Willem Van Cotthem: A Professor Who Tried to “Kill the United Nations Business”

An 85-year old Belgian professor of Botany Willem Van Cotthem has dedicated his whole life to finding solutions to end hunger and combat desertification. Many of them became hugely successful and helped many people, but none of them was adopted by the international organizations concerned. Why? Read on to find the shocking answer. 

When land is so dry that it cannot provide food, people get hungry, suffer from health problems and lose livelihoods. They migrate and this often creates political instability. These are the effects of desertification – degradation of land in dry areas which currently affects around 2.1 billion people, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To stop this problem, countries agreed to create the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in 1994. 

Dryland in Spain
Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Is there an ideal way to combat desertification?

There are plenty of good practices for every type of soil and climate on every continent. However, what we badly need is to compare the successful techniques (the “best practices”) in different parts of the world and then decide which are the best ones to be applied  in similar situations in all affected countries. When I still was an active member of the UNCCD and CST, I suggested this comparative study of “success stories” but, although many colleagues told me what a wonderful idea it was, it was only set up once in Iran.

Why has it only been done once?

Because of fear of hurting people. If this study showed that some solutions are not significant or that some of them are the best ones, it would hurt many scientific and development cooperation institutions that believe they have the right answer.

Professor Willem Van Cotthem in refugee camps in the West Saharan Desert.
Photo: Willem Van Cotthem

But the UNCCD should be a neutral institution and support progress, shouldn’t it?

Political strategy within the UN is to keep all the organizations together and not to divide them into good, better, best. At the international level, it is not science or its value that comes first, but personal, political, strategic relations between all the people working in the field. This was one of my big deceptions. 

How did it manifest?

I developed a soil conditioner at the Ghent University (Belgium), who offered the know-how and the marketing of it to a Belgian company, who called it TerraCottem. When I showed the success of it to the UNCCD and suggested that countries should use it, some people refused to discuss this opportunity with me because it would mean that it could show that I developed an effective technique. Having my family name in the product hurts some people, as if I was that big guy coming up with “the only solution”. 

The TerraCottem soil conditioner is a proprietary mixture of more than twenty components, each from different groups, all assisting in the plant growth processes in a synergetic way. Adding TerraCottem to the soil allows a better use of nutrients, savings in irrigation water, plant growth in poor soils and challenging climates, reduction of nutrient leaching, increase of plant survival rate and crop production. It significantly helps people to obtain better results in plant (e.g. food) production with a minimum of water.

Arbole, Burkina Faso (1988): Native trees planted with TerraCottem just before the rainy season
Photo: TerraCottem
Arbole, Burkina Faso (1990): Two years later.
Photo: TerraCottem
Arbole, Burkina Faso (1992): Four years later.
Photo: TerraCottem

Was your solution accepted elsewhere?

The company TerraCottem currently sells it in some 80 countries. At the start, they tried to convince governments and institutions but it didn’t work well. 

Why not? 

Let me give you one example: we set up a development project in Inner Mongolia (China, 1995-1999) which was extremely successful, but at the end, the government officials told us that they didn’t wish to continue to apply TerraCottem because they intended to produce a Chinese version of it. I told them that it was impossible and in a couple of days our cooperation was ended. It was again a sort of jealousy. Why would they apply a Belgian product in China? 

The soil conditioner TerraCottem
Photo: TerraCottem

Are African countries also so jealous?

Oh yes, sure. I was chased out of Zimbabwe. After a lecture in Harare, I was asked to deliver a formula of TerraCottem, which I refused. I was then told by one lady that I was one of these white people coming over, dominating the locals like the English did before. She also said that if I did not deliver the formula the next day, I would sit on the plane back to Belgium. And there I was, back on the plane.  

What did you do when you didn’t succeed with promoting your idea to the UNCCD?

In 2007, I had to leave UNCCD  because my wife had some health problems. In 2008,  I developed a new idea: container gardening, which is a very cheap way of growing fresh food, vegetables, herbs and fruits in all sorts of containers, e.g.plastic bottles, buckets, bags, sacks, drums etc. I thought that instead of spending billions of dollars on providing food aid, we could better spend a bit of money to set up small kitchen gardens in containers for hungry families all over the world, even on roofs, terraces and balconies of buildings in the city . When asking the World Food Program to support our UNICEF project in Algeria, the only response I got was: “Sorry, Professor, do you think that we would kill our own business?” Nowadays, over 235 000 people read my blog on container gardening and vertical gardening.

