Burning straw bales and tractor blockades on the highway: The Netherlands fear the anger of the farmers. However, it is no longer just about environmental regulations. Populists use the stage.
Several thousand people protested in The Hague against the government’s planned environmental regulations for agriculture. With flags, balloons and banners, many farmers went to the Zuiderpark on Saturday. “No farmers, no food” or “Proud of the farmers” was written on the banners. The radical farmers’ organization “Farmers Defense Force” had called for the “biggest demonstration of all time”, right-wing organizations and populist politicians had also mobilized their supporters.
Only a few kilometers as the crow flies from the farmers’ demonstration, around 3,000 climate protectors from the “Extinction Rebellion” action group demonstrated for significantly stricter measures in climate and environmental protection. For a short time they occupied a slip road, they chained themselves and stuck to the asphalt. The police cleared the street.
A shift to the right is expected
The protests took place four days before Wednesday’s provincial elections. Then decisions will not only be made about the parliaments of the provinces, but also indirectly about the composition of the first chamber of the national parliament (comparable to the Federal Council). According to the polls, a sharp shift to the right is expected. Heavy casualties are predicted for the coalition.
The farmers’ rally was not just about environmental regulations. Right-wing parties called for resistance against the government. The right-wing populist Geert Wilders called for the coalition to be “deelected” on Wednesday.
Despite the ban, dozens of farmers set off on tractors early in the morning. They were stopped by the police because the city, fearing riots, had banned tractors and blocked access roads and important intersections with military trucks. At the demonstration site, however, an excavator broke through the blockade and several trucks were able to drive onto the square despite the ban. One person was arrested.
The authorities were concerned about violence after weeks of farmers protesting with violence last year.
30 percent of livestock farms before the end
The reasons for the farmers’ protests are the announced conditions for the protection of nature areas. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right coalition wants to drastically reduce nitrogen emissions by 2030. This decision was triggered by a ruling by the highest court in 2019. The government estimates that the measures could mean the end of around 30 percent of livestock farms.
The owners of around 3,000 farms, which emit the most nitrogen near threatened natural areas, are to be persuaded to sell them or at least to drastically reduce their livestock. But expropriations are not excluded either. “We have no choice,” said Minister for Nature and Nitrogen, Christianne van der Wal. “Nature cannot wait.”
For years, far too much reactive nitrogen has been emitted into the air at the European protected Natura 2000 sites in the Netherlands. The main cause is intensive animal husbandry, which produces a lot of ammonia. This has dramatic consequences for biodiversity. The soil becomes acidic, plants and trees die, they are overgrown by blackberries or nettles. Insects, birds and other animals disappear.
“The great restructuring of agriculture is inevitable”
The agricultural sector is huge and one of the largest exporters in the world. Last year, around 52,000 farms exported goods worth 122 billion euros, almost a quarter of which went to Germany.
For years, environmental pollution was tolerated or legalized with exceptions, although limit values were exceeded. Loopholes were found again and again just to avoid restricting agricultural production. The government now admits that this was a mistake.
The 2019 judgment had major consequences: projects near natural areas where nitrogen is released may not be approved. This means that the construction of housing and roads is halting, industry cannot expand, and even the energy transition is in jeopardy. “The major restructuring of agriculture is inevitable,” said Minister van der Wal.
But the farmers are demanding prospects for the future, and they feel that politicians have let them down. They also doubt the necessity of the measures.
I have been working in the news industry for over 6 years, first as a reporter and now as an editor. I have covered politics extensively, and my work has appeared in major newspapers and online news outlets around the world. In addition to my writing, I also contribute regularly to 24 Hours World.