Managing rural landscapes in tradition

By Joern Fischer

Throughout the world, we find landscapes that used to be dominated by smallholder farming. Despite great differences between such places, there are also many commonalities. For example, agriculture tends to be conducted for local use rather than for distant locations; many members of the local communities are engaged in farming; farming methods are relatively simple in technological terms (and happen without a lot of input of modern technologies or fossil fuels) — and people often have “enough”, but are not able to access or accumulate large quantities of economic wealth.

Examples of such places exist around the world, and they share one more commonality: they are rapidly changing. How can rural landscapes in transition best be managed? Based on our work in Romania, I propose five common take-home messages for rural landscapes in transition.

1. Natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, while other capital stocks may be lacking

If we think about landscapes as a series of capital stocks, it becomes apparent quite quickly what the strengths and weaknesses of traditional farming landscapes might be. There is often little in terms of modern infrastructure (or physical capital), so that for example access to markets might be not very good; and agriculture might rely on large amount of human labour. Human capital then, is usually quite high when it comes to farming labour, but low when it comes to high levels of formal education. Financial capital is often lacking. Social capital is often quite high in traditional societies, but perhaps the most obvious capital stock is natural capital. Traditional farming landscapes are, often, very biodiverse. Some biodiversity may be lost when such landscapes become economically more prosperous, but at the same time, I would argue that natural capital provides a solid foundation for development, on top of which other capital stocks can be accumulated. If development focuses narrowly on just (for example) modern farming equipment and pumping investment into an area, it’s likely this would come at a high cost to natural (and quite possibly also social) capital.  So, a wise choice, to my mind, is to be aware of what these landscapes already are rich in, and not destroy this in the process of trying to improve human well-being (assuming that this is the goal, rather than just profit, in which case it’s not sustainable development anyway!).

2. Market-oriented incentives may erode a traditional stewardship ethic

A second, perhaps more speculative point is that many traditional rural landscapes use long-established methods to manage the natural environment. These methods typically go hand in hand with an understanding of what’s right and proper — certain activities ought to be done in certain seasons for example. Such traditional rules are typically upheld by informal institutions, together with a stewardship ethic of how one ought to look after the land. It follows that “modern” monetary incentives need to be used carefully. Pumping money into systems with a traditionally strong stewardship ethic can actually erode this ethic, thus accelerating environmental decline by destroying the value basis of sustainable practices.

3. Good governance is critical (accountability, trust) for sustainability

It somehow goes without saying — and was extremely obvious in our work in Romania — that not much good will come of “development” that is governed badly. When money disappears or nepotism is rife, environmental and social outcomes are unlikely to be very good.

4. Equity issues are likely to emerge as social structures change

Just like the potential danger of monetary incentives is widely under-appreciated, there is only little understanding and interest in equity issues. As development takes place, differences in wealth between the rich and poor tend to be magnified in traditional farming landscapes. Who decides who gets to win and who misses out? Questions such as this, and questions around access to ecosystem services (and also government subsidies) are likely to arise. Unless they are managed well, they can lead to major disappointment and disillusions about development among local people.

5. In the absence of a “benevolent dictator”, change must happen through empowering communities (bottom-up)

A lot of natural scientists like to recommend to decision-makers what they calculated to be optimal or efficient solutions. Well, fine. But what if there are no benevolent dictators interested in such information? I would argue that many of the world’s rural landscapes — and especially those in transition — are governed in complex or even messy ways, where it is not clear that anybody in particular is “in charge”; nor that anybody in particular is interested in guiding development in a way that is optimal or efficient from a sustainability perspective. In such cases, it’s important for scientists to be open to the idea that change will not come from the top down, through policy. Rather, I think there is value in engaging with local communities and providing information to people directly, so that nascent initiatives can work towards sustainability from the bottom up.

These five points are a subjective list of observations from our work in Romania. They may or may not apply to other locations in the world. I’d be interested in people’s thoughts on the possible generality of some of these.