Science - May 6, 2004

Future of European countryside discussed at conference

In 2020 north-west Europe will be one huge metropolis with no countryside, just recreational parks between cities, Eastern Europe will be flooded with the large-scale farmers that used to farm in western Europe, and villages in Southern Europe will be ghost towns as all farmers will have left for the city.

Last Thursday, 160 people participated in a discussion on how to avoid this scenario at an international conference organised by ‘Stichting Ruraal Wageningen’ (RUW). RUW is a student organisation that stands for sustainable agriculture and wants to keep students in contact with agricultural practice. It was clear that most participants did not like the scenario that had been sketched. The exodus of farmers from the countryside was by many seen as the main cause. During a vote held at the end of the conference, it appeared that most participants still regarded farmers as the main people responsible for maintaining good and attractive landscape in the countryside. A majority agreed with the proposition that the landscape would have less value without agriculture. However, it was also suggested in one of the workshops that the tendency for more and more people to meddle in the development of the countryside will continue. And it will not just be farmers who have a say about the land.

“Compared to the exodus in China from the countryside to cities – 100 million people – we don’t really have a problem here,” joked Professor John Bryden of the University of Aberdeen, one of the speakers at the conference. He added that there are plenty of opportunities for farmers to broaden their activities, for example through tourism, energy cropping and landscape management. “It is not all gloom, but rural people need to grasp the chances that are there.” This requires that rural people are given more power through local government, Bryden argued. But European policy also should leave more room for local initiatives.

Most participants shared Bryden’s opinion. A majority agreed with the proposition that EU policy is killing local markets, while these local markets are the drivers of rural development. These and other propositions were debated using ‘mind mapping’, a computer programme that visualises a discussion. Using this technique, it became clear that almost all those present wanted local people to be empowered so that they have a say in new ways of dealing with rural development and the countryside. The one voice heard from the audience that argued that scientists have better knowledge of the future of the countryside than farmers, and it should thus be left to them to inform policy, was a lonely voice; and it was laughed off by most of the pro-farmer audience.

Joris Tielens

Re:act