Leon Verstappen, who is a professor of private law at the University of Groningen and deputy judge at the Court of appeals in The Hague, has stepped down as Chair of the Land Portal Board, a position he has held since the establishment of the Land Portal Foundation in 2014. Leon recounts his engagement with the Land Portal since its inception as a project over more than a decade and its evolution up to the present day.
Can you tell us how you became so engaged in the Land Portal? Why were you so committed to the development of Land Portal over the years?
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. I joined the steering 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.
Why was I so committed over the years? One of the two focus areas in my research is land and property in general. The other focal is family law, by the way. I was interested in extending my activities abroad. So I decided to explore the possibilities regarding research related to land on an international level. It gave me opportunities to travel, and it was interesting to be a part of international organisations like ILC end GLTN, which allowed me to connect with people from other countries and other organizations on all kinds of land-related issues. 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 interesting and challenging for me as a legal scholar, to see all these different aspects around land as a multidisciplinary subject. Although I am interested in land regulation in the first place, the experiences in the past eleven years allowed me to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the function of land in society as a whole.
So I became part of the steering committee in 2009 and followed the activities of the Land Portal during all these years. One of the major achievements was the outsourcing of the Land Portal from the ILC into a separate legal entity, a foundation based in the Netherlands. If you look back on this decision, it was definitely the right choice, as it was better for the Land Portal to be as independent as possible, which contributes to the credibility of the activities of the Land Portal. I consider the Land Portal to be a library of land data and information, like a library in a town. 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 Dutch organization and I was the only Dutch citizen in the board, it was also more or less obvious that I would fulfill the function of a Chair, simply because of the fact that the foundation operates in the Dutch legal sphere and I am a professor of Dutch law.
What do you see as the major obstacles, and constraints the Land Portal had to face during its journey?
Well, 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, especially the team and the team leader Laura, managed to mobilize resources over the years. 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 would 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.
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 apparently there were too many obstacles for possible hosting organizations to have the Land Portal in house, so we remained decentralized. Over the years the Team managed to find a modus to work as a decentralized organization. As the Board is composed of members working all over the world, It was also difficult to meet all the Board members online. Sometimes, we had to deal with five different time zones, so we had a window of only a couple of hours to meet online. In addition, the connection is not always very good, especially in those remote areas where Wi Fi and digital connectivity is not as good as in Europe or in the United States. 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.
What would you consider some major achievements of the Land Portal?
I think the major achievement of the Land Portal is that it indeed has become the place to be for data and information on land worldwide. The Land Portal fulfills a central role in the land debate. We connect people with each other via webinars and other digital communication tools. We also connect land information and data in a digital ecosystem. And finally, we connect land information and data with people all over the world. By doing so we made the world a bit smaller. We also improved the way people think about land issues and their 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.
As a member of the original steering committee and then as a Chair of the Board these past six years, what are some key takeaway messages from your experience?
What would be the secret of 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 a horseback." This means that it is difficult to obtain a position of trust and you can very easily lose trust. I think the Land Portal has gained a lot of trust in the land sector. We live up to expectations. I think maintaining the Land Portal’s role in providing the state of the art of 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 to prevent becoming outdated. It is crucial that the Land Portal focuses on constantly innovating and improving to stay an indispensable tool in the land community. 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 the Team Leader. They are 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, the major developments in the land sector and how to move forward in the future.
In my own work here at the Law Faculty I always give my people a lot of freedom to do their job. I am convinced that if you're convinced of their capabilities and their enthusiasm to work and to achieve their goals, you should give them as much as freedom in their work as possible; then you will probably achieve the best results. 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.
Finally, I would like to thank all past and present board members and members of the steering committee for their cooperation the past 11 years. Special word of thanks to all past and present Team members, in particular the team leader Laura, who did an excellent job for the Land Portal.