Belgium’s envoy to PHL puts emphasis on exports, the environment, energy creation, education, etc.

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A TINY nation deep in Europe’s heartland, Belgium packs a wallop—economically speaking—and leads the world in many aspects of human progress.

These include inventions, art, culture, and science and technology, among many others.  

At 31,000 square kilometer, the country is one-third the size of Luzon Island, with a population of only 11.35 million. By comparison, the Philippines has around 105 million citizens; yet Belgium’s gross domestic product per capita in 2017 was $44,000, compared to the former’s measly $3,000.

Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to the Philippines Michel Goffin, speaking in an exhibit of the embassy

Ask an ordinary Filipino what springs to mind when “Belgium” is mentioned, and the usual reply would be associated with chocolates, or waffles, or perhaps a breed of dog. (It is said that French fries is a contribution of the European country to the culinary world, despite the association of its neighbor in the name.–Ed.)

Speaking of which, the first evidence of chocolate production in Belgium dates back to 1635. Today, its capital city Brussels produces more than 173,000 tons of the confectionery yearly, and is sold in about 2,000 local shops.

One of its famous nationals is Roman Catholic priest-cum-scientist Georges Lemaître, who is credited for having forwarded the idea of the universe’s origin from a cataclysmic primordial atomic explosion; thus, the Big Bang Theory. Also a mathematician, astronomer and professor of Physics at the Catholic University of Louvain, he was one of the first to propose on theoretical grounds that the universe is continuously expanding (later confirmed by American astronomer Edwin Hubble).

The name Belgium came from the province north of Gaul, Gallia Belgica, after its previous inhabitants, the Celtic and German Belgae. It carries as official name the “Kingdom of Belgium,” known by the country’s three official languages: Koninkrijk België (Dutch), Royaume de Belgique (French) and Königreich Belgien (German). King Philippe is its current monarch. It is also the incumbent seat of the headquarters of the European Union.

While all these information were culled from the Internet, Ambassador Michel Goffin volunteered many more gems about his country during the launch of fellow Belgian Renilde Vervoort’s handcrafted jewelry at his Manila residence last week.

The dapper envoy said he aims to spread Belgium’s many cultural achievements, and in the coming months promised to “get some painters and artists [from my homeland to come over here]—aside from good food and good drinks.”

The reason for having Belgian artists as guests, he opined, is that “the artist would be able to explain art,” which he admitted is “really hard to understand.”

An artist Goffin had in mind to lecture on art is Alexan Ravandia, a Belgian painter who is now residing in the Philippines.

“He has so many [works] featuring the skylines of Manila, which are really nice,” he gushed.

The next event the Belgian envoy is earmarking is a festival of pianists who will perform in his residence, as he confessed that he also plays the keyboard, “although not very good…” was his humble remark (typical of Europeans for “not blowing their horns”).

The multitalented diplomat actually holds a master’s degree in Musicology, Philosophy and International Relations from the University of Louvain-la-Neuve in his homeland.

Goffin volunteered that last year they organized a nine-day piano masterclass festival, which brought artists from the US and Europe to the country. He offered that he is personally teaching piano to “very competent, young Filipino pianists” who are 18 years old and above.

“I was surprised to see so many young pianists in the Philippines; they’re so good,” he said, then whispered to our group that some of the learners are “better than the teacher,” again downplaying his accomplishments.

People exchanges from way back

PRIOR to his current posting, Goffin was director general for Political Affairs at the Belgian Foreign Ministry, and also served as head of mission of the EU Delegation to Lao PDR, ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and counselor at the Belgian representation to the United Nations.

In between these assignments, he had served at the UN and the Global Affairs Directorate of the Belgian Foreign Ministry.

Apart from people-to-people exchanges, the Belgian diplomat said he would like to increase the tourist flow between Manila and Brussels, the added that as far as his countrymen are concerned, “we started a long time ago; many Filipinos admit that they studied under Belgian priests or nuns [of] CICM.”

(The CICM Missionaries [Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae, or the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary], is a Roman Catholic missionary religious congregation of men established in 1862 by Belgian Catholic priest Theophiel Verbist [1823–1868]).

Belgium’s top diplomat to the Philippines related that Belgian priests in Northern Luzon have started a creative school and university.

“A lot of people have very strong links with Belgians, [or] have studied in Belgium. And lots of Belgians live here, [where] they think the weather is a little bit better,” he admitted of the balmy tropical setting as the magnet to relocate here, diametrically opposed to the bitter cold of European winters.

“Sometimes they reinvent their lives: they divorce their wife, remarry, then invest here,” the diplomat explained.

(Which made this reporter reflect that despite their wealth and advanced economy, the Filipinos’ disarming smile and friendly mien, the all-year-round sunshine, sometimes punctuated by typhoons, and the generally peace-loving nature of our compatriots have made many expatriates and strangers barter their original hearth and home for the simple joys of living among us: materially poor maybe, but rich in laughter and humanity.)

