or as a passion.

In his professional life, the green of the billiard table rules, in his spare time the green of nature. Alan Phillips, managing director of the Walloon world leader in billiard cloth Iwan Simonis, owns more than 200 hectares of nature reserve in the Kempen.

Through targeted purchases, he managed to double the size of the inherited family domain in Meerhout. "I now have almost all habitats and biotopes in the Kempen: open water, swamps, peatlands, wet meadows, heathlands, forests and even dunes," says Phillips.

Phillips ended up in conservation through his love of hunting. That hunt now comes in second place, he says. He certainly does not do it for the financial return, because according to him that is negligible in Flanders. "The real return is the pleasure I get from forest management. That is priceless. It's a passion. "

Gabriel de l'Escaille also fell under the spell of nature through a family estate. "My father has always attached importance to nature management on the family domain in Hamont, Limburg, so that I grew up with great respect for nature. In the meantime, this has become a moral obligation due to climate change and the consequences for nature and biodiversity, "says 35-year-old De l'Escaille, who is a director of food giant Danone in Amsterdam. Through purchases in 2017 and 2019, he owns 40 hectares of nature reserve in Limburg. Together with a few Belgian private individuals and a Spaniard, he bought several thousand hectares of mountain pastures in Argentina, against the Andes.

"We have noticed an increase in private individuals who own a Flemish nature reserve," says Jurgen Tack, the managing director of Landelijk Vlaanderen. His organization groups private landowners who together own 36,000 hectares of forest and nature reserve. In addition, he represents a further 40,000 hectares in the hands of "forest groups", small owners - sometimes as small as half a hectare - who group together and join a common nature management plan to pursue specific objectives.

The nature management plan, which the Flemish government introduced in 2017, is intended to boost nature conservation in Flanders. Not only by replacing the maze of earlier plans with a single instrument, but also by giving private individuals the prospect of the same subsidies that associations such as Natuurpunt receive. The Flemish government anticipated a possible legal imbroglio after private landowners in the Netherlands had demanded equal access to subsidies through a lawsuit in order to prevent market distortion.

58 percent

In Flanders, 58 percent of the forest area is privately owned.

The result is that, by submitting a nature management plan, private individuals can from now on count on subsidies for the realization of "nature objectives", such as certain vegetation or habitats of animal species. Those who plant an oak-beech forest on acidic soil can count on a subsidy of 63 euros per hectare per year.

Success story

For subsidies, at least a nature management plan of type 2 is required, which means the objective of realizing nature targets on a quarter of the surface. The objectives are much more ambitious for types 3 and 4, but there are also additional tax incentives, such as the exemption from inheritance and gift tax and property tax.

"The nature management plan is a success story, with more than 100 plans submitted, 70 percent of which come from private owners," says Jan Menschaert, who oversees the management plans at the Agency for Nature and Forest, part of the Flemish government. Types 2 and 4 appear to be the most popular plans, where type 4 - which aspires to reserve status - is mainly a matter for governments and associations. It is a good thing, according to Menschaert, that donations during life are stimulated, because the know-how can be passed on to the next generation and the nature reserve is safeguarded for the long term.

Private individuals have a major role to play because they own 58 percent of the forest area in Flanders. There are many small owners among them who got hold of a piece of forest through legacies. Through the creation of forest groups, they too can draw up nature management plans and acquire subsidies.

According to Tack, the subsidies should enable nature owners to cover their maintenance costs. They do not go far with their own income from forest management. Nevertheless, the nature management plan explicitly puts forward "profit" as one of the pillars.


That economic aspect is important to Phillips. "Over time, forests must generate income through logging, which does not have to conflict with ecology. As a private individual, you must have an eye for such income, although the lower wood price puts pressure on profitability. You also need subsidies. But I believe that NGOs such as Natuurpunt should think about that economic aspect, because in the long term those subsidies may no longer be available. ”Other sources of income are animal feed through grasslands or the rental of a restored farm, although according to Phillips the latter is on the rocks. as a result of new legislation.

Jeroen Nachtergaele, head of permits and subsidies at the Agency for Nature and Forests, acknowledges that profit should primarily be a point of attention for "traditional nature managers". "They have less commercial power than business people who take care of nature. It is about matters such as not just using valuable wood for the stove, but selling it separately. Or wait a few years before selling wood if a storm has felled many trees and there is a surplus, "says Nachtergaele.

Photo: Alan Phillips ©Diego Franssens

Like Phillips, De l'Escaille notes that forestry - supplemented with some agricultural and rental income - yields little. "The yield is no more than 1 percent of what I paid, and I don't count the expenses for mowing or planting hedges. The return of the latter consists of greater biodiversity. "After which De l'Escaille is pleased with the fact that the bittern and the osprey are showing themselves again in its nature reserve.

He believes to have more financial impact by combining a career in the corporate world with conservation in his spare time, with his own patronage and grants as firepower. Nature, in turn, allows to "distance yourself from the intensity of business," says De l'Escaille.