Container gardening
Photo: desertification.wordpress.com


Yes, they prefer to send truck loads of food and nutritious biscuits to hungry children and  people. In 2005, the director of the Algerian UNICEF invited me to build family gardens with TerraCottem in the refugee camps in the Western Saharan desert. In two years time, some 2500 small kitchen gardens were created. If the World Food Program helped, within 5 years everyone would have their own garden, but they refused. When Al-Qaeda attacked the UN building in Algiers, UNICEF stopped the whole family garden project.

That’s terrible.

My heart was bleeding, but I was looking again for another way to help hungry people. In 2007, I launched a new initiative called “Seeds for Food”. The idea is that people collect seeds from the fruits and vegetables that they eat at home and send them to development cooperation NGOs, which in turn offer them for free to people in need. I asked the UNCCD to promote this project because they have more people, but as usual nothing happened. Without support of any organization, I continued to collect the seeds for many years.  Nowadays, a group of Belgian and Dutch ladies run it.

A school in Gambia received seeds from Seeds for Food
Photo: Willem Van Cotthem

How do you explain that whenever you suggested a solution, the answer was no?

These organizations want to continue collecting billions of dollars through New York, Geneva and Rome, set up nice secretariats with lots of good personnel and make splendid publications.  They do not want to kill their own business by supporting solutions. 

So what do you think about the UNCCD measures to combat desertification? 

I don’t see any spectacular results. For example, the Great Green Wall Project in Africa is supposed to create a 15 km wide forest from Senegal to Djibouti that would stop desertification. When I look today at Google satellite pictures, I can’t find the billions of trees that should have been planted in every country in the “Green Belt”.  I see only a “green forest” in Senegal. Is nothing happening in the other countries? In China, the project of the Great Green Wall is more successful. It involves the local population and new forests are growing quite quickly. If I was responsible for such a huge project as the Great Green Wall in Africa  I would be proud to show pictures of all the successes booked, but we can’t find them.

Container gardening (bottle towers) at home – Success with bottle towers
Photo: Willem Van Cotthem

What can people like me do to help stop desertification? 

We should follow the example of Nature which shows us how we should take care of degraded areas. If places are barren, leave them undisturbed to the invasion of local pioneer plants, herbaceous ones, shrubs and trees, and soon you will get three layers of vegetation – a canopy of trees, a lower layer of shrubs and underneath a ground covering layer of herbaceous species, e.g. grasses. Or if you want to be active yourself, help Nature in spreading the seeds. There is this  great example of a medical doctor of the Cape Verdian Islands who spent his weekends collecting seeds on some of the green islands and spreading them on barren areas which completely turned green in a couple of years.

So what concretely should I do? A, B, C…

A) Collect seeds of flowers (poppies, cornflower, chamomile, snow bells, crocus, etc.) in nature and spread them in other places where they are not growing. You will create a nice vegetation  layer and help bees, birds and other animals to sustainable food sources.  

B) Cut branches of privet (Ligustrum) or other easily rooting shrubs into cuttings of 30 – 40 cm, sharpen the lower part and push the cuttings 10-15 cm into the ground. In a few years, you will get bushes growing and flowering, attracting a lot of insects and nesting birds. This will be the middle layer of plants. 

C) Do the same with cuttings of a willow tree (Salix) and you will get quite easily the third layer, the one of trees. In doing so, you will copy Nature without spending a lot of money at “reforestation” with tree saplings grown in nurseries. 

Willem Van Cotthem
Photo: Willem Van Cotthem

Willem Van Cotthem (*1934) is a Belgian Professor of Botany and a Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development. He is the inventor of the soil conditioner called TerraCottem, a founder and blogger of several initiatives such as Seeds for FoodContainer Gardening and Desertification.

Want to learn more about desertification? Read Willem’s blog and my Master’s thesis which talks about the ineffectivess of the UNCCD. 

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