Managing agricultural landscapes to improve resilience

Emma Soy-Massoni

PhD Candidate

Geography Department, University of Girona

Today we are very fortunate to have Emma Soy-Massoni guest blogging on the work of her PhD thesis, which relates to the interests of the Agri/Cultures project

 Screenshot from 2016-04-04 14:47:54

I don’t come from a farming family, but I’ve always felt great admiration for women and men working the land and producing our food. During my studies in Agronomy I’ve enjoyed some contact with the farming sector. Through these encounters curiosity about their practices has continued to grow, particularly a curiosity to understand the main reasons for taking certain decisions that have a high impact on the environment. I see farming as a bipolar reality at the moment, where farms under the rhythms of the global markets coexist with others those working for local and sustainable production. In between there is, of course, a large grayscale.

My perception of agriculture and food production has always been romantic, surely due to my origins in a Catalan/Spanish mountain region, the Ripollès County, where grasslands’ greenness is breathed and animals feed “free-range”. However, this perception slightly changed after moving to the Terraprim area (in Pla de l’Estany County). Here, agrarian landscapes combine with forests to form a mosaic of great beauty, but aware of the high livestock density in this territory, I was naively surprised about the lack of animals in the fields. At this point, the disconnect between food production and consumers became more obvious to me. Who grows these cereals? Which animals eat it? Where can I buy the meat, milk or dairy produced here?

The Terraprim, like other Catalonian rural areas, hosts newcomers seeking to reside close to nature and become members of a rural community, where citizen participation is often more likely. For the most part, these newcomers are not involved in the farming sector, but do have high environmental consciousness, bringing new visions and ideas about rural development. Realities from both newcomers and natives live together in a kind of harmony. Even so, recent socio-economic changes are driving a shift in agriculture and forestry practices that transforms traditional landscapes and establishes homogenization patterns. Due to this process, conflicts and diverging opinions about land management and woodland models are accelerating, with natives and newcomers often confronted by opposing visions.

Noticing this, I felt great inspiration to develop a PhD to understand the perceptions around landscape in a highly farmed territory undergoing an intensification process, yet also receiving high amounts of tourism for its beauty and multifunctionality. Here, I describe some findings from my thesis (hyperlink to your thesis):

  • The industrialization of agriculture has also degraded the traditional landscape mosaics and the historical biodiversity associated with them. The result is not only an interruption in the transmission of the traditional knowledge required for local landscape maintenance, but also socio-economic destabilization of rural areas and a loss of competitiveness of agriculture. This and renders the future of many of these landscapes highly uncertain. Although the specific drivers and outcomes of these processes vary from landscape to landscape, a central tendency is the fundamental decoupling of the socio-cultural and ecological subsystems where the conversion of multi-functional landscapes into more simple, productive, and mono-functional ones endangers the permanence of rural areas. Both ‘special’ landscapes of high ecological or social value and ordinary ‘everyday’ landscapes are affected by these processes.

  • Changes in agricultural practices have led to declines in the farming population and significant changes within the landscape. But, paradoxically, many rural areas are recording significant demographic growth. Rural areas are simultaneously becoming residential places for a growing number of urban-to-rural migrants. Along with the social recomposition of rural communities, the increase in residential use of the countryside appears a determining factor in landscape change. The extent to which urban and non-farming migrants are settling in rural areas is creating a ‘rural renaissance’, characterized by a demographic revival in these areas. Concepts such as ‘‘rural landscape’’, ‘‘scenery or scenic amenity’’ or ‘‘attractive physical environments’’ have been identified as important factors explaining rural destination moves. European agricultural landscapes are valued as everyday living environments, countryside, heritage, scenery with aesthetic and recreational qualities as well as unique biodiversity.

  • Maintaining cultural ecosystem services is relevant given it favors the persistence of landscapes that have developed over a long time period. Also, land use management based on landscape history can lead to long-lasting resilient landscapes. Traditional agricultural landscapes are socio-ecological systems where historically the ecological and social subsystems have been tightly linked, because people have shaped the land through their activities and the land has provided people with a variety of ecosystem services. In fact, traditionally, cultural identity has been deeply rooted in the landscape.

  • Socio-ecological systems have successfully incorporated “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” (TEK), a cultural baggage that includes knowledge, practices and believes about the relations of living creatures between themselves and with their environments, which is transmitted from generation to generation. It has been frequently demonstrated that traditional ecological knowledge is critical to the survival and future well-being of traditional societies worldwide, and to the maintenance of long-term resilience. However, traditional ecological knowledge has been or is being lost across generations in many parts of Europe, often because of rapid transformations and modernization of land use systems. Maintaining cultural ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes because of, as expressed above, their direct relationship with maintaining TEK and, altogether, by enhancing community well-being and long-term resilience, is key for the future of rural areas.

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