Wet desert

Desert ground in a wet country. An all-in-one solution to beat desertification. In many regions of the world, some larger than 5000 km2, the Dutch foundation ‘Commonland’ is achieving large-scale landscape restoration, together with local farmers, land-users and experts.


Landscape restoration offers tremendous opportunities for sustainable economic development. To demonstrate this potential, Commonland develop landscape restoration projects that are based on business cases. 

Healthy landscapes and water systems are the basis of life. They provide food, water, clean air, a stable climate, biodiversity, good health, security and happiness. However, one fourth of the world’s land mass is seriously degraded from centuries of human activity.  Deforestation, overgrazing, overexploitation, the building of infrastructure and pollution: in economic terms, this incurs an estimated loss of more than USD 4.3 trillion per year. The good news is that this process can be reversed.

The good news is that this process can be reversed

Commonland’s teams actively involve investors, companies and entrepreneurs in long-term restoration partnerships with farmers and land users. Long-term commitment is important as it takes approximately 20 years – or one generation – to restore a landscape. This holistic restoration approach combines and connects natural and economic landscape zones and delivers the Four Returns.

Dif follows the developments around Commonland in the Dif datahub. An interview with the founder Willem Ferwerda is to be found on this link aswell.


“A journey with farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders,” that’s how Commonland describes its peat meadow project. Its goal is to create a landscape ‘where everybody wants to work and live, and which makes everybody proud’.

Peat meadows, with their characteristic long grassland plots, ditches, black and white cows and windmills, are the visual ‘business card’ of the Netherlands. They belong to the few typical Dutch landscapes that haven’t changed since the Middle Ages. But now they are under severe threat. Intensive agricultural land use and urban development are accompanied by a continuous lowering of the groundwater level. This causes soil subsidence, which in turn further lowers the groundwater level, and so the vicious circle continues. The consequences are the disappearance of meadow birds like the godwit and the lapwing, as well as increased CO2 emissions, among other things. The soil in these peat meadows is literally disappearing: the level drops at a speed of almost 1cm every year.

Three zones are defined: a natural zone, a zone in which agriculture and conservation are combined, and an economic zone

Luckily, the Dutch have a long tradition in working together to transform and protect their landscapes, thus ensuring that they keep their feet dry. So it’s not so strange that Commonland decided to work with a team of stakeholders, including farmers, scientists and conservationists. Like the other Commonland projects, three zones are defined: a natural zone, a zone in which agriculture and conservation are combined, and an economic zone. Four returns or yields are determined: a social, a financial, a natural and an inspirational one.

One of the projects is called ‘From Tenant to Partner’. It stimulates farmers, especially those who practise intensive dairy farming, to develop and practise sustainable farming methods. Examples of this are the use of bokashi (cuttings mixed with minerals) instead of fertilizers, wet agriculture, and extensive biological farming, which guarantees the farmers higher prices for their products. 

One of the partners in this sub-project is Natuurmonumenten, a conservationist organization that owns and exploits large nature reserves in the Netherlands and has many farmers as tenants. Traditionally, conservationists and farmers did not work together and they even clashed, but in this project they work towards common goals on the basis of coinciding interests. A good example of this is the use of bokashi. Natuurmonumenten used to remove cuttings from their land and make compost, an intensive and costly process with a low yield. Now, the bokashi – which has a higher yield – is used to fertilize tenants’ land, thus helping them become independent of artificial fertilizers. It is a work in progress: it’s still not clear who will pay for bokashi production as this is currently subsidised in the context of the peat meadow project.

Other stakeholders involved are the provinces, who support the project financially, and the regional water authorities. Less fertilizers means cleaner water, which is of great value to the water authorities. One of them has already taken the historical decision to reduce the pace of lowering the groundwater level.

Once again the Dutch prove that ‘polderen’ – working together – is the best way to protect and restore their unique landscape.

Johan Bakker:
The intermediary

His parents had a farm in Friesland, but Johan thought it was too small to be worthwhile taking over. He studied, became an engineer on a ship, a flight engineer and in the end a Boeing 747 pilot. When he retired, the lure of the land took him back to farming. 

A film by John Liu on soil degradation in China changed his mind about the use of fertilizers. He contacted Commonland, and set about his new task: visiting farmers to tell them about the value of restoring biodiversity. 

‘I see farmers glow when their soil returns to life’

“Farming isn’t a profession, you simply are a farmer”, he states. “Farming is a 24/7 job, the whole family is involved, it’s your life. These days it’s also a complex business. My parents had 20 cows, they could oversee everything on their farm. If you have more than 50 cows, that’s no longer possible and you can easily become dependent on the agricultural industry and its experts who drive around in large SUVs.”

The farmers he met often mistrusted conservation organizations, but as he was a farmer’s son, they were willing to talk to him. Gathering in the farm kitchens, eating lunch with farmers, conservationists and soil experts, the seeds of cooperation were sown. 

