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EVANA Interview with Tobias Leenaert from EVA, Belgium:
'We know that people’s awareness of the issues concerning meat (and especially the global warming impact) is rising'
On 13 May 2009, Tom Balthazar, councilman for the health and environmental committee of Ghent, initiated the “Thursday Veggie Day” campaign, which has been organised in cooperation with the organization EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative). Almost immediately after distribution of the press release announcing the weekly meatless days, an international reaction set in which even the organizers may not have expected.
We wanted to know more about this amazing new project and asked Tobias about details regarding the campaign background, its preparation and the worldwide echo.
15 May 2009
EVANA: Tobias, first of all we would like to congratulate you and your organization on this overwhelming success of the new “Thursday Veggie Day” campaign. Did you expect this enormous level of international attention?
TOBIAS LEENAERT: Not at all. I thought that, if we’d ever do an international press release, it should be now, because it really was a very new and original thing, but I never expected this kind of attention.
QUESTION: Do you think that the amazing media frenzy could have something to do with the fact that people everywhere have been waiting for courageous politicians to take the lead in meatless initiatives? Can you tell us a bit about more about the reactions?
ANSWER: We know that people’s awareness of the issues concerning meat (and especially the global warming impact) is rising, and yes, perhaps many of them realize that something really serious needs to happen, and that it can only be fastened by some political courage.
The reactions we are getting are wonderful. There’s not just the worldwide press attention, but there’s also congratulations from groups and individuals from all over the world. People say they are inspired to imitate this idea, and that was actually our point with the press release. I think it’s great that we showed that something like this is possible, and this precedent will make it easier for other groups and cities to do the same.
QUESTION: How did the project come about? Who had the idea? How long was the preparation phase?
ANSWER: Our Thursday Meatout campaign has been running for a year and a half now. We arrived at the idea of a weekly meatout by ourselves I believe, but later found out there’s already meatless Mondays and meatout Mondays in the US.
QUESTION: How did you manage to get such a constructive first contact with the administration of Ghent? Was there immediate official interest or did you have a lot of convincing to do?
ANSWER: Well, what helped was that last year, we managed to convince IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri to come to Ghent (we just asked him, if you want to know how we did that), where he talked for the very first time at length about meat and global warming. Tom Balthazar, the councilman responsible for the environment, was there, and he got more and more convinced after that. We made contact with two of his staff who were also enthusiastic, and we suggested that they asked Balthazar if he would be prepared to officially proclaim Thursdays to be veggie days.
We’re also proud to say that Dr. Pachauri got inspired by our veggie day idea and has been spreading it around the world.
QUESTION: But maybe some of the politicians are already vegetarians which helped to build up this constructive cooperation?
ANSWER: Not at all. Ghent, however, is a very vegetarian friendly city. We have 13 veg restaurants on a population of 240.000 people, which is better than any western city I know of.
QUESTION: Are your political partners mainly from the public health sector or are also experts on ecology involved?
ANSWER: Tom Baltazar, the councilman, is actually responsible for the four domains that we usually name as the four good reasons to be a vegetarian: health, environment, animal welfare and north-south relationships. So he was the one we had to get to.
QUESTION: One German paper declared Ghent as ‘capital of vegetarians’. Your officials must be most pleased about this kind of PR for their city?
ANSWER: Yes, they seem thrilled. Actually I just heard the mayor on the radio and he pretended the campaign was all part of his big city marketing plan :-)
QUESTION: Are there any plans for veg* tourists who want to take part in the Ghent meatless Thurdays?
ANSWER: I hope they can read our Dutch vegetarian map of the town. It shouldn’t be that difficult. But they can always contact us as well.
QUESTION: Can you tell us a bit more about the ‘vegetarian capital’? How did this amazing variety of vegetarian shops and eateries come about?
ANSWER: Actually, I don’t really know. It IS a progressive city though, with a very high number of students.
QUESTION: What cities have made inquiries with the idea of implementing meatless days themselves?
ANSWER: In Belgium a couple so far (Hasselt and Merelbeke). The Greens will submit a proposal for Leuven. We were emailed by Germans, by Animal Aid and Peta UK for more information because they may have plans of their own.
QUESTION: What is your advice for every vegetarian organization interested in following EVA’s example to establish decisive contacts with the world of decision makers?
ANSWER: The climate is good for vegetarianism (no pun intended), but on the other hand, as an organisation you need to be credible. I think we are also the only vegetarian organisation in the world which is structurally funded by its national government (we started as a volunteer organisation and got funding later – we are entirely independent, mind you). We have worked for years on a credible and professional image. It helps to not be an animal rights organisation, as mainstream organisations and institutions are more likely to be interested in health and environmental arguments.
QUESTION: Does EVA work everywhere in your country? If not, are there plans to widen its scope so that similar arrangements can be made in other Belgian regions as well?
ANSWER: We definitely want to widen the scope and get as many cities involved as possible, and who knows, perhaps we may have a national weekly vegetarian day sometime. For now, our work area is Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium).
EVANA: Tobias, we at EVANA cross our fingers that this great initiative will flourish and expand in the years to come, and I thank you very much for having taken the time to answer our questions.
EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative) − Belgium
Tobias Leenaert, EVA vzw,
++32 (0) 494 64.69.38 or ++ 32 (0) 9 329 68 51.
Note: EVANA will make an effort to compile the reference list of articles etc. in our respective nine language sections.
Source: EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative) − Belgium
Author: Herma Caelen spoke with Tobias Leenaert
Link: CNN: Belgian city goes meat-free
Link: EVA: Questions and Answers regarding the campaign
Link: EVA: Reaching everybody = Campaigning for one vegetarian day per week
Link: Ghent goes vegetarian - If somewhere in the UK were to go vegetarian for one day a week, where would it be?
Link: Thursday Is Veggiedag in Ghent, Belgium
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