Turning problem into opportunity
- Huge areas in Europe’s countryside are becoming abandoned
- It is happening all across Europe
- What could Europe do with all these unused lands?
It is no secret to anyone of us, but we seem to have really difficult to face it: large areas of the more remote European countryside are actually becoming abandoned. Villages that used to house 1000 people now have 30 people left. Most of them some 75+ years old. Pasture lands that used to graze a million sheep, are now grazed by only five hundred. Bush and trees are popping up not only in the old pasture lands, but even in the farming fields, yes even in gardens and through the fallen-in roofs of the deserted houses. Many villages are turning into ghost towns like in some Western movie. Some fields are still kept open through EU subsidies for cutting the hay, but then they hay is not used, it is just dumped in the corner of the field in a big heap to rot. All of us know where this is heading, and it is not in the direction of a blooming and active traditional farming and grazing society. The trend is very strong towards city growth and also intensification of farming and plantation forestry on the best soils. The more remote and less productive areas are abandoned. Instead of looking this reality into the eyes and deciding on how to find new ways for these areas, many instead tend to be in a state of denial and to throw the blame around - it has to be someone’s fault. Someone else’s fault. The government, this or that party, the EU, globalisation, the lack of subsidies etc.
But the truth is that there are many reasons behind the land abandonment.
And it is taking place right in front of our eyes, all across Europe. East and West, North and South, rich and poor, EU and non-EU. Russia and Sweden, France and Greece. One reason is of course lack of economic opportunity, but at least as important seems to be that the kids don’t want the hard work for small money in sheep herding or olive picking that their grandparents had to cope with. They don’t want to remain poor subsistence farmers far away in some remote valley. They want ipods and ipads and cool cafés and clubs, they want diversity of choice, partners, fresh ideas and education.
Independently of which of the many reasons for the land abandonment one chooses to believe in, the process continues. Every year about 1million hectares of land are left fallow within the EU. In Portugal alone, the government in 2011 stated that 2 million hectares of farmland are now abandoned.
Such a development is of course a huge sociocultural tragedy, and it is also a disaster for the variety of life, our biodiversity. Many of all species in Europe, maybe even more than 50%, are connected to the open or semi-open landscape. The old, traditional farming landscapes were the last refuges for these species to survive, species that of course have developed in similar, but natural and wild habitats during 100 000s of years before mankind even started thinking about farming and animal husbandry. Those species are now in steep decline.
Either way, the land abandonment is a fact that can’t be denied and that Europeans will have to learn to live with and somehow make best use of.
Rewilding Europe suggests we should try to turn the problems of land abandonment into opportunities instead, for both people and nature.
Through letting many of the abandoned lands become rewilded, and allowing the natural processes back to work here again. Creating a number of large areas where nature is allowed to run its own business. Where the forest is not logged, the wildlife not shot, the waters not dammed up and the fields not tilled. And where the original, native wildlife species are brought back in numbers and allowed to flourish. Including wild horses, aurochs, deer, ibex and bison, that can do pretty much the same job as the domesticated livestock has done during these last 6000 years.
From a nature conservation standpoint, the land abandonment represents both a huge threat and at the same time a huge opportunity to reclaim at least some of all the wild lands and wilderness areas that Europe lost during the past centuries.
This could be the biggest opportunity ever for wildlife and wilderness in Europe.
And what is also really interesting is that this might very well turn out economically much more profitable than the previous, outcompeted ways of using those same lands now trying to survive on subsidies.
That is something Rewilding Europe intends to explore in great detail.