Balancing between governing styles – participatory processes in Galicia

By Marlies Meijer, graduated MSc-student

In previous blogs (see e.g. my second post on Planning realities in Galicia) I have written about my journey to Galicia and the difficulties and interesting views I came across while investigating planning and rural development practices there. In June this journey came to an end, I finished my master thesis and graduated (full thesis report ‘Balancing between governing styles: participatory practices in rural Galicia‘   is available online).

When writing my thesis I spent a lot of time on untangling the complex background of problems experienced in rural Galicia. Now I have been asked to write shortly about the conclusions to introduce the thesis. It is not an easy task, but I will try. 

One of the main problems in Galicia is land abandonment. Many people own land, but most parcels are too small and dispersed to manage. Due to many reasons most owners are not willing or able to maintain or sell their land. A great deal of these parcels have been afforested, with EU-subsidies. Unfortunately also forested parcels turned out to be ill-managed and not economically viable. With the implementation of forest management units the government of Galicia (Xunta) tried to tackle these problems. Within these units parcels are managed jointly, as one area. This makes forestry more economic viable and diverse; and forest fire safety measures or road construction more feasible. The most important precodition and goal of this project is the active involvement of citizens. Though this is the first participatory project in Galicia, many have been implemented in the EU. Galicia followed this example.

The problem with citizen involvement (or participatory processes) is that it takes two to tango, and sometimes even the ability of citizens to dance on their own. In Galicia the Xunta was a step ahead. Citizens did not show an endogenous will to participate actively, they were involved on paper and felt that maintenance was the task of Xunta. The Xunta conversely was very willing to make this policy a succes. Setting good examples and attracting as many owners as possible dominated. By overtaking responsibilities of owners (like administratory tasks and costs) and with charisma this process was streamlined. Nonetheless, as many interviewees responded, a participatory approach was also “the only way” to deal with problems like land abandonment or ill-managed forests. And it is true, inactive ownership forms the root of these problems and needs to be dealt with.

By studying this project it became clear that Galicia’s government was balancing between different style of governance. On the one hand are the old, clientalistic, ways of policy making in which the governments are in charge and take care of everything. On the other hand there is the new participatory approach that the Xunta aimed for when implementing the uxfor-policy. While looking for a balance, several areas of tensions emerged:

  • The policy-makers wanted to establish success quickly. By taking care of almost all aspects of implementation, it was possible to found uxfors in an efficient and quick way. However, creating active citizenship takes usually much more time and patience.
  • It was difficult to involve the citizen actively. The Xunta wanted to create active citizenship, but citizens expected the government to take care of common affairs. Citizens felt this was out of their responsibilities.
  • Land abandonment and depopulation are deep-rooted problems at the Galician countryside. The uxfor-policy tried to deal with these developments. But how can active citizenship be stimulated if the largest part of the population is well over 65, and most landowners live in other regions?

These conclusions hold close relations with other parts of Europe. Also here the participatory approach is gaining ground and are governments and citizens struggeling (in different ways) with its implementation. Depopulation and land abandonment also prevail in other marginal rural areas.

Despite the above mentioned comments on participatory processes in Galicia I respect the Xunta highly for their ability to ‘just’ do something, to start a project and not getting diluted by all kinds of problems (like bureaucracy) that might rise in the beginning.

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