Learning about the role of agriculture and natural resources in sustainable rural development – student’s reflection (1)

Together with four students of Wageningen University, I recently spend two weeks in Kaunas, Lithuania to represent Wageningen University, and the Rural Sociology Group, at this years’ ‘Intensive Programme’ on rural development. In the following series of posts, the participating students reflect on the programme and share their experiences.

By Malou Heidekamp (student Master International Development Studies):

The last two weeks of April I got the opportunity to participate in an Intensive Program (IP) in Lithuania. It is a yearly study program of two weeks to bring students from over whole Europe together to discuss a topic. This year theme was: “Role of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Sustainable Development”. The program consisted of presentations, field excursions in smaller and larger groups, social evenings, group work in international setting and country presentations. In total there were about 40 participants and 20 tutors, a mixed group from different universities, countries and cultures.

The program started with 2 days of presentation from different stakeholders in Lithuania. We got explanation about many different things, from the European Rural Development program and the implementation in Lithuania till the water management in Lithuania. The two days of presentations where very intensive, especially to start with. So much information in two days, luckily in the evenings we had the county presentations. Each county presented something about their rural area, traditions and of course food! Every country brought their best local products. From the Netherlands we brought cheese and liquorice. We had some excellent dried fruits from Latvia and sausages and wine from Italy and Spain. Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia brought home-brewed liquor, nice to try but very strong.

The presentations were followed by 3 days of field excursions in three smaller groups. Every group visited a different region. We visited farms, a school and Local Action Groups, to collect information. I visited an area with intensive agriculture. We saw a lot of tractor sellers and spoke to an organic farmer with 800 ha (!). We stayed in a very nice village at a motel. We were shown around by people from the local action group and in the evening the local traditional choir came sing and dance for us in tradition clothes. At the end of the first week the first real group works started. After the three days each group had to present the collected information with a SWOT-analysis in small groups. As we discovered earlier that week, not all participants spoke English very well and the motivations to participate and study background varied a lot. The group work was challenging. To come to conclusion with so many different backgrounds is a challenge but we managed, it was especially hard to involve the people who spoke little English in the group work. In the weekend we had the opportunity to visit beautiful Vilnius and Trakai. Both lovely places to wander around, it was a pity that the rain kept us inside for most part of the afternoon.

In the second week the groups where mixed up again and we focused in six groups at different subjects, the group I was in on Social Capital and Infrastructure. We made an analysis in which we tried to generalize over the three different regions we visited. What we concluded is that the weak social networks in the rural areas lead to different problems in the rural area concerning Social Capital, one of them is depopulation. The youth is moving away to study or to find a job and they do not return to the village. Schools are closing and there are increasingly fewer facilities in villages. A regional identity is lacking, alcohol abuse is a problem and there is a lack of good examples for the youth. Some of the problems are already present for a long time in Lithuania, alcohol problems were already present during the time of the Soviet occupation. We also tried to come up with some activities to, for example, to organize local community festivities, summer projects for students and activities for elderly people.

In the end I had an amazing 2 weeks, yes it was intensive, the program was very busy, but I learned a lot about Lithuania and I met a lot of very nice people.