The old ferry house is beautifully situated on the dike along the river the Waal, opposite the ferry that connects the village of Varik with Heerewaarden on the other side. If, after a walk or bicycle tour around the floodplains of the river, you sat down for a cup of coffee on their terrace, you would be surprised when you receive the bill. While everything always gets more expensive, at the Veerhuis they managed to reverse this economic law. Here, the price of coffee actually dropped compared to last year. Instead of 2.50 euros, a customer now only pays 2 euros.
How come? It has everything to do with the land that the building stands on. Last year, it was worth 182,000 euros, and now, nothing. Zero. This might seem like a financial loss, but in the ideal economy envisioned by initiator Henry Mentink, it is pure profit. “And we calculate that into the price of the coffee,” Mentink says enthusiastically. He’s happy to explain how it works.
December 11, 2014. Mentink drives on the highway from Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, to the city of Hoorn. Suddenly he gets a hunch, which often happens to him while driving. His vision: 1000 millionaires each donate one million euros to 1000 social and sustainable housing initiatives. The money is used to take the land on which they are located off the market.
Not long after this idea came up, Mentink sat down with the former chair of the Dutch Social and Economic Council, Herman Wijffels, to explain his plan. Wijffels was by this time professor of sustainability and social change. During their conversation, a bird taps on the window. Mentink looks up in surprise. “That happens more often when something beautiful is being told here,” says Wijffels. “Will I be able to realize this plan?” Mentink asks him. “Well, if good things come your way,” he replies. Mentink decides to wait patiently.
At least that’s what he would like us to believe. Mentink wants to use this anecdote to show how important trust is. And how it is lacking in today’s society. “As soon as you have an ideal, and you set up an organization to realize it, you step into a system of mistrust. You immediately have to deal with insurance, hedging risks, and with determining who is allowed to make decisions.” He experienced this himself when he devised a platform for shared cars in 1993, the current MyWheels. “I described to the notary what I wanted, but he told me it is impossible to do business like that.” Mentink wants to do business “in love and trust.” He recently let his children know that they will not receive any inheritance. Instead, his money will be given back to the society. “That’s where the money came from. And I want to trust that, if necessary, my children will also be taken care of by society.”
It seems like a detour to the question of the land under the Veerhuis, but according to Mentink we are now getting to the core of it. “People are used to creating individual security by gathering private property. What we are doing with the Veerhuis is putting a new economic model next to the existing one. Because if you try to change the current economy, you will only provoke resistance.” In the economy Mentink envisions, land no longer has any financial value. “Land is a basic resource, just like the air we breathe. So we shouldn’t trade in that,” he says.
Instead of patiently waiting, Mentink did not sit still at all. In the same year in which he spoke to Wijffels, he transformed the Veerhuis into a ‘doing and learning center for the new economy.’ In this rural location he created a vibrant, international meeting place where the Dutch branch of the Budapest Club and the Ecovillages Network Foundation, among others, have their offices. Mentink set up a Village Trade Center on the ground floor, where local products are sold. Next to it is a large table with dozens of books on sustainability and economics.
Two years after his highway vision, Mentink hears about a Dutch millionaire who wants to give away 80 hectares of land for the construction of ecovillages. “So I visited him. He turned out to have the same idea as me: to take land off the market worldwide.” The millionaire, who wishes to remain anonymous, eventually became one of the people who contributed to buy the land under the Veerhuis. In 2020, Mentink started a ‘crowd-fun’ campaign under the motto: “Free the Earth.” The campaign was successful. 250 people together bought the 2,220 m2 of land under the Veerhuis–and then gave it away as quickly as they could.
The ownership of the land was transferred to Ground for Existence. This foundation was established in 2020 to promote new forms of land ownership and management. Of the long list of initiatives on their website, the Veerhuis is the first to actually place the ownership in their hands.
“Ground for Existence functions as a kind of vault, in which the ownership of the land is stored for at least seven generations,” explains Natasha Hulst, one of the founders of the foundation and staff member at the Schumacher Center for New Economics. “This way we guarantee that no one can sell the land and that it remains in the possession of the community forever.”
Hulst has been committed to a more sustainable world throughout her working life. “I have long thought that if we only speak the language of economics, we can convince policymakers and business people of the value of nature. I have been involved in valuing natural capital, the circular economy, and preserving natural areas for 15 years.” Until she experienced an aha moment about 5 years ago. “I suddenly realized that I was completely on the wrong track. That we are not going to make it with this.” That was a strange sensation, she says. “Everything I had done up to that point had hardly had an impact on biodiversity.”
She came to the same conviction as Henry Mentink and the anonymous millionaire: private ownership of land and the trade in it is the main cause of economic inequality, climate change and environmental problems. One of the meetings that contributed to that insight was with a number of young farmers who had joined For the Harvest of Tomorrow, a network aimed at making the agricultural and food system more sustainable. “I had been working on the food transition for years, but had never realized that there are landless farmers in the Netherlands. Farmers who want to practice regenerative agriculture, with respect for the soil, nature and biodiversity, but, because of this, they will never earn enough money to be able to afford the high land prices.”
