A Living Land for Rural Europe

The Living Land book coverExcerpt from: The Living Land

  • Publisher: Earthscan
  • First published: 1998
  • ISBN: 978-1-85383-517-9

“What are those blue remember’d hills
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again”

A E Housman (1859-1936), from England

Recreating A Living Land

This book is about getting back something we have lost. It is also about creating something new we never had. We value our countryside, our rural landscapes, our wildlife. We value our rural communities and their many idyllic settings. Yet we are still losing many valued features of our natural environments, such as meadows, wetlands, woodlands, birds and other wildlife. Our rural communities are suffering too. There are fewer rural livelihood opportunities and fewer basic services. Hardship and poverty are common.

This book’s message is about getting back some of these natural and social aspects of our countryside and rural economies that we value. It is also about getting more from less by using fewer resources. We can live better in more connected communities, we can protect our natural environment, we can eat well and safely. These are simple ideas, but difficult to put into practice.

According to some measures, rural communities and farmers throughout Europe are very successful. Farms are more efficient, and food cheaper and more abundant. But this `success’ has come at some cost. The state of both natural resources and rural societies is vital for our welfare and economic growth. But as soils become depleted or erode, water is polluted, trees, hedges and other habitats lost, and wildlife threatened; and as trust falls, social institutions are rendered ineffective, and reciprocity and exchange mechanisms lost, so it is increasingly difficult to sustain vibrant farming and rural communities. As these stocks of natural and social capital diminish, it becomes more difficult to make a living from what remains.

Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom. Throughout Europe and North America, there are initiatives and experiments underway that are not only repairing the damage, but also showing that alternatives are economically viable. Sustainable agriculture works for farmers and consumers. It is also good for wildlife and other natural resources. Food can be produced in adequate amounts for all and at a quality that is both nutritious and safe. Rural communities can take a major role in their own social and economic development.

These initiatives are showing that there is potential for a large sustainability dividend. Using less resources and less fossil fuel, it is possible to create more wealth. Instead of depleting natural and social capital, these can be regenerated to provide everyone with enriched and varied livelihood opportunities. At the same time as birds are protected, jobs can be created. At the same time as soils are regenerated, so can rural communities become more cohesive and pleasant places to live. At the same time as less pesticide is used, so food quality improves. At the same time as farming becomes increasingly sustainable, so can a greater involvement of different groups in development processes lead to a regeneration of local democracy.

This alternative vision is also about spreading the benefits from our countryside and its economies more evenly. There are many different groups who have a stake in our rural, countryside and food systems, but returns to these `stakeholders’ differ. Some do very well, others poorly. Large farmers do proportionally much better than small family farmers, even though smaller ones may protect the environment better. Agrochemical companies, food manufacturers, processors and retailers capture much more of the value in the food system than they used to do. As a result, much less of the food pound, franc, mark, or dollar gets back to farmers and rural communities. This unevenness undermines the whole system.

The interesting fact about technologies, processes and policies that produce a more even spread of benefits is that the whole system benefits. A multiple stakeholder approach produces a bigger and better pie. A community-based approach to development building on existing social and natural resources actually produces more jobs and services in rural areas than an externally-driven, `exogenous’ approach relying in the main on distant technologies and mobile capital.

What is now clear is that sustainable agriculture can yield as much or more food than conventional systems, but does so without damaging the natural environment. It also produces more jobs and business opportunities. Community food systems capture more value for local people. Rural partnerships bring together different actors in new networks that develop mutual trust and new opportunities for exchange and reciprocity.

But none of this will happen without a helping hand. Most national and international policies do not, as yet, support a sustainability-led approach to rural development. Many say they do, as sustainability is now in fashion. But in reality, governments are yet to create the necessary enabling conditions.