First National Report of Belgium
to the Convention on Biological Diversity


1. Introduction

1.1. Geographical notes

Belgium is situated in the west of Europe, bordered by the North Sea, the Netherlands, Germany, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and France, from 51 30' N to 49 30' N, and from 2 33' E to 6 24' E. Although its surface area of 30,528 km2 makes it a small country, its location favoured its past and actual position of economic and urban nerve centre of Europe.

Belgium has a mild temperate wet climate, the south-eastern parts of the country (High Ardennes, Eifel) nevertheless display features of a slightly more continental and tougher climate. Belgium offers a diversity of sites and landscapes due to its very long, eventful geological history, as well as the widely varying - at first glance almost imperceptible - climatic conditions from one region to another.

At the end of 1996 Belgium had a population of 10,170,000 people. Since then the population density has achieved 333 inhabitants per square kilometer which makes Belgium, together with the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Evidently, population density is unequally distributed among big cities and country side (81% of Belgians live in cities). Population is furthermore concentrated in Lower and Middle Belgium with a density range of 100 to 333 inhab./km2, while in Upper Belgium the density is inferior to 50 inhab./km2. Like in most European countries, population growth is very low: the birth rate was estimated at 11.36 per 1,000 inhabitants for a death rate of 10.27. Infant mortality is one of the lowest of Europe with 0.561 per 1,000 inhabitants (data for 1996).

The gross national product (GNP) of Belgium for 1996 amounts to 8,248 billions BEF and the net national income to 6,732.8 billions BEF. The greatest part of the GNP comes from the tertiary sector, employing the largest part of the working population.

1.2. Landscape diversity

Geographically Belgium shows three major areas: Lower Belgium (up to 100 m above sea level), Middle Belgium (between 100 and 200 m above sea level) and Upper Belgium (from 200 to over 500 m above sea level). Lower Belgium starts in the west at the coast, with beaches and dunes which extend in a straight line for 66.5 km; it has been in continuous urbanisation for decades because of popular tourism. The particular geological conditions include highly permeable calcareous dune sand, sometimes loose and mobile, a water layer with very pure and hard water. The physical environment is also characterized by powerful wind and high precipitation and therefore sustains a very original flora. Inland from the coast lie the ‘polders'. These polders are recent, clayey sea deposits which have been laid below the level of the highest tides and only the dune belt, together with dykes, prevent them from being washed over by the sea. This flat and fertile land suffered from flooding by the sea in the past but is now totally dry, thanks to the sluices which protect it from tidal erosion. This plain is sporadically peppered with rather elongated sandy decalcified hillocks which run parallel to former coastlines. Between the western polders, the Leie and the Scheldt, lie the Flemish lowlands, a sandy region with local hills such as the Kemmelberg and the Kluisberg. This region is characterized by surface sand deposits from the Pleistocene. The Kempen are situated in the east of Lower Belgium. The soil in the Kempen is poor and the landscape comprises fir woods, heathlands, ponds and marshes. The soil of the Kempen Plateau consists of gravel and sand deposits washed along by the river Meuse in wide banks during the Quaternary. The Kempen lowlands, which cover the greatest part of this region, have a soil of Quaternary surface sand.

Behind the Flemish lowlands and the Kempen, gradually rising to the Sambre and Meuse valleys, lies Middle Belgium, with its low and very fertile clay plateaus. The soil of this central region consists of Quaternary loess. The heavily urbanized Brabant has its own lush green carpet, the Forest of Soignes, a forest area and a remnant of the earlier Forest of Cologne, which covered a large part of the country in Roman times. Furthermore, Middle Belgium boasts Hainaut in the west and Hesbaye in the east, both fertile areas with large farms and extensive fields and pastures. The soil of the Hainaut is characterized, in the north by deposits of Quaternary eolian sand, in the south by Cretaceous chalk (loam-chalk basin of Mons). To the east, the Sambre Country is characterized by a complex and undulating geological structure. Mining heaps dominate, among Tertiary clay and sand, limestone and carboniferous dolomites, modern alluvial deposits, all covered with discontinuous loam deposits. In the east, the Meuse valley forms the Meuse country, crossing the provinces of Namur and Liège with numerous calcareous rocks.

