Written by Lee Haxton @LeeHaxton
The third European Rural Parliament is taking place in the traditional Dutch village of Venhorst in north Brabant province.
The first day was spent meeting and greeting, with a welcome from the local major. The number of different countries represented is very inspiring, with 40+ from as far north as Iceland, south as Greece, east as Turkey and west as Portugal. Initial experiences from colleagues from other countries were surprisingly (perhaps because of personal ignorance on my part!) similar to those in Scotland. Key issues we discussed included:
- Depopulation and ageing populations
- Challenges in offering sustainable and rewarding employment
- Poor access to services and limited infrastructures
So, no surprises there! The second day started with presentations from a number of specialists, covering the linked issues of social, economic and environmental development/conservation. Some hard hitting predictions about possible futures of rural communities as a result of climate change (led by Common Land) were made and sparked off some interesting debates across national boundaries. Nobody has any specific answers, other than needing to breakdown language, cultural and professional barriers between those managing rural land for socio-economic purposes and those seeking to promote environmental conservation and sustainable living.
Later in the morning, there were a series of visits to different sites and venues across Brabant. My trip was to a farm, where we learned about changes to production practices, involving the use of a biomass boiler to produce electricity for sale to the national grid (or Dutch equivalent!). The hot water produced is used to heat the growing houses for the fruit and vegetables and the carbon dioxide also collected for photosynthesis. A very circular approach and one that could be replicated across Europe.
Later in the afternoon we met a local volunteer who is working on the development of a new eco village, where everything the population needs and uses is provided locally; and the materials used are all biodegradable and made of natural products. It reminded me a lot of Findhorn to an extent and it made me wonder how much longer these individuals will be viewed as “different” or “alternative.” Surely a number of these approaches will become fundamental to sustainable living in future?
In the evening I was asked to contribute to a discussion about the future of the European Rural Parliament. To be honest, I was not clear on what we were seeking to achieve and my message and suggestions included:
- The ERP needs to identify a niche in European community development. There are so many existing networks, we need to be careful not to duplicate. In my mind, this means it should focus on acting and promoting the views of rural communities across Europe in relation to the biggest challenges we face. ERP should provide a focus for lobbying and campaigning, working closely with the other existing networks.
- ERP should agree and produce a series of key messages regards Rural life, which will provide the framework for campaigns and activities within the two year period between ERP sessions. They should be short and simple, so that they can be readily understood and replicated in all forms of media, in order to communicate clearly with and get the attention of decision makers.
Given the limited resources available, I think this is realistic and achievable and should complement the work of partners in the other networks and organisations.
The day ended with an excellent buffet and beers, with the opportunity to network and discuss all matters, social, cultural, economic and environmental with people from across Europe. One of the most interesting discussions I was involved with focussed on local government and decision making. We know how out of kilter the structure is in Scotland compared to other European neighbours, but for those from across Europe who weren’t aware of our system, this was a real eye opener and surprise to them. Scotland is viewed as a modern, European nation with significant assets and opportunities and those who I spoke with were hugely surprised that we operate this system of local government. Have we become too complacent and accepting of perceived inaction by those who can make the fundamental changes?