Soil+Land Stewardship

Stewardship is framed in a soil care approach for responsible use and conservation of our soils as natural resources taking account of the full range of societal interests.

Soil+Land Stewardship offers an action perspective for soil care. Stewardship is based on the sustainable and balanced use of our natural resources, explicitly imposing accountability for the (future) society and the ecosystems on everyone who has a role in relation to these resources. Within the current challenges of societal transition to a low-emission, resource-efficient and circular economy, the safeguarding of soil health plays an intrinsic part and will need a broader societal shift that requires systemic changes to fundamental principles, including liability and property rights and social innovation to effect changes in producer and consumer behaviour.

To make this transition, new governance models involving multi-stakeholder and cross-value chain collaborations will have to ensure that the intended system change achieves better economic, environmental and social outcomes. Examples exist in the bringing together of different actors in the landscape (managing forests, agriculture, water, etc.) and in innovative approaches to urban developments and brownfield projects.

Preservation of soil health

How soil health can be preserved is as much a technical question (in other words, ‘knowledge’: as to what can be done in terms of sustainable soil management), as it is a question of meaning (i.e. ‘care’) and a question of what land managers and decision-makers consider worthwhile doing (i.e. getting ‘value’ from policy). Current sustainability challenges – including biodiversity loss, pollution and land-use change – require new ways of understanding, acting and caring in relation to soil and land.

The concept of stewardship is increasingly used in research, policy and practice to articulate and describe responses to these challenges. These responses are ways of dealing with the ethics of responsibility and liability for soil and land use and ownership, embedding care for soils into policy, raising understanding and awareness of sustainable soil treatment practices and, finally, of applying the expertise and science in the right narrative to give soil protection its place in legislation and policies. 

The Soil Decree

OVAM sees stewardship as a potential lever to activate and put into practice the responsibility for soil care. The Soil Decree already provides a strong basis for enhancing soil care in the form of the following, Flemish, soil legislation instruments, which could provide further leverage for Soil and Land Stewardship and more soil care:  

  • The obligatory exploratory soil investigation for potentially contaminated land that has not yet been investigated (Article 31 Flemish Soil Decree). This obligation is related to OVAM’s ambitious goal of remediating all historical soil contamination by 2036.  
  • The owner’s legal obligation to remediate soil contamination. Flemish soil legislation imposes legally binding ‘stewardship’, with soil remediation as a form of soil care, without prejudice to the polluter pays principle. The decree provides for a cascade arrangement for the identification of the polluter, whereby the owner also comes into the picture (and not only the operator who caused the pollution). More specifically, the Soil Decree (art. 11) imposes a legal, clean-up obligation on the owner of a plot of land on which soil contamination has occurred, even though the owner did not cause the pollution. The owner may also finance the clean-up and may recover his costs from the liable party (in line with the polluter pays principle).
    In this sense, the owner has a duty to deal with the soil contamination on his land (has a legal obligation to treat the soil contamination insofar as it poses a risk to people and the environment), even if the owner did not cause the contamination. This goes further than the Environmental Liability Directive, but is nevertheless in agreement with the Directive, as confirmed in a number of preliminary rulings of the European Court of Justice. This broader interpretation of the Environmental Liability Directive can be understood as a legal translation of Soil and Land Stewardship with severe responsibility for the owner. 
  • The Soil Decree is considerably stricter with regard to new soil pollution than historical soil pollution. This applies, among other things, to the remediation obligation. Unlike in the case of historical pollution, there is an automatic remediation obligation for new soil pollution. There are also stricter liability rules. This, stricter regulation of new soil contamination has an obvious preventive purpose.