Upper Belgium, the most sparsely populated and densely wooded part of the country, begins south of the Sambre and the Meuse at the Condroz plateau, a fertile area primarily seen as a tourist attraction considering the valleys of the Meuse and the Ourthe and its numerous historical monuments. Between the Vesder and the Meuse lies the Country of Herve which due to its rich clay soil is suitable for grazing and cattle rearing. To the south of the Meuse, lies the Condroz, with a geological substrate consisting of a series of foldings in the calciferous soil of the Famenne Region; erosion has made depressions in the limestone and carved reliefs in harder rocks. The ground of the Condroz is in general covered with a layer of lime. This geological variety is accompanied by an equally characteristic vegetation. Down south lies the area of Fagnes and Famenne, a poor agricultural region, well-known for its many caves, the most interesting examples being those at Han-sur-Lesse and Remouchamps. This region has a schist substrate low in lime with thinner occasionnal layers of loam. The Fagne-Famenne Depression is a clayey depression caused by erosion in the very soft shales of the Famenne and the region around Fagne. In the south the schist region of the Fagne is dominated by limy hillocks from the Devonian of the Calestine strip. Further to the south are the Ardennes, a region alternating between a magnificent, wooded area with natural beech forests and specially grown fir trees, plateaus and deep valleys. The high plateaus of the Ardennes which are formed by hard, tartish rocks and exposed to a harsh, rainy climate feature a particular flora. Its still semi-wild environment makes it an ecotourist attraction because of access to vast protected forest areas. The southernmost part of the country, the Belgian Lorraine, has a milder climate than the rest of the country.

1.3. Biological diversity

The diversity of the physical environment has resulted in an equally great biological diversity. Botanists, for example, have identified no less than eight phytogeographic districts, a very high number, indeed, for such a small country.

The vast majority of components of the actual fauna and flora, roughly estimated at more than 40,000 species, colonised Belgium after the last glaciation, some 12,000 years ago. Some glacial relict components of biological diversity did remain in the Upper Ardennes; most however have disappeared in very recent times or are highly threatened today. The first Neolithic farmers settled in the very fertile Middle Belgium, some 10,000 years ago, at times of the emergence of the actual fauna and flora. It is clear that the biological diversity of Middle Belgium has always been highly influenced and conditioned by the agro-pastoral practices occurring since the Neolithics. However, more recently, a 1,000 year old human intervention, especially through agricultural and forestry developments, radically modified the natural landscapes of Belgium and its biological diversity. Moreover, during the last 100 years, wildlife, plants, and ecological processes have been threatened by pollution of water, air and soils. From 1950-60 onwards intensive agricultural practices based on monoculture, sustained by pesticides and fertilizers, have endangered the components of biological diversity of the previous semi-natural agricultural ecosystems. Moreover reduction in the overall size of nature areas and their fragmentation has rapidly increased as a result of urban expansion and road construction. During the past four decades a significant number of wild species has disappeared. This is particularly well-documented for higher plants, vertebrates, various insect groups, spiders and non-marine molluscs. In recent years however a recovery of formerly declining populations in various groups has been observed, most probably as a result of many conservation regulations and actions.

1.4. Political framework

Belgium gained its independence in 1830. In recent years, the country has rapidly evolved, through four sets of institutional reforms (in 1970, 1980, 1988-89 and 1993) into a federal structure. As a result, the first article of the Belgian Constitution states today: "Belgium is a Federal State which consists of Communities and Regions".

The redistribution followed two broad lines. The first concerning linguistic matters and, more broadly, everything relating to culture. It gave rise to the Communities, a concept which refers to cultural bounds such as language. Belgium is situated at the junction between the Germanic and Latin languages: Dutch, French and German. Thus Belgium has three Communities today, based on language: the Flemish Community, the French Community and the German-speaking Community. These correspond to population groups.

Fig. 1.1. Belgium, a Federal State which consists of Communities and Regions.

The second main line of the State reform is historically inspired by economic concerns, expressed by Regions who wanted to have more autonomous power. This gave rise to the founding of three Regions: the Flemish Region, the Brussels Capital Region and the Walloon Region. To some extent Belgian Regions are similar to the American States or the German ‘Länder'. The country is further divided into 10 provinces (since 1 January 1995) and 589 communes or cities.

Because of this state reform Belgium has a very distinct and unusual character. Under the level of the Federal Government are situated two lower, subordinate levels of government: that of the Regions and that of the Communities, each with their own parliament and government. The six different authorities [the Federal State, the Flemish Region (same authority as the Flemish Community), the Walloon Region, the Brussels Capital Region, the French Community and the German-speaking Community] all have private, well-defined sets of competences. The ‘legislation' adopted at the different levels is considered legally equal. Since 1980, nature conservation has been a shared responsibility of the Federal Government and the Regions. The succeeding constitutional changes included an even more comprehensive transfer of environmental competences to the Regions.

The Federal State level retains important areas of competence including: foreign affairs, defense, justice, finances, social security, important sectors of public health and domestic affairs, etc. The Regions are competent in the fields of nature and water management, land zoning and nature conservation, spatial planning and public works. This covers important parts of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Other competences of the Regions are related to housing, agricultural policy, economy, energy management, local authorities, employment, transport, research and development. Furthermore the Regions and Communities are entitled to run foreign relations in those areas where they are competent.

