The title of the field trip, ‘Keeping the past, building the future’, intrigued me and so I chose to go on it. This was one of 16 offered on 13 July for those attending the International Association for the Study of the Commons conference in Utrecht.
We visited the Veluwe area of the Netherlands, known for its forests and heathland and long history of collective action.
We travelled in the coach to Ede, 23 miles east of Utrecht, and were met by the chairman of the neighbourhood of Ede en Veldhuizen, Geen Broere, in traditional dress.
We were dropped off at the Paasberg Hill, the highest point in Ede (but only a few metres above sea level). We walked along the Trapakkers, farmed fields at the foot of the glacial moraine, which are owned by the community and managed in traditional ways.
We came to the town hall, with its impressive council chamber.
On the way in I was pleased to see a webcam of a great-spotted woodpecker at its nest.
We were addressed by Alderman Johnan Weijland who spoke of the history of the township. Ede takes pride in what it offers: it is a centre of culture, with the nearby Kröller-Müller Museum housing the world’s second-largest collection of works by van Gogh, and the World Food Centre. Ede is said to be the happiest town in the Netherlands.
The district of Veluwe was originally divided into a number of hamlets but of these only Ede and Veldhuizen remain, and are now a joint neighbourhood. It consisted of wastelands, the common property such as the heathlands, hay and pasture land around the village. We were shown old maps and the neighbourhood books, with reports of meetings going back to 1596.
Then we visited the Old Church (Oude Kerk) which used to host neighbourhood meetings.
A few miles to the east are the heathlands, the most extensive in the country. Until the beginning of the twentieth century this was common property but then it was sold to the Ministry of Defence as training grounds, although the inhabitants retained their rights to graze sheep here.
The situation is similar to the British heaths; there is now little grazing by commoners. However a breed called the Veluws Heideschaap, which was almost extinct, has been introduced here and does good work maintaining the heath.
We were met at the Heathland Farm by Marcel van Silfhout, who leads the project to restore the heath and hopes to extend the project into other parts of the country. The project’s concept is of the heathlands as a common, combining sensitive management with production of solar energy, communal food and opportunities for employment and education.
Marcel’s most memorable utterance was: ‘The Dutch government has huge nitrate problems. We’re in deep shit.’ He was referring to the millions of cows, pigs, chickens and goats, all of which generate nitrates. The project aims to ameliorate this, but annoyingly a neighbouring farmer insists on growing maize—to feed cattle.
After the German invasion of Belgium in late 1914 many Belgians fled to the Netherlands and were housed at Ede.
Ede is not far from Arnhem where the failed Operation Market Garden took place in the Second World War. There is a plaque on the site commemorating this.
I picked up an excellent book for children, the Freedom Activity Book, with thought-provoking and instructive exercises. It is published by Peace Education Projects.
Then we went to the Groot Zonneoord estate for lunch before an afternoon walk around the commons. I shall write about that in a separate blog.