The request to cut down the De Sterre forest in Ghent was officially rejected by Zuhal Demir, the Flemish Minister for Justice and Enforcement, Environment, Energy, and Tourism.
Forests, no matter how many hectares of land they occupy, bring a multitude of advantages for the environment and communities. They are not just for leisure strolls or adventurous hiking trips; rather, they are essential components of the ecosystem. Without them, humans and animals alike may not be able to sustain everyday life.
80% of the terrestrial biodiversity in the world lives in forests. 60 million indigenous people also depend on forests for their shelter and livelihood.
Furthermore, the chairs we comfortably sit in and the homes we consider safe havens wouldn’t be as they are without materials obtained from trees. Communities will also be continuously flooded without forests to absorb and store gushes of water from the rain. The greenhouse gases, which have detrimental effects on the health of the population, are similarly absorbed by trees.
The list of the importance of forests can go on more than what was said. Meg Lowman, an expert in the field of forest canopy and conservation, said that “forests are the lifeline of our world. Without them, we lose extraordinary and essential functions for life on Earth.”
Saving the De Sterre Forest in Ghent
Authorities in Belgium recognized just that. Minister Demir said, “forests are sometimes big, but sometimes small in size, like the Sterrebos. But above all, they are great in what they do. They are a gift to people, animals and the climate and almost literally provide breathing space in the city.”
“This means that we must protect the greenery that is still there as much as possible so that our urban forests and trees can play their role as natural air conditioning to the maximum,” she added.
The decision to reject the proposal to cut down trees in the De Sterre forest in Ghent was very much welcomed by the organizations that had been lobbying against it.
“We are very grateful that our call has been heard and that this beautiful piece of spontaneous nature has been spared from destruction. With this decision, Demir is going against the general political consensus, which so far has not attached any importance to smaller pieces of nature,” the organization SterreBos Blijft said.
Why Was There a Need to Destroy the De Sterre Forest in Ghent?
The University of Ghent saw that affordable housing in the city was an issue for its students. Rooms available to be rented out are way below the demand for them. This does not just affect students, but also the rest of the community in the city of Ghent.
Last year, the number of individuals on the waiting list for student housing increased by 30%. Without any available rooms to rent, students often choose to stay at home with their families.
Because of this, the university wants to take a more proactive approach to solving this problem. The construction of a new student home at De Sterre was proposed. It would increase the number of rooms available to students by 212. Additionally, the university plans to renovate the current accommodation.
“The expansion of affordable student housing thus meets an urgent and explicit demand from our students and provides an answer to the growing shortage of student housing in the city,” the statement released by the university reads.
No Other Alternative Location
However, the construction of the new student home would involve cutting down all of the trees in the De Sterre Forest in Ghent. The forest is 4,000 square meters in size, which is comparable to a small football playing field.
University authorities said that they thoroughly considered all alternatives regarding the location of the new building. But all other options were not suitable for this project. It had to be constructed beside the Bertha De Vriese home, which had already been accommodating students for years. Doing so will allow tenants of both student homes to share facilities.
“An alternative location on the campus is not feasible, partly because of the established ‘Green’ spatial implementation plan of the city of Ghent, the construction of a green-climate axis in De Pintelaan, through which access to the campus is fixed, the bundling of functions (education and research, housing and logistics) on campus and the necessary phasing of the works,” the university adds.
Despite this, the university created measures to offset the deforestation activities in the De Sterre Forest in Ghent. Trees would be planted in Zottegem and Lubbeek instead. The greenery within the campus will not be abandoned as well. Another forest will be developed in the area where the shooting range now stands, which is right at the heart of the campus.
The proposal for the construction of a new student home in such a location was not done without any consultations. They sought advice from the Social Council, the Building Committee, and local institutions.
In July 2021, the university was given a permit by local authorities in East Flanders to proceed with the project.
The Permit was Met with Much Opposition
Upon hearing that the proposal had been approved, many were quick to call off this initiative. The students and faculty members of the University of Ghent themselves, along with residents and organizations, were in opposition to the environmental permit that was granted.
The Natuur en Bos, or the Agency for Nature and Forests of the Flemish government, advised authorities against the actualization of the project. They said that there are still alternatives that can be considered instead of deforestation. Should the project be implemented, damage that could have been avoided will ensue.
Emmie Vanneste, one of the individuals behind Actiecomité De Sterre, said that “To be clear: we are absolutely not against a new student house, absolutely not. But it can also be put elsewhere. You don’t have to cut down a forest for that. We want to be constructive and discuss with UGent how things can be done differently.”
Because of the amount of opposition to the project, the application for the permit was evaluated again. It would be up to Minister Demir to make the final decision on whether the project would be approved or rejected.
An Environmental Permit will not be Granted to the University of Ghent
After about 8 months, the decision has been made. The environmental permit that was originally issued has been withdrawn. Minister Demir said that “the building plans state that old buildings will disappear. The university wanted to create a new forest there, so it seems much more logical to me to plan the new student rooms there.”
Permitting the construction to proceed will lead to avoidable damage to the environment. With the importance of forests in addressing climate change, a university can be at the forefront of protecting these areas, especially when there are alternatives that will not cause similar damage.
The University of Ghent will comply with the rejection of the proposal. But Rik Van de Walle, the rector of the university, calls on stakeholders to collaborate. It is only when they work together that the problem of insufficient housing for students can be addressed.