January 06, 2006

Rural ecosystems in Europe

Elvira Pereira, Cibele Queiroz, Henrique Miguel Pereira and Luis Vicente tell the story of Sistelo in Ecology and Society (open access). Sistelo is a small town in northern Portugal, sitting just across the border from Galicia, where I live. Sistelo looks like many towns in Galicia:
Between 1960 and 2001, the population in Sistelo decreased by 57%. The current number of residents in the community is 341. There is a high proportion of women and elderly, and the illiteracy rate is very high. Pensions are the main means of living. Other major sources of income are emigrant remittances and agricultural subsidies. [...] 10.6% of the resident population does not have piped water in the household, 28.7% does not have a bath or shower, 21.7% does not have a toilet, and 78.9% uses fireplaces as the only heating system.
Still, when asked, people say that they are better off now than 30 yr ago.
[P]eople emphasized that they had more choices now than in the past, particularly with regard to having more cash income and improved access to goods and services. The expressions “land of slavery” and “slave work,” both of which were frequently repeated by the study participants, reflect the importance of the choices now available because of mobility and income sources unrelated to agriculture. [...] Interestingly, most people (36 out of 39 residents) preferred to live in Sistelo rather than in more urbanized areas. The criteria used to justify this choice were a healthy environment, tranquility, the ability to be self-sufficient, a sense of place, and freedom.
Sistelo is surrounded by a picturesque landscape of agricultural terraces. Visitors come to the place to enjoy the beauty of this landscape. However, residents are not enthusiastic about the terraces, and tend to associate them to misery and hard work. Due to depopulation and the abandonment of agriculture terraces are decaying. The authors of the study describe the situation in more convoluted terms:
For those ecosystem services most dependent on abundant human labor, the decrease in population and the subsequent abandonment of agricultural fields imply a decrease in the provision of those services. This is the case with the food provisioning services and the cultural services of the terraced landscape in Sistelo. The consequences of the downward trends in these services for human well-being are difficult to assess because of the increasing disconnect between human well-being and local ecosystem services. The causes for this are twofold. On the one hand, at the local level there has been a general improvement in those aspects of human well-being that are not strictly dependent on ecosystem services. On the other hand, there is a spatial disconnect between the location in which the ecosystem services are produced and the location of the people who benefit from those services. For instance, some of the services provided by Sistelo, such as the cultural landscape of socalcos [terraces] or the regulation of the water quality [which has increased with depopulation] in the Vez River, benefit people elsewhere.
The authors add that total depopulation of Sistelo would result in the encroachment of wild vegetation, but warn that this could lead to more and larger fires. However, fires in the region are intentionally caused by people. So, in my opinion, no people would result in no fires. Additionally, according to the study, the number of species in the area and the abundance of wild boars and other game would decrease because wild nature is more homogeneous than the humanized landscape of Sistelo.

The authors of the study envision two scenarios for the future:
The first scenario corresponds to the continuation of the current trends of depopulation and agricultural abandonment in Sistelo in a society that is not concerned with the environment. The second scenario corresponds to a reversal of the current trends in an environmentally friendly society.
The misconception that "society" has concerns, as if it were a human being, is quite common. Less common is the idea that letting wild nature replace a humanized rural landscape reflects a lack of concern with the environment. But let's take a look at the second scenario.
In the second scenario, the reversal of agricultural abandonment trends in an environmentally friendly society would have positive impacts both on local ecosystem services and on human well-being. Depopulation trends would change direction as young, resourceful, educated people immigrated to the area, although that would happen only if Sistelo became a better place to live, with, e.g., better access to services, improved working conditions in agriculture based on new technologies and solutions applied to the traditional management of the landscape, and new employment opportunities associated with diversified activities and those with an increased value. Improvements of this type would also encourage local young people to stay. In this scenario, traditional and innovative forms of land use would be developed to produce the goods and services needed to meet the growing demand for high-quality traditional and organic products and for the amenities associated with natural, sport, and cultural tourism. Traditional knowledge would be respected and enriched by the knowledge brought by those young educated people in an interactive process. In an environmentally friendly society, backed by increasing environmental education and awareness, this diversified use of the territory would be guided by concerns about sustainability, and the unsustainable use of resources would be avoided. In this scenario, biodiversity would be maintained or even enhanced because of the sustainable, diversified use of territory; water quality would be maintained or slightly decrease because of human activities; and food supply services would increase. Tourism and recreational services associated with hunting and fishing would be maximized to sustainable levels. Cultural services would be enhanced because the resulting landscape would reflect traditional knowledge, heritage values, and cultural identity. Material well-being, health, social well-being, security, and freedom of choice for local people would improve because of both the changes in the local ecosystems and improvements in well-being criteria not directly related to ecosystem services. These latter improvements are an important condition for the development of this scenario. Human well-being would also improve for people outside Sistelo who benefit from ecosystem services from Sistelo, because of improved food quality, recreation, and enjoyment of aesthetic values.
The authors are not explicit about how to attain this paradise, or why it hasn't already been attained. They put some blame on globalization:
With the globalization of markets, people have access to products from other countries and other regions of Portugal, and the high production costs of local products prevent them from obtaining a competitive position in the market. This also explains why most of the young people who still live in Sistelo work in outside structures such as factories or other companies in the nearest village. For those young people, agriculture is very hard work for which the return does not justify the effort.
Do you imagine how much would consumers have to pay for those products to make "slave work" profitable to young people, and allow them to install modern heating systems in their homes? Or should taxpayers pay the bill (the "incentives")?
Considering the consequences associated with current abandonment trends, the European Union and the national government implemented several measures to encourage agricultural practices and animal husbandry. Nevertheless, although there has been a recent increase in the number of bovines, these incentives do not seem to be enough to boost agricultural activities and keep people in mountainous rural areas.
A problem is that if we were to provide the "incentives" to revive all rural areas in Europe, there would not be enough taxpayers (productive urban workers) to sustain the recipients of the "incentives."

I settle for the first scenario. Too bad that my lack of concern for the environment may lead to more native forests and cleaner rivers.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I suspect that depopulation like this will be more common as people continue to clump together in cities. After our population peak, I can see some cities being abandoned in favor of other cities with better economies (people will go where the jobs are). Nature will return the way it did to areas of South America after disease from European contact caused a massive population crash. Only this time, rural depopulation will be caused by immigration to large cities.