Although the nature conservation policy is mostly a regional matter, co-ordination bodies, under the authority of the Federal State Secretary for the Environment, are in charge of its international aspects. For environmental matters the federal co-ordinating body is the Co-ordinating Committee for International Environmental Policy (CCIEP), composed by representatives of all the federal and regional competent administrations. This body functions under the high level authority of the Interministerial Conference for the Environment (ICE), chaired by the Federal State Secretary for Environment.

1.5. The Convention on Biological Diversity

Belgium signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on 5 June 1992, the first day of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro). Due to the fourth set of the institutional reform (1993) the ratification process was complex. The instrument of ratification of Belgium was deposited at the United Nations in New York on 22 November 1996. Belgium became hence a Contracting Party to the Convention on that day. In pursuance with Art. 36, point 3, of the Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity entered into force for Belgium on 20 February 1997.

In July 1995, the CCIEP designated the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) as the National Focal Point for the follow-up of the CBD. One of the priorities was the setting up of a Belgian Clearing-House Mechanism. It was launched on the Internet on 7 October 1996. For all matters related to the Biosafety Protocol the Scientific Institute of Public Health - L. Pasteur was designated as the National Focal Point. A proper website was launched on the Internet at the end of 1997. (See also chapter 8).

Several steering committees are currently operating under the direct authority of the CCIEP, one of these is the Steering Committee ‘Biodiversity Convention'. The terms of reference for this steering committee, priority was given to the preparation of the First National Report and to the preparation of a Country Study on Biological Diversity.

1.6. Overview of competent federal bodies

As mentioned above, the implementation of article 6 of the Convention on Biological Diversity is mostly a Regional competence. The objectives, strategies and action plans of the Regions are developed in their respective chapters. However, several federal bodies also have an important role in the achievement of the aims of the Convention. These federal bodies are mainly the Ministry for Social Affairs, Public Health and Environment, the Ministry for Scientific Policy, the Ministry for Small Enterprises, Traders and Agriculture and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Co-operation.

The Ministry for Social Affairs, Public Health and Environment has a number of competences related to the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity. In the field of environmental matters, the Ministry is in charge of the elaboration of norms to which goods and products have to comply in order to be allowed on the market (including ecolabels). The impact assessment on biological diversity will be one of the criteria for the evaluation and the risk reduction of the use of chemical products, including pesticides, and will be inserted in the federal legislation shortly. Also under the authority of this Ministry, the Scientific Institute of Public Health - Louis Pasteur (IPH), formerly Institute for Hygiene and Epidemiology, is in charge of the scientific support to the federal biosafety policy. The Section of Biosafety and Biotechnology of the IPH was designated Belgian Focal Point for Biosafety under the CBD (see also 8.3.).

The Ministry for Scientific Policy is in charge of the scientific aspects of sustainable development at the federal level and of the implementation of the international obligations contracted during the Rio Conference on Environment and Development. Its administration, the Federal Office for Scientific, Technical and Cultural Affairs (OSTC), has launched and is managing a long-term plan for scientific support of the federal sustainable development policy. This plan, based upon a budget of 3 billion BEF, assures the financing of research activities and makes 156 million BEF available for the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, inter alia through the programs Global Change, North Sea, Telsat and Antarctica.

In addition to a number of research contracts depending on this plan, the Ministry overarches ten scientific institutions, including the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) (see also 1.5., 7.3., 7.4. and 8.1). These institutions represent an important part of the Belgian scientific expertise in the field of biological diversity, namely in taxonomy, systematics, ecology and nature conservation, necessary for the implementation of the first objective of the Convention, at a Belgian as well as at an international scale. The protection and the sustainable development of the North Sea ecosystem is entirely a federal competence. The leading role is played by the Management Unit of the Mathematical Models of the North Sea and the Scheldt Estuary, from 01.01.98 onwards a new department of the RBINS (see also chapter 5).

The Ministry for Small Enterprises, Traders and Agriculture is in charge of the follow-up of FAO activities, inter alia the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IUPGR) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and possesses its own research centres such as the Agricultural Research Centres at Gembloux (CRA) and at Ghent (CLO), the Centre of Agricultural Economics (CAE), the Sea Fisheries Department (DZ) and the National Botanic Garden (NBGB) (see also 7.3).

The P 62 Service of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Co-operation assures the political follow-up of the international agreements contracted by Belgium, including the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Belgian Agency for Development Co-operation assures among others the Belgian financial contribution to the GEF (see also chapter 6).

The implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity is a very complex matter, with many cross-sectoral issues, and needs a good interdepartmental co-ordination and multidisciplinary approach. The federal law of 5 May 1997 allowed the creation and the functioning of the Federal Council for Sustainable Development and of an Interdepartmental Commission in charge of making a federal plan for sustainable development (Dutch - French). It is obvious that the set up, at the federal level, of a strategy for the conservation and the sustainable use of biological diversity will take place within the framework of this plan.


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