In the second half of our two part examination of Rural Ireland’s relationship with nature we look at how the future of rural communities depends on our ability to work with nature in a manner both environmentally and economically sustainable
Speaking at the Cork 2.0 conference Franz Fischler highlighted the challenge of depopulation facing rural communities across Europe. It’s clear that the very survival of many rural communities is not guaranteed, issues of economic and environmental sustainability have never been more relevant. The question is how will policy makers respond to these challenges.
The lack of employment opportunities and services such as fiber broadband have long been highlighted as having a negative impact on the rural economy. Rural communities require innovative solutions which both address the urban and rural divide, while being environmentally sustainable.
While climate change effects everyone, for rural communities whose economies are reliant on primary industries the impacts of climate change such as more volatile weather have potentially disastrous effects. The solutions to such problems are not easy, they require both vision and commitment from the various stake holders, however if there is to be a future for rural communities then solutions to these problems will have to be found.
Giving it’s significance to the Irish economy agriculture naturally represents a significant proportion of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, this is set to rise as the government implements policies aimed at achieving the targets set out in harvest 2020. While these measures will see Irish agricultural production increase there is no provisions in harvest 2020 that will address Ireland’s food security. Irish farmers will still be reliant on imported grain to feed their livestock while Irish vegetable growers will still have to compete with cheaper imports.
So harvest 2020 will increase the environmental impact of agriculture while providing no benefit to Ireland’s food security, all while more and more people are forced to move out of rural areas due to the lack of jobs and services. Its hard to see what exactly the long term benefits of the governments rural development plan will be.
There is of course an alternative which would provide a model for rural development which considers the environmental, economic, and social impact of policy. Key to this alternative is reevaluating the drive towards more intensive agriculture, and returning to model of agriculture that works with nature. Through the organisation of grant payments which reward environmentally responsible farming as opposed to the current system where CAP money rewards farmers for environmentally damaging practices .
Schemes which encourage environmentally responsible farming such as GLAS and the organic farming scheme show that farming which is considerate of biodiversity and pollution can be as profitable as conventional agriculture. However there are limitations to these schemes, in the case of GLAS many of the measures suggested by the scheme fly in the face of Teagasc’s mantra of scale and output, while organics has primarily appealed to beef and smaller vegetable farmers. More needs to be done to educate dairy and tillage farmers of the benefits of organic farming.
The impact of achieving the targets set out in harvest 2020 however cannot be ignored if Ireland is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impact of conventional agriculture is such that short term economic benefits of expansion will be dwarfed by the economic costs of climate change.
Agricultural policy which prioritises need, and improving Irish food sovereignty would benefit both farmers and consumers, such a model would also help to reverse the decline in the number of small farmers as a policy which prioritises food security and environmentally sustainable farming would create opportunities for new farm enterprises such as small scale horticulture. The community farm in Cloghjordan show what can be achieved farming this way, through co-operation between farmers and consumers it is possible to meet the economic needs of the farmer while meeting the immediate needs of the local community.
An agricultural system which keeps more people on the land has the added benefit of allowing more people to live in rural Ireland, the social benefit of this through the retention of services and ensuring a future for rural communities would be further enhanced if steps were taken to encourage the development of co-operative processing facilities which would create further employment in rural communities.
Of course while sustainable economic development is vital there is also the challenge of developing Ireland’s renewable energy potential in a way which does not negatively impact on rural communities. Ireland’s potential for renewable energy remains under developed with Wind power representing the majority of Ireland’s renewable energy, this has however not been a universally welcomed development with many community groups organising protests against wind farms. The reason for these objections is the fear that these wind farms will negatively impact on tourism and other aspects of the rural economy, with little benefit to the local communities.
An alternative approach to renewable energy, one which develops a diverse range of renewable energy sources, and which prioritises the needs of communities, is needed. Under the current system the development of wind farms has been left to private companies which have sought to install ever larger turbines, unsurprisingly this has resulted in local opposition. It is of course both unrealistic and undesirable to call for an end to wind development, rather wind energy ought to be an opportunity for improving the economic position of rural communities through the development of community owned wind farms such as the Templederry wind farm in Tipperary.
The development of community owned wind farms alongside other renewable energy sources such as solar and biomass would allow rural communities to benefit from their natural resources rather than subjecting them to the development plans of large companies with little benefit to rural communities.
If there is to be a sustainable future for rural communities then they can not afford to continue to exist estranged from nature. The opportunities for sustainable development are there if the various stakeholders are willing to recognise the need for change. A sustainable future can be a prosperous one if there is a significant political desire.