FRAMERIES, Belgium — In Belgium’s former coal-mining heartland, locals say the potato industry is the new top polluter.
Inhabitants of a small town in the French-speaking province of Hainaut are trying to stop one of the country’s largest potato processors from constructing a gigantic €300 million factory on their doorstep, which the company says will create hundreds of jobs in Belgium’s south, which has been economically hammered by deindustrialization.
A residents’ collective called Nature Without Frying has managed to delay Clarebout’s project, arguing the factory will bring bad smells, pollution, noise and precarious, unsafe employment. The campaigners’ dogged resistance has triggered a broader debate about whether Belgium’s gastronomic heritage is being forgotten in the increasing industrialization of modern food production. While Belgium may conjure up romantic images of moules-frites, the country is an industrial heavyweight when it comes to its starchy national staple, and is the world’s largest exporter of frozen fries.
“This site is not suitable for industry, not at all,” Florence Defourny, spokesperson of Nature Without Frying, told a 100-strong crowd who protested at the prospective site southwest of the city of Mons last weekend, to mark the International Day of Peasant Struggle.
Supporting her were dozens of NGOs, from Oxfam to Greenpeace, and other activists who banged drums, planted organic potatoes and erected tents in the lush green fields next to the industrial park where Clarebout already operates a potato storage facility.
Defourny is a 40-year-old careers adviser who has lived on a nearby street for the past two years. She said the factory would be built right next to houses, many of which bear posters protesting against the project in their front windows.
She described Clarebout’s frozen potato products, which vary from curly fries to potato wedges and are marketed in supermarkets by private brands, as “junk food.”
Raphaël Tassart, Clarebout’s spokesperson, described as “false” the assertion that the company pollutes at the two processing factories it currently operates in Belgium, in Nieuwkerke and Warneton. “We undergo checks and we are on the side of nature,” he told POLITICO.
But the protesters insist they are trying to protect something more than their own back gardens and are questioning the way food is produced.
“At the very start, we were against Clarebout, but today we are against any industrial model that would completely damage our environment and which doesn’t fit with our values,” Defourny told the socially-distanced crowd through a microphone.
Manuel Eggen, a policy officer for the food and human rights NGO FIAN, said Belgium’s historic tradition of small-scale potato farming and double-fried artisanal frites has been hijacked by a handful of potato barons.
Eggen said Clarebout’s potato empire was the “symbol” of a ravenous industrial system that seeks to export ever-larger quantities of standardized Belgian oven fries to consumers around the globe.
Belgium’s global supremacy in frozen exports means 90 percent of spuds are sold overseas. According to a report Eggen penned on the Belgian potato sector, Clarebout would become the world’s biggest potato processor if the Frameries factory is built.
“The model of the small, artisanal production and processing can no longer survive in this context,” he said.
In the spotlight
Energetic activists descended on the down-at-heel town of Frameries last weekend, where the front gardens lining the road to Clarebout’s warehouses are filled with a mixture of junk, gnomes, stone lions and Belgian beer paraphernalia.
The commune was making headlines again amid a national reassessment about the impact Belgium’s quest for ever more fries is having on its citizens.
An investigative documentary, shown on national television last month, featured the testimony of a former Clarebout employee, who said the working conditions in one of its factories were extremely dangerous.
Two workers have died in Clarebout’s Warneton factory. Tassart, the spokesperson, told POLITICO this was “sad and regrettable” but remained isolated incidents in an over 25-year history. “Everything is done to improve the working conditions.”
It’s not just the workers operating machinery on the factory floor who are at risk, NGOs say. Antoine Van Hyfte, a retired farmer who cultivated 140 hectares of potato fields in Wallonia, said farmers are locked into unfair contracts with large companies like Clarebout and even have to buy potatoes from elsewhere to meet the processors’ required quotas if the harvests are bad.
The Nature Without Frying collective is now trying to secure a hearing with regional MPs in the Wallonian parliament, having handed in a petition against the factory signed by some 2,500 people at the start of the year. Defourny wants politicians to revoke the prospective building site’s status as an industrial area, meaning no factory can be built there.
According to Defourny, Clarebout initially told residents that it aimed to finish constructing the factory by early 2020, and she added that there was a chance that Nature Without Frying could get the plans blocked indefinitely.
But she also admitted that a win for her collective might just mean Clarebout builds the factory in another part of the country.
“It’s extremely complicated because if they decide to modify a site, they are going to choose another one. So it’s a bit like chucking the rotten potato to someone else. And that’s really not what we want either.”
Clarebout’s Tassart said the company has not yet handed in its official application to build the factory to the Wallonian authorities, even though it is “written and completed” and “ready.” He also said there is no date in the diary for doing so.
But he said this was not “necessarily” due to the pushback from locals, and added: “The nature of the project in its general outlines remains the same.”
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