The story of Janneke's playground is a story about Wieteke’s sustainable land use

What's Janneke Alers’ secret? To have fun. The biomedical technology teacher pulls out all the stops to convey her love for cell biology to students – from tailor-made playlists to a competition in Holland's Next Top Cell. Janneke admires Wieteke Willemen’s positive view on sustainability. As a professor of Spatial Dynamics of Ecosystem Services, Wieteke does not focus on problems, but on solutions for a better relationship with nature.

Click for Dutch version

Thursday 8 April 2021

Janneke: 'On the UT website, I read an interview with you[1], which included a wonderful line: you don't want to keep on talking about how bad our nature’s prospects are. Instead, you want to find solutions that will help us deal with the current sustainability crisis. Did you deliberately shift that focus?'

Wieteke: 'Ever since my master's, I have been studying sustainable land use. This means studying how we use our lands, in cities, agricultural, and natural areas. It struck me that research is generally focused on the exact opposite. Non-sustainable land use is studied in detail. But solutions receive little attention. At the same time, I visited amazing projects in for instance African countries to improve the situation. When I entered this field of science, it became my mission to find out what really works, why it works and the lessons we can draw from it.'

Janneke: Have you got an example of one of these projects?'

Wieteke: In South Africa, we are currently examining a rural area where farmers used to keep goats. They are now cultivating rosemary and lavender. Crops that are suitable for today's climate and hopefully for that of the coming decades as well. This project started in 2006 and one of our PhD candidates is now observing the changes it has brought to the area.'

Janneke: 'Nice how you turn the "doom" into do. I recently watched David Attenborough's documentary A life on our planet. Very impressive. But it also made me sad - can we save our planet? Where do you get your positive drive from?'

Wieteke: 'You know, I'll probably continue to work until I'm about 70. So I really want to contribute in some way. The depletion of our natural resources is a global societal issue; you cannot solve it on your own. But you won't get the others on board if you only point out what's going wrong; you really need the power of a positive story showing the way to change’.

Janneke: 'How do you try to get people on board?'

Wieteke: ‘By matching up with what matters to policy makers. I try to map out the key issues faced by all the different ministries, from agriculture to the water and economic issues. This allows us to focus our story on what they actually need.’

“I always try to translate the importance of nature into human benefits”

Janneke: 'What exactly does that mean from a practical point of view?’

Wieteke: 'I always try to translate the importance of our nature into human benefits. For example, by explaining the amount of CO2 a forest can hold, or how many hectares a bee population can pollinate. In Paramaribo, we are now studying the role of green spaces in cities. In doing so, we aim to create a connection between nature and health; people who live in a green environment adopt a more active lifestyle. There is not one policy maker who will say: health, that is not our concern'.

Janneke: ‘Where does your fascination with nature stem from?’ 

Wieteke: My parents used to take us to a farm every summer holiday. We joined in with the work on the farm. I loved that - cultivating your own food! But I also witnessed animals being taken away to be slaughtered. I felt that was wrong. I have been a vegetarian since I was ten and started thinking about food production and the way everything is linked together at an early age. In my teenage years, I protested in front of McDonald's against deforestation due to hamburger production.’

Janneke: ‘How wonderful. In my youth - the seventies - people used to carry bags stating “Wees wijs met de Waddenzee”. It's great to see seals living out there again, I worked really hard to achieve that as a child! I guess choosing a study was easy for you?

Wieteke: ‘I decided to study Tropical Ecology at Wageningen University. But soon I thought: many people live in extreme poverty in the tropics, where are people in this picture? So I switched to Tropical Agronomy, which deals more specifically with agricultural matters. Here, I noticed the lack of attention paid to nature. Eventually it all fell into place during the course in Geographical Information Systems, GIS. I learned how to combine different maps to describe an area from different perspectives - such as agriculture, nature and people. From that moment on, all I was interested in was making those maps. For me, that is how we should look at reality. And I continue to do it that way.’

“Agriculture, nature, and people. For me, that's how we should look at the reality”

Janneke: ‘I think it's quite extraordinary to observe an area both from above - via satellite images - and from the ground. So you zoom out and in to the fullest extent.’

Wieteke: ‘Yes, that is a perfect description. I need both during my research. You can't get an overview on the ground; satellite images provide that. Every five days an area satellites take images of an area. These offer an overview of the situation throughout time. I need to be in the field to check on what I see on satellite images.’  

Janneke: I worked for KWF Kankerbestrijding for many years before joining UT. Based on future scenarios, we determined our investments in the long-term fight against cancer. Would that help in drawing up plans to ensure sustainable land use?

Wieteke: That sounds interesting. The challenge in sustainable land use is to make sure that the actions you take. You need to know for which future you are taking action. And that also requires long-term commitment. You can build a bridge that has to last for decades within just one year. But if you are building with nature, it takes much longer. Sometimes benefits only start to appear after ten, fifteen years’.

Janneke: I talked to Alex Baker, coordinator of the Green Hub, about how to help people turn their ideals into actions. So what would be your advice to young people who wish to join the climate movement?

Wieteke:  Become skilled in what motivates you, in what you really like and for which you have a talent, and use that for the cause you value most. For me, that meant making maps, but there are countless other ways to achieve your goals.

DR JANNEKE ALERS (1967)

studied biology in Utrecht and as a PhD student and post-doc did research into chromosomal abnormalities in cancer in Rotterdam. She went on to work at the KWF Dutch Cancer Society where she was senior policy officer and research coordinator. Since 2008, Janneke has been associated with the faculty of Science & Technology faculty at the UT, initially as training manager for Biomedical Technology. Since 2011, she has been (among others) lecturer of Cell Biology and she coordinates three modules in the Biomedical Technology bachelor programme.

Wieteke (Louise) Willemen (1979)

worked abroad for several years and came to UT in 2014 as a tenure tracker. She is now professor of Spatial Dynamics of Ecosystem Services. She studies relationships between people and nature and is trained in Tropical Plant production Systems and Geoinformation Science.