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Former vagrant colony at Wortel added to Unesco world heritage list

Illustration shows the prison at the Wortel colony site, Belgium. (BELGA PHOTO KRISTOF VAN ACCOM)
06:23 27/07/2021

The former vagrant colony at Wortel in the Belgian municipality of Hoogstraten will be added to the Unesco world heritage list, the organisation’s committee decided on Monday.

The site at Wortel, which was one of the Colonies of Benevolence created in Belgium and the Netherlands in the early 1800s to alleviate poverty after the Napoleonic War, housed poor families and beggars who farmed the land and were paid an income. Three of the Dutch colonies were also recognised as World Heritage Sites on Monday.

"The Wortel colony is a model of integration between nature and culture that now enjoys global recognition," said Flemish heritage minister Matthias Diependaele after the announcement on Monday. "Not only does it reward us for our efforts, but it also encourages us to continue to support the maintenance and protection of these exceptional sites."

The site was in such a state of decay back in the 1990s that it was placed on the list of the 100 most threatened heritage sites in the world. The province of Antwerp and some 40 municipalities then founded the Kempens Landschap organisation, which led to the gradual rehabilitation of the Wortel colony site. Since 1999, the area has been protected and maintained by the Flemish Heritage Agency.

The former vagrant colony has since received, among other accolades, a sustainable tourism award and a European heritage label. Its addition to the Unesco list comes three years after the Charitable Colonies first made a request for a World Heritage classification, which was not accepted at the time.

On Saturday, the Spa thermal baths were also recognised as a Unesco world heritage site. The addition of the Wortel colony brings the total number of Unesco sites for Belgium to 15.

Written by Nick Amies