Problems

The challenge for Europe’s rural workers to make income from the countryside, while protecting the environment, is as old as human civilization itself. Local and external pressures, from poverty to climate change, often make the challenge too difficult, leading to environmental degradation and local conflict. But there is an answer.

Challenges for Europe´s countryside

In Europe’s cities, much of the work is increasingly done – inside walls – in the service and office sectors. In contrast, in Europe’s countryside, many if not most European workers continue to depend on the land and natural resources – outside under the sky – for their incomes, made from farming to forestry to fishing, as they have done for ages. In fact, agriculture continues to be the dominant form of land-use in Europe, using 50% of our territory. Yet it is seemingly ever in decline, ever less profitable and ever less attractive.

In these rural areas, a key challenge has always been to make money from the land, and at the same time, protect the environment including species and `ecological benefits´ such as clean water and healthy soils. “If you don’t give back to the land, then one day the land won’t give back to you,” says the wise old man to his farmer-to-be grandson.

Locally, however, that challenge is often made difficult because of competition among resource users, or the short-term desperation that comes from rural poverty. The challenges have also become increasingly complex because of powerful external drivers of change beyond the reach or control – or even the awareness or understanding - of people.

Each driver significantly impacts local `landscapes´ near European villages and towns and the ways that rural workers use and protect them. The unfortunate result of many of these local and external drivers is often poor and unsustainable land and resource management, and environmental damage. This has led to a decimation of European biodiversity and degradation of vital functioning ecological systems.

External drivers of change

One key recent driver of change has been the opening up, or liberalization, of European economic markets, including those of the former communist countries since about 1990. A result is that the production of many goods in the countryside, and their consumption in cities, can now take place at opposite ends of the continent. Take, for example, the recent strawberry boom in Spain’s Donana region. Years ago, farmers looking for opportunities discovered the land’s capacity for strawberry cultivation. Soon enough, new farms were everywhere – driven by rising demand from supermarkets and their consumers in northern countries. Without proper management, however, many farmers illegally used the land and groundwater. This led to unplanned infrastructure, a loss of natural forests and ecological corridors, threats to species and groundwater depletion.

Another driver is global climate change which has contributed to ever more disastrous floods across Europe, wreaking havoc to farms and water management. In Hungary’s Tisza region, for example, massive floods have become typical rural events. Past human actions have made flood impacts there even worse by cutting off the natural floodplains of rivers, thereby eliminating their valuable potential for retaining flood waters. And in the Mediterranean, climate change has increased the impacts of droughts.

Still another driver is government policy and legislative change initiated from the `top´ and applied `downwards´. For example, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has for decades subsidized farmers in a way that has led to `intensive agriculture´ and all of its negative impacts – from the over-use of fertilizers to the over-exploitation of soils and ground waters. And in the former communist countries, the loss of state support during the economic transition after 1990 plunged many farmers into near poverty and subsistence farming.

It doesn´t have to be that way

Species begin to disappear, groundwater supplies decrease, floods increase... all of these problems at the ground level usually lead to conflict between individuals and groups. Neighbouring farms compete for water, conservationists stage public protests or governments enact new laws completely barring users from the resources they need for their life’s work. These are the typical responses... but it doesn’t have to be that way.

 / ©: A. Weissen, European Alpine Programme
Shepherd and floc
© A. Weissen, European Alpine Programme
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Edward Parker
Europe's pulp and paper sector is resonsible for more than 50% of wood consumption from Europe's forests - and this is expected to increase.
© WWF-Canon / Edward Parker

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