Patricia de Ruijter
Patricia de Ruijter ©

Let's start a Zoöp! For more biodiversity

The T-Factor project researches the temporary use of an urban development area at the Amsterdam Science Park. Waag specifically focuses on ecology, and non-human entities such as plants and animals. Is a so-called Zoöp a way to embed ecology into urban development? Waag spoke to Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, researcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut, about this.

The challenge
As humans, we act upon, and speak up about the things that are important to us - or we let politicians, activists or unions represent our interests. But how do we incorporate the interests of animals, plants and microbes into all of these human narratives? The so-called 'Zoöp' could be a solution to this, and could help us rebuild nature and our relationships to it.

'The Zoöp is a new organisational model, and a new sort of legal entity,' says Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, researcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut. 'Zoöps want to give voice to the position of non-human life, and consecutively, contribute to ecological regeneration.'

How does it work?
Every organisation or foundation has a board. Together, its chairman, treasurer and board members decide on the directions the organisation will take, and they take care of practicalities. An organisation can turn into a Zoöp when a zoonotic representative is appointed. This person then serves the interests of non-human life in the operational efforts of the organisation. This way, non-human interests are always part of the decisions being taken.

The whole board needs to be willing to strive for ecological regeneration in the area controlled by the organisation. 'Everyone tries to look at the whole: the sanity of the collective body,' Klaas says. 'Ecological regeneration is about improving biodiversity and about multiplying life. This sets it apart from sustainability.'

Sustainability focuses on the limiting of negative human impact on nature - it works towards, for example, zero emission of CO2. Ecological regeneration goes further than this: it wants to give back more than it takes - and therefore it focuses on storing more CO2 than is expelled originally. Klaas: 'ecological regeneration ensures an active human role in fostering life.'


Boerderij Bodemzicht

Image: Regeneratieve Boerderij Bodemzicht

Take, for example, a community centre. It has a specific function, as it is a space where people can meet other people from their neighbourhood. Next to this, the community centre could be a Zoöp, if a seat on the board was appointed to a Zoöp representative. If one of the board members would propose to turn a fallow piece of land next to the centre into parking spaces for scooters and bikes, the Zoöp representative could point out the need to save the fallow land for the use of bees, butterflies and herb plants.

'Zoöps goes through yearly processes of four steps: they demarcate a piece of land; they observe which plants and animals live there as well as the kind of human organisation that is present; they explore what its interests are; and then they intervene when these interests are out of balance. For example: trees have specific interests, but so does the company that has its production buildings in the Zoöp area. Each year, the board implements one or more interventions that improve the life quality of non-human life in the Zoöp,' Klaas explains.

Humans fighting for non-humans
But: can human kind represent non-human species? If nature doesn't like its zoonotic representative, it can't protest. 'Well, representation is not a crazy idea, as democracy works with it, too,' Klaas says.

Image: Patricia de Ruijter

'The idea that the representation of non-human species is specifically hard, is based on the assumption that irreconcilable differences exist between human kind and non-human species,' he continues. 'People do not have the same bodies as non-human species. But it is certainly possible to learn how to empathise from a different sensorium. The special task of the zoonotic representative is not to take decisions on behalf of non-human species, but to ensure that there is space for them - a space where non-human species are able to choose for themselves.'

Mountain sues company
The idea of the Zoöp is inspired by three cases in New-Zealand. There, a river, a forest and a mountain gained legal status. In Maori culture, these entities of nature are considered to be living ancestors. And now, this has been captured in the law.

The river Whanganui in New Zealand has a legal status 

This means that a company that would pollute the mountain or the river, could be prosecuted in New-Zealand, by the legal status of these non-human enitites. 'The legal status protects the position of the mountain. But it is reactive by nature: the legal status is only used when someone has done something wrong,' Klaas says.

The possibility is provided that certain parts of nature in The Netherlands will also eventually gain legal status, just like the mountain in New Zealand. 'Take for example the unique nature reserve of the Dutch Wadden area. A Zoöp would ensure its legal status.' However, there's a difference from the New Zealand cases: a Zoöp is based on the assumption that non-human species already have rights, without having to change the law to make sure they have formal legal rights.

The Zoöp is therefore complementary to the idea of giving legal status to non-human entities. They add onto each other. 'A Zoöp is more pro-active and can work well for the ugly pieces of land next to highways, or worn out pieces of agricultural grounds, that would never gain legal status based on their unique biological qualities.'

A Zoöp at Amsterdam Science Park?
The T-Factor project has Waag researching the temporal use of urban development areas at the Amsterdam Science Park. In this case, establishing a Zoöp could be interesting. But how to go about this? 'For managing the grounds, a special foundation could be founded, with different interests being represented in it. In your case, call it the Amsterdam Watergraafsmeer Foundation,' says Klaas.

Amsterdam Science Park

'But: this means you need to have a say over the piece of land, and there needs to be a budget in order to be able to intervene. This means University of Amsterdam or the city of Amsterdam could be partners. In the board of the Amsterdam Watergraafsmeer Foundation, a zoonotic representative will take place next to the stakeholders. The zoonotic representative will, with his or her knowledge of ecology and organisation, and some artistic sensibility, represent the voice of nature in this area.'

Zoöps: helping to save the world (maybe, a little bit)
Klaas is not as naive as to think that Zoöps will save the world, but: 'they do help transform our logic. The goal is to create a culture of cooperation between humans and non-human species. At this very moment, there are fifteen organisations in The Netherlands that have already indicated they want to become a Zoöp.'

All these Zoöps to be have already practiced parts of the Zoöp thought, as did University College Uitrecht and Boerderij Bodemzicht in the Nijmegen area. At Boerderij Bodemzicht, two biologists brought overused farmland back to life within a year and a half. Klaas: 'the first endangered kinds of plants, animals and funghi are already coming back to that piece of land.' 

Image: Patricia de Ruijter

Further reading, watching and listening?




EU official flag

This project has received funding from the European Commission under the H2020-SC5-20-2019 call under Grant Agreement number 868887.