"Anyone who buys nature as a financial investment in Flanders is doing a bad thing," says Tack. "Land prices are rising, but that is out of proportion to the time and resources you put into it. Only agricultural land is still considered a speculative investment, but those prices are also much higher: 40,000 to 160,000 euros for one hectare, compared to 12,000 to 20,000 for one hectare of nature in Flanders and 15,000 to 35,000 euros for one hectare of forest. "

"Things are different in Eastern Europe, Spain or Latin America," continues Tack. "There you can still buy large areas of thousands of hectares and see them as an investment where profit is possible. Belgians also participate in this. Their motivation can be speculative, coupled with a genuine concern for nature. Especially in Africa, where governments are not always successful in nature conservation. For some, hunting is also a motive now that it is becoming increasingly difficult in Flanders. "

63 Euro

Those who plant an oak-beech forest on acidic soil can count on a subsidy of 63 euros per hectare per year.

De l'Escaille also acquired a nature reserve abroad, in the shadow of the Andes mountains in Argentina. "For the same money you can buy 50 to 60 times more there than in Flanders. You may run a greater political and legal risk, but you also have more opportunities to develop tourism. Moreover, prices continue to rise: our investment has already gone three to five times since I bought the area with a few others about ten years ago. Investors are looking for such large areas, which have almost become trophies. I see it as a diversification for my Flemish nature area, for which the risk is very low, but the return is minimal. "

Social Security

One type of return is likely to be overlooked because it is very difficult to quantify when it can be very important. "It's about the ecosystem services that nature provides to society: clean air, clean water, sports facilities," says Tack. He refers to studies that highlight the positive impact of forests on our health. "If we were to walk in a forest more regularly, it would have a huge return on social security," says Tack.

Swiss entrepreneur Hansjörg Wyss, who donated $ 1 billion to his Wyss Campaign for Nature to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030, commissioned a large-scale study of the return of nature conservation. It concluded that an average of $ 350 billion in ecosystem services will be generated annually if the target is met by 2030, with an additional $ 250 billion a year in additional economic growth. Today, 15 percent of the land and 7 percent of the oceans enjoy some form of protection, so that a firm catch-up is needed.

Tack argues for a compensation for the enormous value that conservationists create. "The owners of the nature reserve bear the costs, while the return benefits society as a whole. If some of those ecosystem services were to be reimbursed - for example through certificates for carbon storage by deciduous forests - private individuals would be more incentivized to invest. "

The corona pandemic has emphasized the importance of nature once again. While the Wyss Campaign study points to the role of nature conservation in preventing new viruses resulting from humans entering animal habitat (the coronavirus was spreading from animal to human), both Tack and Nachtergaele cite our need nature walks in times of lockdowns. "The lockdown shows that there is a great need for accessible green space," says Nachtergaele.

This is immediately a tricky point, because how accessible is the nature reserve that private individuals buy to protect it? It is no coincidence that accessibility is another pillar in the nature management plan, in addition to profit and the ecological aspect. "Access varies from owner to owner: some open up their area to the public voluntarily, others prefer not to," said Tack.

Photo: ©Diego Franssens

Bivouac area

The basic rule in a nature management plan is "basic accessibility". This means that all roads in a nature reserve are open to walkers, unless the owner provides otherwise. "Some are against it, others provide a bivouac zone in their area," says Nachtergaele.

In any case, there must be minimal accessibility when owners make use of public subsidies. "You cannot expect any subsidies and then hermetically seal your domain, although privacy around your own home is normal. The minimum is to organize a guided walk for the public once a year, "says Nachtergaele.

This also depends on the nature goals that an owner pursues. "I'm aiming for a rest area," explains De l'Escaille. "I want to restore the habitat for the bittern, osprey or harrier. They need rest. If you open their habitat to the public, it clashes with nature. "Phillips provides hiking trails and also opens some roads to riders and cyclists. "It is good that people get out, although we do have problems with illegal dumping and stray dogs. We cannot open everything up either, because that would sometimes damage nature. "

All in all, Phillips is pleased with the new conservation plans that were introduced three years ago. "Good steps have been taken, especially that private individuals now enjoy the same subsidies as NGOs. However, the Agency for Nature and Forest sometimes goes a bit far in imposing its vision. I also find it absurd that (unrestricted) hunting is not allowed in a type 4 area. Otherwise, more of those areas would emerge. "Phillips continues to pursue expansion, as" puzzle pieces "still missing from his contiguous area.

Nature point

There is another route that private individuals with deep pockets follow to do nature conservation in Flanders: Natuurpunt. "In recent years, we have received more questions from entrepreneurs and wealthy people who want to contribute to nature conservation and want to work with us for this," says Luk Daniëls, head of marketing at Natuurpunt. "Only some don't just want to donate money, but want to remain the owner of the land themselves."

"That is not an obvious question, but we are thinking about solutions with long-term guarantees for nature," Daniëls continues. "Maybe co-ownership is an option. It is always the intention that Natuurpunt takes over the management via a long-term contract, while the land can remain in the hands of the family, preferably for several generations. We are working on such files, but none have been completed yet. "

It gives Natuurpunt the time to warm its many volunteers to this new reality. "It takes an effort on our part to mature the minds of volunteers for the idea that they manage a domain that is not owned by Natuurpunt, but by a philanthropist." The bittern better hope it works.



Van Hamme, K. (2020, 4 december) 'Investeren in natuur doe je uit passie, niet als belegging' Geraadleegd op 10-12-2020, van https://www.tijd.be/dossiers/wealth/investeren-in-natuur-doe-je-uit-passie-niet-als-belegging/10268898?