Hulst realized that as long as land prices continue to rise, a truly sustainable food system will not be possible. But the solution is actually quite simple: “As soon as you no longer attribute any financial value to land, we can live affordably, grow sustainable food and create cultural centers.” All this is now becoming impossible due to the ever-rising land prices, Hulst points out. “Land is in the hands of fewer and fewer people, who are getting richer from it. They extract value from the soil, but only by owning it; they add nothing to it themselves. We all have to work to create that money.”
And this is exactly why the coffee at the Veerhuis is now 50 cents cheaper than last year. Now that the land has been obtained for free, it no longer costs the user, the Veerhuis, anything. No mortgage, no repayment, no interest. If you would do that on a global scale, it would save every world citizen 17,000 euros per year for life, Henry Mentink estimates. “Everything can become much cheaper if no one has to pay for land anymore. It is actually a reversed basic income, because you no longer have to earn that money. Then you have more time to do fun things for yourself, the community and the earth.”
According to Mentink, this should be the central story of sustainability organizations. “Look at the nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands: to pay for rising land prices, farmers have to produce more efficiently, which means they emit more nitrogen. De Zonnehoeve in the Flevopolder has calculated that they spend 70 percent of the yield of their grain on the costs of land. Can you imagine how much less they would have to produce if they didn’t have to pay for the land? In this way you create the financial space to take good care of the earth.”
But if the land is a basic amenity for everyone, who decides what happens to the land? Damaris Matthijsen, founder of Economy Transformers, is exploring possible answers to this question. “Normally the land is distributed through the market: the highest bidder gets it. But the one with the most money isn’t necessarily the one with the best plan. If the earth is for everyone, it should be the community that determines who can use it and under what conditions.”
Just imagine, says Matthijsen, that Shell wants to build a new factory in Nigeria. And the community can decide on that. “Don’t count on them getting permission! No community will grant them that. That they can now build factories in Nigeria is only possible by virtue of the private ownership of land and the strong rights that come with it.”
According to Matthijsen, we do not need more rules, laws, controls and lawsuits. “All it takes is to place the responsibility for the earth on the society. And give people who want to do something good for the earth and for the community access to land.”
Matthijsen has been on the board of the Veerhuis since 2012, but immediately emphasizes that such a board position is actually irrelevant. “The board has been placed at a distance, the formal lines have been dismantled. In its place we have set up a Share Society. That is a new organizational form that suits the new economy.”
The Share Society assumes threefold ownership, explains Matthijsen. “At the same time, the earth is from no one, for everyone and used by an individual. That the earth is its own means that no one can possess it. The individual is the user of the land, using it under conditions set by the community. At the Veerhuis this is now Henry Mentink.”
But who is the community? To discuss this, about twenty people log in from home to an online meeting on a Tuesday evening in March of last year. In addition to Mentink and Matthijsen, a number of people from the neighborhood are present, as well as a video artist with Russian roots, a woman from Sweden and people who live all over the Netherlands, from Zuidhorn to Rotterdam. They wonder what determines whether someone belongs to the community. “Is it enough if you feel connected?” someone asks. “It’s difficult to make decisions when everyone can have a say in everything,” realizes another. “Maybe we need to work with different levels of responsibility.”
Forming a community is not an easy process, Matthijsen will later emphasize. “It is a new question for people to feel co-responsible for allocating the land and determining the conditions under which someone may use it.”
At the Veerhuis, the process of community building has only just begun, so there is still a long way to go. That doesn’t matter, says Natasha Hulst. “People are saying that there is no time for the far-reaching economic transformation that we are advocating. They say that there is a climate crisis, we must act now. That’s true. But there are no quick fixes anymore. For far too long we’ve been wasting our time on technocratic solutions that don’t work.”
“Most people in the neighborhood do not fully understand what we are doing,” says Mentink, “with our ideas about land ownership and a new economy. But we can involve them in working in the vegetable garden or let them benefit from the cheaper coffee.” At the same time, he hopes that the Veerhuis can be the start of a larger movement. Matthijsen: “We are now the first in the Netherlands to give away land ownership and voluntarily waive the profit you can make on it. Then you are a bit crazy in the current economic system where everyone has to take care of his or her own wealth accumulation. But we rely on trust. Let us no longer each take care of ourselves, but together for each other.”
Get more information at: economytransformers.nl
Community Land Trust
An important source of inspiration for Natasha Hulst is the Community Land Trust movement in the United States. “That stems from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, because many black farmers were not given access to land,” says Hulst. “It is also based on the Landgift Movement in India, which started when a student of Gandhi went from village to village asking for land for landless farmers. At first, the farmers were given individual ownership of the land, but it soon became apparent that they resold it after a bad harvest, so that it came back into the hands of large landowners. Then the land was donated to the community.”
Hulst works for the Schumacher Center for New Economics in the United States. More than 250 CLTs are now active there. In addition to the Veerhuis, a Community Land Trust is also being built in the Bijlmer in the Netherlands.