In 2017 Manila welcomed at least 15,000 visitors from Brussels. While this keeps “increasing,” the Philippines’s brand as a trove of beautiful tourist sites is little known in Brussels.

“The Philippines should be much more promoted in Belgium and in Europe, because everyone knows Thailand. We [are starting] to know Indonesia, but [to us, your country] is still very far. There’s a big market out there [for you],” he said.

The envoy also noted then the need to improve infrastructure in the country, specifically the connectivity between some island provinces.

“Really, you have beautiful places but even for me, [they’re too] difficult to reach. There’s no train and no public transport. Crossing islands on a ferry is [a challenge]. You should really improve [on] infrastructure,” he stressed.

Business with Brussels

THE BusinessMirror inquired about the health of the trade relations between Manila and Brussels. Goffin said: “Very good. We buy dried fruit and everything you export.”

On the other hand, he described Brussels’s exports to Manila, which include machines and pork that, before the outbreak of the African swine flu (ASF) epidemic, “was a lot—including tons and tons of pork skin [or rind].”

“We used to export a lot of pork meat. You are probably the only country importing pork skin. We don’t eat skin,” he admitted. He said Belgium exports pork meat and skin (which import papers classify as “offal”) about 13,000 tons in 2017, but went down to 6.5 tons in 2018 following the ban due to the ASF.

However, when pointed out that pork skin or rind is the source of the crunchy snack chicharon (chitlins or cracklings, in some English-speaking countries), and the powdered form are used as noodle recipe ingredients, Goffin confessed: “It is very good; I like them,” but warned to go easy on them because, “[they’re not good for health.]”

“Eat in moderation…” was his sagely advice.

Brussels earlier had urged Manila to lift the blanket ban on pork and offal since it was imposed last year. Belgian traders have lost €4 million due to the trade restriction. Instead, the ambassador noted of the embassy’s urge to agriculture officials to just restrict pork products from affected areas in Belgium.

Goffin said ASF struck mostly wild boars in the southern region of Wallonia in Belgium. Pork for domestic consumption and the export market, he noted, is produced in Flanders in the north. He added Belgian authorities have already culled all domestic pigs and wild boars in ASF-affected areas, and that the virus has not spread in the northern region.

“We can say now it has been contained, and no ASF [infections have been observed] outside the zone. We are asking the Philippines to lift the country embargo, because it is unfair,” he pointed out.

Wind, turbine power

AS we engaged in a very casual question-and-answer atmosphere, Goffin was quizzed if any official delegation from Brussels would drop by in the coming days to offer some more investments. But he furtively expressed the belief that an official visit may not be that effective, as he notes “a lot of interests exist between our two countries, though we don’t have a ministers’ visit.”

“We have a lot of young, dynamic industries that are interested in the Philippine market,” he revealed, “especially in sustainable energies like wind, solar and hydro power.”

According to the good ambassador, Belgium is a leading technology source, with fellow Belgians selling wind turbines “that can fold [under] 10 minutes when there’s a typhoon, so it won’t [undergo] damage. When the typhoon passes, it’s up again in 10 minutes, and back on the grid.”

Being familiar with the country’s geography, the envoy said the foldable wind turbines would be sold in very remote areas in Batanes, “because it’s really windy [there].”

He said the Belgian government would soon announce the final decision on where to install some of these folding wind turbines.

“Even better, I’m hoping the decision will come [early this March], because the Belgian government will give money to the government that sells the first [units] of the folding wind turbine.”

Goffin made it clear that Belgium would offer about €700,000 ($791,000, or about P41 million) to be given as seed money to a municipality that will start the folding wind turbine business rolling in the country.

“Because we believe [that] in the Philippines, there’s a lot of potential for that kind of technology,” the Belgian diplomat pronounced.

To further impress prospective buyers, he revealed that the turbines are also battery-powered for day-and-night operations, with or without much driving wind.

“Is the folding windmill patented?” this reporter asked, anticipating that other manufacturers could easily copy the invention.

“I’m sure it [is, because] it’s very simple,” he added. He then alluded to its resiliency versus Typhoon Ompong that recently ravaged Northern Luzon.

The envoy said he visited the province of Isabela and witnessed the destruction wrought by the howler there. However, he said that since the country has a good weather-forecasting center, the folding wind turbine operator could be immediately alerted of a coming typhoon for proper response, depending on the typhoon’s velocity and direction.

“Whether it is Signal No. 1, 2 or higher, the thing can fold in 10 minutes. After the typhoon passes, [it can] go back up,” as he demonstrated with his hands how the turbine would rise up from its resting position.

Aside from turbine, Goffin said Belgium also sells irrigation-related machineries like solar-powered water pumps.

He volunteered that there are currently areas in the country where a Belgium-based water pump company actively demonstrates the product, “as requested by the DA. It irrigates rice fields using the energy of the sun.”

The ambassador named the company as “Turbulent.” “It generates hydroelectric energy from the turbulence in small rivers. It’s super, micro-hydro-power is ideal for homes of little farms.”

