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.

Land abandonment in Galicia

By Marlies Meijer (MSc-student)

Land Abandonment in Galicia

Land abandonment in Galicia

As I wrote earlier, I am balancing between the multiple realities of Galicia. Now, several weeks later I’m still balancing. Off course everything is different than the assumptions and hypotheses I had in the Netherlands. The rural situation here is complex and has many faces. For the moment I am trying to untangle the different storylines I encounter here. Hopefully one or two are nice enough to work out and to connect to a more theoretical storyline. It is a delicate job, which can only be completed in Spanish (I never realised that almost closed scientific communities existed because of language barriers) and with as less generalisation as possible, as ‘everything is different is Galicia’. It also implies that I have to let go of my Dutch reality and leave behind the loose ends I developed back home.

Land abandonment  – One of the storylines I encountered is land abandonment. Almost 25 % of the Galician countryside is abandoned, with far-reaching effects. In the Netherlands we would call an abandoned parcel new nature or verrommeld (messy). Here it implies higher chances for forest fires and agricultural devaluation. Rural Galicia exists of many small farms, with small parcels and above all many land owners. Most landowners simply own land, they do not live there, nor do they use the land for (agricultural) production. Because of low costs it is possible to own land, and leave it more or less abandoned. Most owners do not want to sell their land, they prefer to keep it as a capital resource for economically bad times, or in case its value increases because of urban expansion or afforestation. Some owners are simply not aware of the fact that they own land. Because of a malfunctioning administrative system and a lack of a clear spatial policy these situations can occur everywhere and to everyone, only no one knows exactly where.

On the other hand most farmers or peasants are not able to buy extra land. Their resources are limited. In the past decades the most substantial farmers already invested in milk quota, machinery and other devices in order to catch up with the rest of Europe.

The result is a situation where spatial and rural developments are fixated. Measures are developed to loosen the situation; for instance a land bank to facilitate renting land to other users, in order to mobilise the land market. But also these measures encounter problems.

On the one hand, Galicia struggles with policies from the past and large measures (top down) that are needed to change and improve the rural situation. Modernisation, like elsewhere in Europe, did not take place in Galicia. Notwithstanding the problems it brought to other countries, it is a phase needed in this country to improve the quality of life on the countryside. On the other hand, we do live in an era where bottom-up approaches and local participation are preferred, also in Galicia this is an hot item. How these two extremes are intertwined seems to me an interesting starting point for further research in Galicia.