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The Netherlands as an indigenous practice

Column by Pim Buijs

When thinking about indigenous practices, the image that pops into my mind is that of native tribes tending their land in connection with nature. Think of the aboriginals who used fire to create better circumstances for food production. It is thought that indigenous practices can provide location-specific solutions to environmental problems such as climate change, floods, droughts, food shortages and other wicked issues and therefore they should be studied and applied. But I am not an aboriginal, nor a member of a native tribe, but a full-blown ‘cheesehead’. When talking about indigenous practices, I feel that it is more genuine for me to stay close to home and look at our own cultural and spatial practices as indigenous practices.

The Dutch, like a lot of westerners, have a Christian-dominated view of nature. As stated in the article that introduces the theme indigenous practices to the TOPOS readers: “The Dutch have historically viewed the landscape as something to be managed and controlled”. As argued by the American Historian Lynn White, a professor of medieval history at Princeton, the Christian worldview has heavily impacted our view and thereby our use of nature. He argued that nature is seen as inferior to mankind in the Christian worldview, as God shaped nature for mankind to use. Nature was also seen as the uncharted territory of the devil, where he lurks to deceive devout believers to commit sins.

Tuin der lusten by Hieronymous Bosch (source: Amstelveenweb)

White also argues that Christian religion replaced a lot of pagan religions based on animism. Animism is the belief that objects, places an creatures possess a spiritual essence. Think of sacred springs or certain deities that represented rivers or natural phenomena. In other words, nature was more revered and had a soul, compared to the Christian worldview where nature is seen as a tool created for mankind to use. Although the Christian worldview is far less present these days, it has shaped our idea of nature and thereby its use. Even science is based on the idea that we can understand and thereby shape the world, including nature. The main argument of Lynn White is that this Christian worldview and what came out of it, is at least partly to blame for ecological crises such as climate change.

Visualisation of animism (source: KOMPAS)

Of course, it is far too simple to solely blame Christianity for our modern environmental problems. In my opinion, that horse was beaten to death a long time ago. In defense of Christianity, some Christians believe in the idea of Stewardship. This is the theological belief that humans are responsible to care for the creations of god, including animals, plants and our fellow man. God created nature for mankind, therefore it is the duty of mankind to take care of nature. This idea has lead to environmentalists movements from a Christian perspective. 

From this theological trip, I would like to take you back to the Netherlands. The Netherlands is the prime example of the view that we can shape nature in our favor. Without this idea, we would not have the Ijsselmeer or Flevoland. As the old saying goes: “God created the world, and the Dutch created the Netherlands”. Our landscape has been shaped by our battle and attempted dominance over nature, visible in the form of dykes, polders, various agricultural landscapes and even historical wharfs. 

Kinderdijk windmills (source: Wikipedia)

These landscape elements were not only built based on the idea that we can shape nature, but also our need to defend ourselves from it. The ‘waterschappen’ or water boards in the Netherlands are the oldest democratic institutions in our country, with the task to manage local water levels for agricultural use and to prevent floods. The water boards have made a deep impact on the way we use land in the Netherlands. Without water management, the Netherlands would look vastly different, it may not even had its name. Who knows, maybe it would have stayed a big swamp dominated by nature (and perhaps Shrek-like figures).

The field I work in, management of public space, is another token of our view that we can shape nature. The point of public space management is to keep the public spaces we create in good condition. In other words, we keep the Netherlands as the Dutch people imagined and created it. While for most of us this seems trivial, as it did for me, but this is a large and crucial field with hundreds of thousands of professionals. It is estimated that the Dutch government as a whole spends about 15 billion euros per year to maintain all of our public spaces. This includes major infrastructure such as highways and canals, but also public street lights, trashcans and other assets in public space. For reference, this is about four times the Gross Domestic Product of Surinam. 

In a sense, we can see the Netherlands and its environmental problems as a product of our indigenous practices. In contrast to this we are seeing a shift, from a view where we shape nature to where we let nature guide us. Think of projects such as ‘Ruimte voor de Rivier’ or the use of nature-based solutions personified in the idea of ‘bodem en water sturend’. We can also see this shift in management of public space, where the use of indigenous plants has increased, weeds are seen as spontaneous vegetation that can aid biodiversity and vegetation is managed in a way to promote biodiversity and provide ecosystem services such as water retention.  

I hope this column has given you a different perspective on indigenous practice and how they can both provide solutions and be the cause of the environmental issues of today. Looking to the past can not only help us through providing solutions, but also by teaching us more about ourselves.

"History is for human self-knowledge ... the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is." - R. G. Collingwood


Koppejan, S. (2024). Redactiestuk: Indigenous Practices. Topos.

White, L.T. (1967). The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. Science, 155, 1203 - 1207.



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