Cracks in the 'Grain Republic'

The fertile clay soils of the Netherlands have always been ideal terrain for raising livestock but, with the conquest of new lands from the sea, the province of Groningen two centuries ago became nothing less than the breadbasket of northern Europe.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
20 November 2023 Monday 09:28
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Cracks in the 'Grain Republic'

The fertile clay soils of the Netherlands have always been ideal terrain for raising livestock but, with the conquest of new lands from the sea, the province of Groningen two centuries ago became nothing less than the breadbasket of northern Europe. Today, 70% of its lands are still dedicated to agricultural production but in recent times the former Republic of grain has been in the news for other reasons, due to the consequences of the poisoned gift that was hidden under its endless fields of cereals: the largest mainland gas field.

After years of fighting with the administration to recognize the damage caused by the more than 1,600 earthquakes recorded in the area as a result of the exploitation of these deposits, citizen trust in institutions is at a minimum in this prosperous Dutch region, the epicenter also from protests over policies against climate change, which aim to reduce the total number of cattle by 30%. Many voters plan to make their displeasure heard in tomorrow's general election, the first since 2010 in which the liberal Mark Rutte does not stand.

“I still don't know who I'm going to vote for, but certainly not Mark Rutte's party,” says Fiona, a local official. One summer night, the house she had just bought in Huizinge woke up full of cracks after the big earthquake of 2012. When she called the state agency in charge of assessing damage caused by tremors in the region, they treated her like she was crazy, she says. She chose not to fight but other neighbors did and, a few years and several earthquakes later, they recognized that she was right and collected her compensation. “If this had happened in the randstad [the large conurbation in the center of the Netherlands] they would have closed the gas fields a long time ago,” she says.

Bas Pen, a neighbor of Overschild, has spent eight years fighting with the administration to gain access to public aid. His house, like 80% of the buildings in the town of 500 inhabitants, was demolished and they had to start from scratch. “It has been a tortuous process,” says this sixty-year-old, who arrived in the region 40 years ago, before the earth began to shake. After 60 years of operations, which have generated a total of 429,000 million euros in income for the state and the oil companies Shell and Exxon Mobile, the Government closed the gas tap on October 1 and has promised to seal the field within a year. ; The decision was made after the publication of a devastating parliamentary report that accused the different governments of having prioritized economic benefits over the well-being of citizens. “I wouldn't be surprised if they reactivated operations if they needed money,” says this computer scientist, who tomorrow will vote for the Socialist Party (ultra-left).

His neighbor, Geert De Vries, 72, a voter for the Animal Party (progressive), doubts it. "This was the first town where the administration began to evaluate the situation of the buildings, and the conclusion was that if it had to do the same in the entire province it would be unfeasible." The distribution of aid has caused friction between neighbors, since the division of the affected areas has led to some owners receiving more money. De Vries, a retired university researcher, feels “lucky.” He was able to build his new house on another part of his plot without leaving the old one, but many families had to move several years into temporary houses during the time the work lasted.

This is the case of Janneke, a retiree from Loppersum, the town most affected by the earthquakes, who has just opened her new home. “First they talked about changing the windows, then they said that everything had to be reinforced, and then that it was cheaper to build something new. It has been a very uncertain, exhausting time. When we got together with the neighbors we didn't know how to talk about anything else,” she remembers. She has her house but the nightmare is not over.

Loppersum, like all the towns around the gas field, is today a sea of ​​cranes, scaffolding and containers that barely reveal the Dutch countryside. “Everything is upside down. The tranquility of before has disappeared. There is noise constantly. There will be people making a lot of money from this, but for us it is a big nuisance,” comments this 67-year-old woman, who only knows that she is not going to vote for the VVD, the liberal party, which has led the last four governments. “Trust in the administration has disappeared. "I can't say that I look with confidence to the future."

Corine Visscher, owner of a small livestock farm in the neighboring town of Middlestun, has also lost some of her faith in public institutions but not because her farm, built 200 years ago, is full of cracks and surrounded by scaffolding, nor because her Family lives temporarily in a container while the works last. She is a civil servant and she has not had problems receiving public aid but she – she says – everything has come upon them “suddenly” and she feels that her work has stopped being a source of pride for her country.

“I don't want to sound arrogant but I think we have the best farmland in the world. We have been the breadbasket of Europe and it is normal that a large part of what we produce goes for export. We are a small country and we have very advanced technology. It is normal that we feed the world,” says Corinne at the gates of her farm, Dellehoeve, where there are a hundred head of cattle, and several dozen sheep and llamas.

“It takes 40 years to recover an investment, you cannot change the rules every 10 years. Furthermore, I am not convinced that farmers pollute," unlike what happens with low-cost flights, she points out. In March she voted for the Citizen Peasant Movement (BBB) ​​and tomorrow she will do so again. "It is very irritating that since La "They tell us how we have to live. They live in cities, in a bubble very different from our reality. How easy to tell us from Amsterdam that we do everything wrong."