Reflections from an early supporter | Land Portal

Dr. Leon Verstappen was the first Chair of the Board of Advisors for the Land Portal and played a central role in its transition from a small UN project into an independent foundation. 

In the beginning

Back in 2009, when I joined a meeting of the International Land Coalition, the Land Portal was on the agenda, and they were looking for people to be part of the steering committee in order to give shape to the future of the Land Portal. One of my two focus areas in research is land and property in general. The other focal is family law, by the way. I was interested in doing something internationally, and I wanted to explore the possibilities regarding research related land on an international level. I joined the committee together with the representatives of other organizations. From that moment on, I got interested in the work of the Land Portal, I got to know how it functions, and past initiatives on land information and data.

Land as an issue 

Land is a major issue worldwide, but the context of land issues is different in every country, land redistribution in South Africa or environmental aspects of land use in Brazil for instance. So, it was very challenging for me to see all these different aspects around land as a multidisciplinary subject, which was interesting for me as a legal scholar. I was interested in land regulation in the first place, but also in the function of land and society as a whole. So that is why I got not only involved, but also became part of the steering committee and followed the activities of the Land Portal during all these years, since 2009. 

Land Portal as an independent organization

One of the major achievements was the establishment of the Land Portal into a separate legal entity from the ILC. If you look back on this decision, it was the right choice, as it was better for the Land Portal to be as independent as possible, which contributes to the credibility of its activities. I consider the Land Portal to be a library of land data and information. These kinds of activities need to be independent and hosted by an organization that is not involved in advocacy or promoting specific organizations and parties. Since the Land Portal is a foundation based in the Netherlands, and I am a Dutch citizen, it was also more or less obvious that I would fulfill the function of a Chair of the Board, simply also because of day-to-day decisions of the organization in the Dutch legal sphere.



In the beginning there were many obstacles, many challenges, and many constraints. I think funding is one of the most important problems we had, and I guess, funding is an important obstacle for all organizations like the Land Portal. It was difficult, but we managed to mobilize resources over the years – the Team managed these efforts, and I contributed to them. 

Our niche in the land community

The second major obstacle is that some organizations and some people now see the Land Portal as a competitor. It makes it quite difficult to cooperate with those people in those organizations. There's always the fear that you step in areas in which other organizations are specialized. For me, it was very important that the Land Portal stick to its original mission to open and connect land data and information, but not produce data and information itself. We have a lot of research institutions that are perfectly capable of doing this. The Land Portal is not the kind of research institution that produces this information. We search for the information, we search for the data, and we try to improve the data and the information and connect it to the world. Like a library in a municipality, we work for the common good, we work for everyone. It is a major asset that the Land Portal is open for everyone.

Technical issues

There were some obstacles with regard to technical developments of the website, and how to improve it and make it more user friendly. I think that the Team managed very well to keep the website up to state of the art, and the website is now very user friendly. The way the Land Portal connects information is decentralized, so that is indeed a challenge and maybe also an obstacle because you cannot fix these things overnight. The quality of the data available worldwide must improve in order to connect the data to people. I personally think the paywalls of commercial publishers is an obstacle for the free flow of information and data. I know that universities are also struggling to cope with that problem, because a lot of information is behind paywalls. In academia we are trying to open up these commercial publishers to make their information freely available.


There were also some obstacles and constraints with regard to the organization itself, as it was a decentralized organization from the beginning. We tried to have a centralized office in Rome, but hosting an organization like the Land Portal was complicated, so it remained decentralized. Over the years the Team managed to work very well as a decentralized organization. It was also difficult to meet all the Board members online, as sometimes we had to deal with four different time zones. In addition, the connection is not always very good, especially in those remote areas where Wi Fi and digital connectivity is not as good. These were difficulties we needed to overcome, but we overcame them. I think that we did a wonderful job, and the Land Portal is here to stay, I hope.

Major achievements

I would argue that the major achievement of the Land Portal is that it indeed has become the place for data and information on land worldwide. At the same time, its role in the land debate is central, in that we connect people with each other via webinars and other digital communication tools. We also connect land information, and by doing so we made the world a bit smaller. We also improved the way people think about land issues and understanding of the difficulties of the different aspects of land in society. Whether it is land and gender or land and food security, it doesn't matter, as long as people see that there are so many themes related to land on the Land Portal, and that it is necessary to approach land in a comprehensive way. Taking into account all these differences of course requires a variety of expertise, not only legal expertise, but also expertise with regard to development, agriculture, spatial planning, land registration and more.


Key takeaways 


To maintain the success of the Land Portal, I think it is very important to stay authentic as an organization and in your activities, and also to stay credible. People need to believe in the Land Portal and need to trust the information that appears on the website. In the Netherlands we have a proverb that says, “trust comes by foot and leaves on horseback." This means that you can very easily lose trust and it is very difficult to get this position back again. I think the Land Portal has gained a lot of trust in the land sector because we always do what we promise. I think maintaining the Land Portal’s role in providing the state of the art land information and data, connecting land information and connecting land data to people is important. You need to keep pace and innovate and improve the Land Portal constantly. If you don't do that, then it won’t take very long and the Land Portal will be outdated. It is crucial that the Land Portal focuses on constantly innovating and improving to make yourself indispensable. 

Libraries, whether physical or digital libraries, are indispensable for society. In my opinion, I think that the Land Portal has become indispensable in the land community at this moment. If you look at the Land Portal from the perspective of the Board, the people that lead the organization, I would say trust the Team and don't try to micromanage. The members of the team and the team leader Laura Meggiolaro in particular, are the best equipped to know what's out there in the land community, and to know the focus of the debate and key issues, where the opportunities lie, and how to move forward in the future. Not that the Team is more important than the Board, but if people work in the land community, and with land data and land information sharing, on a day by day basis, they are probably better aware of what's going on than people that are not doing this. I am not doing this on a day-to-day basis. I am always amazed by the information that is shared from the Team to the board. I think that they are best equipped to inform the Board on the major developments in the land sector. This means that we should be aware of what the Team is saying on the future activities, opportunities and risks of activities.

Give people confidence

In my own work here at the Law Faculty of the University of Groningen, I always give my people a lot of freedom to do whatever they like. I am convinced that if you give them freedom and you're convinced of their capabilities and their enthusiasm to work and to achieve their goals, then you will probably achieve better results than if you steer their work too much. I have some proof of this resulting from a lot of projects I did here in the Law Faculty and also some PhD projects with individuals. There's always a question whether I need to steer them or let them do it on their own. The better approach is to give them the space and the freedom to find out themselves. Of course, sometimes you need to steer and sometimes you need to give guidance, but trust your own people, because I think that they are well aware of what to do and how to do it.


Photo by Анна Рыжкова:

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At 15 years, it’s fun to reflect on the Land Portal’s beginnings. Someone recently asked me if there was a time when I thought the Land Portal wouldn’t make it, and I could instantly recall those moments. There were times when I flew from Rome to Berlin or Rotterdam, including with my infant son to meet our first potential donor, only to hear that we weren’t successful. Or before, when the Land Portal was a small project under the joint oversight of the International Land Coalition and consortium. Despite the great initial support they provided in bringing the Land Portal to life, none of us was completely sure if it could fulfill its potential without becoming an independent, neutral organization with its own funding. There were more recent times too. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we fought to keep our operations going as uncertainty changed everything around us. 

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