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Belgian village puts up a fight against expanding port

Doel, Belgium used to have 1,000 residents. But then the port of Antwerp decided it wanted to expand and needed the village to disappear. Today, just 50 residents are hanging on to their houses and their village.

Doel's 17th-century windmill in the foreground, in the background a nuclear power plant

The village of Doel is home to old and new structures

From the top floor of her house on the outskirts of Doel, Belgium, Frieda Lauwers can see across the dyke. She sees a 17th-century windmill and the white cooling tower of the nearby nuclear power plant.

Lauwers can also see the port of Antwerp with its huge container ships. Over the years, the port has grown, ominously creeping up on Doel.

'Doel must go'

Living here, Lauwers says, could be a pleasure: "When I get up in the morning I see the water and hear the birds. I love that," she says. "But the government makes us unhappy. They really terrorize us."

Lauwers maintains her sense of humor even when she speaks about how many people would like to see her village disappear. The Flemish government, the Antwerp port and the planning authority for the Scheldt River's left bank all want to see Antwerp's port expanded.

Frieda Lauwers

Lauwers says the government has terrorized her village

The first container dock has already appeared on the river's left bank, less than two kilometers (1.2 miles) from Doel. Now they want to build a second one, but the village and its people are standing in their way.

'Everything fell apart'

Ten years ago, Lauwers says, the planning authority sent a "mediator" to Doel, who told the villagers they had better sell their houses immediately if they wanted to get a good price; if they waited to be dispossessed by the government they would receive a lot less, he said.

"Until that point we were a solid community," Lauwers says, "but then people started selling their houses and everything fell apart."

Just 15 years ago, Doel had a population of around 1,000 - but that was before its struggles with the port began. Today, just 50 are still hanging on. The village's only school has long been closed; the village's families have moved away and been replaced by squatters.

In an effort to raise awareness about her protest against the port expansion, the 65-year-old Lauwers gives guided tours through Doel. Her audiences are captivated by what they see: a ghost town, where banners with the words "Doel stays" hang from houses that have been boarded up.

An abandoned house, sprayed with graffiti

Doel has become popular among squatters and street artists

If the powers that be get their way, all of this will soon be gone - even the 17th-century town house, which was once a summer residence to the painter Peter Paul Rubens, and the church tower, which still juts up against a blue autumn sky, the graveyard in its shadow.

Doel 2020

The area's remaining residents received word this summer that their properties were slated for demolition. Among them was Jan Creve, who, for 25 years, has lived on a farm a few kilometers outside of Doel. The history teacher is the spokesman for a citizens' initiative against the expansion, dubbed Doel 2020.

Creve took the matter to court, and received a ruling that forbade the government from razing the village of Doel outright.

What has convinced Creve that the port and the government are wrong is his assertion that a new container dock would make no sense financially. He argues that the first container dock is not even filled to capacity and that, because of the recession, not nearly as many containers arrive in Antwerp as were coming in when the second dock was originally planned.

Jan Creve

Creve wants to see his farm and the rest of Doel saved

"Expanding the port is completely unnecessary," Creve says, adding, "We want the government to reconsider Doel's future and take all options into account."

But officials at Antwerp's port authority sees things differently. The amount of freight coming in has risen this year by nine percent, they say. They maintain that they will need the space by 2020 at the latest.

The port, authorities say, must grow on the Scheldt's left bank in order it to maintain its competitiveness in the shipping world and to preserve the jobs of port employees.

Keeping up the fight

Lauwers says she's not ready to give up the fight for her village.

She points out that, in the cities of Hamburg and Marseille, compromises were reached to allow the ports and people to coexist. "Why can't we do that here too?" Lauwers asks.

A house hanging a Doel stays sign

A court ruled that the government couldn't raze the village

What Lauwers doesn't mention is that, in 2003, Hamburg's Altenwerder neighborhood was demolished to make way for a modern container terminal. In that case, the port won.

Lauwers knows that eventually the port will win out in Doel too. When that happens, she hopes to move to Antwerp, where her children live. But she says she will never forget her village of Doel.

Author: Brigitta Moll (dl)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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