John van Duursen

"By the age of 27, I was completely fed up
with being in the business world and being in
this ego-oriented life."

John van Duursen

Project manager at Wij.Land

On a personal note, what did you dream about as a kid?

I dreamt of some multi-story treehouse in a serene tropical jungle with lots of life and wind in the trees.

Can you see that reflected in your professional life?

In a way: I’m privileged enough to be able to walk into a field where that dream comes back, because there is this openness and connection with life and that makes me happy. This is also sort of where the dream comes from.

So you did make your dream come true?

Well, yes apart from the fact that I’m in a bloody cold country where it rains a lot. It’s not exactly the tropics haha.

What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learnt?

I guess I overvalued the brain in my early days. The lesson is that if I don’t listen to my intuition too, I end up in a place where I don’t want to be. By the age of 27, I was completely fed up with being in the business world and being in this ego-oriented life. For me personally, this did not make sense or make me happy. So, it took me 27 years to discover that and make a career switch: not just a career switch but also incorporating my inner voice and orientation in life. Life’s too short for a short sighted, profit-orientated view. If you look at all the spiritual leaders, we understand that to be in service is great. It makes me feel part of something, it gives me a sense of purpose and that is actually cool. And yes, I can be in service of so many things. Mine is family, earth and nature and people, basically the 4 returns.

How did you end up here at Commonland?

That’s roughly a 15-year road. I went back to school to do an environmental post graduate course which led me to Ghana. I did a lot of work on looking at the convergence of interest in the value chain of cocoa. So, what does sustainability look like from a farmer perspective or the middle man; the trading house or the brand; the bank or the consumer? And having done all that, I took a step back to see if there’s a convergence. There was: organizational capacity on the ground. Everybody was in need of that.

So then for many years, I worked with Rabobank and others, to strengthen the organizational capacity for smallholder farmers active in coffee, tea or cocoa. This started in East Africa, then West Africa, then Central America, South America, and a little bit of Indonesia and India. So, I’ve travelled a lot and it was always working for things like restoration, renovation or climate resilience within the plantation. Since a lot of deforestation is not because people love to cut forests; it’s because people need more land to survive, because the productivity of their current land is low.

In a way, what I’m doing today at Commonland in The Netherlands is not that different compared to those 15 years of experience, it’s just more intimate now. It’s from a farmer perspective looking into the value chain.

Then at a certain point I got kids, and so all that travelling became a little uncomfortable. Then I saw a small sign on the door of a bookstore and it said, “Wanted: nature guides”. I was living in the peat meadow land just north of Amsterdam. That little note on the door was sort of an invitation for me and I just took it. It was eye opening and there is so much happening on the land: the farmers and the nature and the bird life, the soil, etc. The whole thing just came to life for me but it also made me see where a lot of tensions are coming from. I moved into topics like: what’s the true price of milk, if you include all the societal costs? What alternative crops are there that are good for people, good for nature and you can make money from?

Then I met Michiel (de Man) and I began to work with Commonland in Tanzania, as I had a lot of experience in Africa. Then, the ministry of economic affairs came to Willem and said, “Willem, you’re a Dutch guy, you’ve got a Dutch foundation, you do all this great international work, but we’ve got a Dutch landscape as well, why are you not doing anything here?”. The rest is history, as they say!

"What I really enjoy is to build either from nothing to something or from something to something better."

John van Duursen

What motivates you to do this job and why?

Promise, belonging, action, feels and anger. The anger comes from seeing something beautiful being destroyed. It’s not only seeing something beautiful being destroyed, it’s also the logic that is destructive. And promise to myself and to the people that are also fighting for this alternative model. This is also where the belonging comes in, to see that we’re not alone. Many people are searching for a way that is different from the path our species has taken that’s led us to a place full of challenges. That is hope and, therefore, motivation. It’s really cool to work with people who see that light as well and want to make it work.

Another thing that motivates me in my job is seeing the action on the ground. Action on the ground is pretty much an instant impact or feedback on what you do. Because you see a farmer work and you’re like: okay this is cool! Although the impact might be in three years, the action is now. So, it’s very tangible. The action on the ground and the process is just as important as the outcome.

Within your work, what is it that you’re most proud of?

We have a pretty happy and powerful team, we are maturing as a Dutch landscape and I think that’s an achievement. And the fact that we worked from 8 farmers 18 months ago to about 30+ today. That’s a joint effort of course, that’s not me, but that’s definitely something I’m proud of.

And I think the name is pretty cool: For non-Dutch speakers, it’s a hard one because 'wij' means us/we, and 'land' means land, but weiland (pronounced the same) is the official word for pasture or meadow. So refers to our landscape and the commons. And I like the URL:

"Happy landscape,
happy people,
I guess."

John van Duursen

Which part of your job do you enjoy the most and what is the most challenging?

We often work with really committed people. Most of them are farmers, they’re not entrepreneurs or marketing experts or financial wizards. What I really enjoy is to mobilize people and look at how we can build bridges to the market. So, to build either from nothing to something or from something to something better.

I think my biggest challenge is time, but then if it’s time, it’s probably focus. Because, there is enough time, right? But if there is this experience of not enough time, then it’s probably a lack of focus. This might be the challenge: we are holding on to a holistic approach. That’s the 4 returns, 3 zones: very holistic. So that means you need to build up a relationship at so many different layers in the system with so many different disciplines, that it is difficult to find a focus. Mainly because it’s all connected. That’s the big challenge.

In what part of your job is Commonland your biggest support?

It’s legitimacy. Willem’s story and the work of John D. Liu on the VPRO have created a lot of positive associations and it really opens doors. And when the door opens, the first feel is a positive one. People are constructive in their approach to us. That is really helpful.

What will look like in 20 years?

Well, it’s the new normal I think. So, in 20 years we don’t need to discuss manure problems, because that’s solved; we don’t need to discuss between the price of something and the value, because the price and the value are on par. We don’t need to discuss the problems most farmers have in succession, because there is a young generation that is happy and eager to take over farms, because farms are cool again. Not like today: a lot of young people don’t like to take over the farms, because it’s totally dependent on stuff you don’t want to be dependent on. So yeah, just happy landscape, happy people, I guess.