Johan is fascinated by soil and its composition. Traditional farming kills the soil, he says. “But when you stop using fertilizers, the soil comes alive again. This restores the contact between the farmers, their soil and their cattle; I see farmers glow when this happens.” 

If the peat meadow project succeeds, it will offer a blueprint that can be applied anywhere, he believes. “Then we’ll have brought natural mechanisms back in agriculture, forming the basis for a diverse and healthy landscape.”

Jos Geenen:
The ‘public’ partner

Jos is a forester who now works for the province of Utrecht. In the western part of the province, he helps stakeholders improve the quality of rural areas. He describes his task as “providing resources to people with fresh ideas.”

He got in contact with Commonland through the project ‘From Tenant to Partner’. “My first thought was, ‘what does Commonland want in the Netherlands? We have no deserts here and we already work reasonably well together. I was afraid that their participation would disturb sensitive processes.’”

‘Commonland can stimulate investment in land restoration’

But the fact that Commonland brings together stakeholders with new perspectives made him change his mind. “They have close ties with private companies and urban organisations. This can help finance the project and find markets for new products.”

Examples of new products are fibreboards made from bulrush, a freshwater plant, and pharmaceutical and health products made from azolla, a floating fern. Both plants are now cultivated on experimental farms as part of the peat meadow project. This type of wet farming helps stop the continuous lowering of the groundwater level and provides farmers with alternative sources of income.

Jos find this a promising new way of protecting the landscape. Stakeholders who practise sustainable farming then get better access or even priority in land exchange programs.

Conservationists and farmers no longer are at loggerheads with each other, Jos notes. He hopes that major stakeholders like governments will invest in landscape restoration, even if it is only a small part of the costs of soil subsidence. In November 2016, these costs were estimated at 20 billion euro by the Environmental Planning Agency, a governmental organisation. Jos, “I think Commonland is especially good at encouraging parties to invest.”

René Jochems: The expert

René used to work in arboriculture and always wondered why trees got sick. He found out that soil exhaustion was a major cause. By reading and experimenting, he became a soil expert, linking his knowledge to the practice of conservation. 

Dead soil doesn’t really exist, he says, but the expression symbolizes the problem. “Dead soil lacks everything except for bacteria, nothing happens anymore. You often see this kind of soil after decades of fertilizer use.”

Commissioned by Commonland, René does soil surveys on the land of farmers participating in the peat meadow project. He combines his knowledge of chemistry, which is basically about minerals, with biology, which is about organisms. René teaches farmers about mineral cycles and soil transformation, among other things.

‘Two different worlds come together’

Farmers love their profession, their land and their cattle. But they are also quite conservative. “They stick to their habits, and they believe that traditional methods are best. It’s a bit of a shock for them when you tell them that this isn’t always the  case. They need time to adapt. But once they realise that better soil means a better quality of crop and cattle, they’re open to change.”

There are many advantages to having healthy soil. The health of the cattle improves, which means fewer visits from the vets, a reduced use of antibiotics, and lower costs. The resulting products also improve: the milk contains more minerals, proteins and vitamins and better polyunsaturated fats. So in turn, it also serves to improve human health. 

René praises the cooperation between farmers and conservation organisations. “In the past, these were really separate worlds. Farmers used to say, ‘they only cultivate thistles.’ In turn, the conservationists said, ‘farmers destroy the land.’ I now see these two worlds coming together.”

Wilko Kemp: The farmer

Wilko has a farm in Kortenhoef with 200 sheep and 120 cows. He rents his land from Natuurmonumenten. Some serious drops in the milk price made him doubt his future in dairy farming. Should he scale up and invest millions of euros, like many fellow farmers? No, he thought, there’s a better way: organic farming; it guarantees a more stable milk price.

He is now two years into the process of farming organically. Getting rid of fertilizers wasn’t a major problem because he already used so little. The biggest challenge was that organic farming means fewer cows per hectare. Instead of 2.5 cows per hectare, Wilko now has 1.7. This also results in less manure.

We’re laying the foundation for treating nature differently

Although organic farming wasn’t a condition for participating in the peat meadow project, the two go well together. The main reason for him to join the project was that he, just like Commonland, was worried about the effects of the continuous lowering of the ground water level. 

Last summer, together with Natuurmonumenten and Commonland, he produced bokashi for the first time. Before that he used to make his own compost, but soil expert René Jochems explained that this means a loss of energy compared to fermentation. Wilko, “my bokashi is still in the pit, this winter we’ll spread it on the land. I don’t yet know what it will yield, but because this serves Natuurmonumenten too, I guess we’ll reach an agreement about the costs.” 

He has already noticed the first effects of farming organically, like the increased number of worms. But the biggest gain in his opinion, is the collaboration between groups that didn’t know or trust each other much. “Together we’re in search of the future. We’re becoming less egotistical and are laying the foundation for a different way of treating nature.”

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