Goffin said Belgian companies have focused on providing the aforementioned high-tech, leading-edge technology from Brussels, because they are aware that this country has many isolated islands: “Most of them are dependent on diesel generators where they get the energy, but nowadays there are other options to feed the energy demand of the Philippines.”

These power companies have also specialized in undersea cables able to connect islands. “For example, you [may] have in Luzon a big energy plant, [but] you need to feed all these [other] islands through underwater energy cables to connect and create a network.”

“Because there’s no network in the Philippines,” he bluntly exclaimed, then emphasized the need for energy networks or electricity networks.

He said a “smart” network would be able to determine which islands in the Visayas or Mindanao are in need of power. “[It] would be able to see where the demand is high, then compute everything and regulate. But that isn’t happening in the Philippines.”

Environmental advocate

TO answer the need for cleaning our polluted lakes and rivers, the Belgian diplomat revealed that his country also sells machines to dredge rivers and lakes.

“They’re very active in the Philippines,” a reference to Goffin’s compatriot-investors marketing dredgers. He looks forward to the day that some fellow Belgian-businessmen would pay him a visit to take advantage of his geographical grasp of this country and “inquire which river needs dredging.”

He said garbage disposal is not only a problem in the Philippines but in other countries in Asia, as well. But “if the Philippines is unable to keep its tourist destinations clean, then citizens from Europe, the United States and China would no longer come to fuel your tourism boom.”

“Your [seas] and rivers are full of junk and garbage. We do not want to see that. We really need to clean [them] and the beaches.”  

A true believer in the UN, multilateral affairs and in an international rules-based order, Goffin remonstrated about the garbage situation in the country, particularly metropolitan Manila.

“The garbage problem is not only seen in the Philippines. It’s also in Thailand and Indonesia. Bali is very dirty, [and the Thai government] has also closed some of their resorts where there is a need for radical change.”

He went on to say: “Europeans, Americans, the Chinese…they will not come if your [waters are] dirty. Why would they in the first place? It’s already clean in Europe. Not totally clean, but you don’t see tires, plastic bottles and plastic bags [in the rivers and oceans].”

By way of example, the diplomat noted of his shopping in high-end local groceries. Shop attendants would at once wrap things he bought, which were already in plastic, to be placed in plastic bags once more.

He asked the attendants not to waste any more plastics as he brought his own disposable and biodegradable shopping bag with him. Attendants would shoot him a quizzical look, as if saying, “Who is this man?”

The environment-conscious envoy refused the offer because he does not want to add to the mounting garbage concern. “In Belgium, you cannot go shopping using a plastic bag. Let’s stop using them right now. Go for reusable [ones].”

He laments that the Pacific Ocean today is completely full of garbage, as he observed after being posted in Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands in the middle of Earth’s largest body of water.

“I was brought to a beach, then [saw] plastic bags from Indonesia and the Philippines. The bottles carried words in Bahasa, and also ‘Made in the Philippines.’ We call it ocean plastic garbage, and the top [culprits] in the world are Chinese, Indonesians and Filipinos.”

Belgium’s top representative to the Philippines added, “You need a change of mentality,” then opined that President Duterte was right when he ordered Boracay’s closure for cleanup.

He agreed that calling Boracay a cesspool “was a bit too much,” but noted that the Chief Executive’s declaration was not far from the truth: “If you analyze the waters of Boracay or Manila Bay, they’re really dangerous.”

Recall that a few months back, Goffin commended the Duterte administration’s decision to rehabilitate popular beaches that are foreign-tourist draws in the Philippines.

He was quoted as saying to reporters during a King’s Day reception: “Let’s be frank: When you cleaned Boracay [and] El Nido, [that was] a very good decision. President Duterte is doing the right thing in cleaning up [those] areas.”

The diplomat also lauded the rehabilitation plans of the government for other popular Philippine destinations, including El Nido in Palawan.

“You have such a beautiful country, [which is not only evident] in Boracay and El Nido, [but] everywhere else. Together, let’s keep [the Philippines] clean and sustainable.”

Goffin said such an initiative translates to the government’s commitment toward sustainable tourism—a move that is seen to eventually attract more tourists.


Education as solution

ASKED if we need more technology to solve the garbage problem, the Belgian envoy forwarded the notion that it is education that we need a lot of.

As a mitigating solution, Goffin noted of Belgian companies engaged in “high-tech waste management.”

“These are small machines where water from a cesspool can be treated, then ingested without any ill effects to the drinker. But it’s a matter of political will. It doesn’t cost a lot of money.”

Education and the proper mental attitude about garbage disposal, he believes, are warranted in addressing our perennial garbage dilemma.

Goffin reiterated the need to educate everyone on proper waste disposal “for the sake of our children and their future.”

“What’s important is the cleanliness of the environment. It’s not [just] something for the rich, or of a luxury, but we need it for all children—poor or rich, and those of yours. They will need something clean. We need to leave them something clean.” With a report from Joyce Ann L. Rocamora/PNA

Image Credits: Jimbo Albano