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.

Suburban Ag

Land use planning and housing development can bring farming and food production closer to (sub)urban citizens. Similar to trends in the Netherlands, suburban agriculture is taking form in new developments projects. There are two pathways. First, development organised by citizens in co-housing projects such as the Ecovillage in Ithaca. Co-housing projects often involve the creation of an ‘intentional community’ of people who have chosen to live and work together in a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values. Projects often include a community owned and operated farm.

Intentional communities rebel against two dominant American features; individualism and property rights/ownership. Both features are reflected in the overall perspective on land use planning and housing development here. In order to understand it, Dutch assumptions on land use planning need to be left behind.  In most places, state and county legislators refrain from ‘interfering’ with land ownership. Without zoning or specific designations, any land, no matter how far from an urban centre, represents a bundle of rights. For example water rights (see blog), and more importantly ‘development rights’. Development takes place where developer and landowner agree. Around cities, this causes a large ring of ‘urban sprawl’; fragmentation of land and a random patchwork of malls, offices, agricultural land, housing and roads without any visible coherence. Although farmers, who farm in the middle of this, oppose to the developments, they oppose to land use planning at the same time; nobody wants to give up their right to sell their rights.

A second type of suburban agriculture, therefore, is often led by private or public land trusts.  This means that land use planning is applied on the coherent whole of land owned by the trust on a certain location. Some parts are developed for housing, other parts for farming and other parts for nature conservation. A good example of this is Prairie Crossings, set up in 1987 by a group of citizens. This can only take place if development rights are taken off the land even though it is not used for building (‘easement’) to prevent future unwanted development. Rights are taken off by conservation easements in two ways; by being sold or being donated to the trust (the latter for receiving advantagous tax breaks). Whereas until 10 years ago, easements were only for nature conservation, nowadays there are agricultural easements possible too now environmentally sustainable farming is becoming a practice.

It is remarkable how absent the state is in land use planning. Planning in the Netherlands, such as Reconstruction Law land use planning, including the movement of entire farms for preserving natural habitats, equals to an unthinkable intrusion of property rights here.

First in time, first in right

For opposite reasons as why we created our “Waterschappen” in the Netherlands, there are Water Laws in the Western States of the US. In the states where I have been the last couple of days, Colorado, Utah and Arizona rainfall is pretty scarce. On our field excursion as part of the Changing Lands, Changing Hands conference, our guides tried to explain the extremely complicated water rights system of Colorado. Fortunately, somebody already told me over diner. “You don’t own the water that rains down on your land” my diner partner had said. Eehh?

It means that you cannot put a well on your land or use creek, river or lake water running on or near your land. You can only use water if you have water rights. Water rights are connected to ditches dug by the first settlers in 1860, and to Ditch companies who manage them. Those who claimed first, have more senior rights. The right equals to a share in the company; a certain quantity of water, measured in acre-feet (literally an acre of land with a foot water on top). In years of drought, those who claimed last will not receive any water, only for those with senior rights, the tap will be opened. Not all farm land has water rights, those who farm without, are known as the dry land farmers, usually farming wheat and/or cattle.

Right can be traded separately from the land. Each new development (housing, offices, malls) needs to have water rights too. Water rights are therefore sometimes more worth than the land itself. And it even happens that, in years of drought, it is more profitable for farmers to lease the water rights to a city or county than to farm. 

The Boulder county, one of the counties near Denver has a very progressive land use policy in place ever since 1978, an exception to the rule. This county is active to facilitate a new generation of farmers, such as those willing to start farming vegetables for farmers markets on small plots. We visited one such farmers association, which started two years ago. The land, including the water rights needed, is owned by the Boulder county which leases it to them against reduced prices. Otherwise this enterprise – and to many a dream – would not be possible.

colorado growers association 2 

(picture of Bart Eleveld Oregon State University)


Changing Lands, Changing Hands

Yesterday we drove a bit more than a thousand kilometers and crossed all the way through Nebraska into Colorado to arrive in Denver for a two day Changing Lands, Changing Hands conference. Nebraska is even more sparsely populated than Iowa and driving through I saw more irrigation installations than houses!irrigation corn









This national conference is part of the FarmLASTS project. This project addresses one of the “most pressing issue inUS  agriculture”; the access to, the affordability and security of agricultural land to (young and new) farmers. This conference addresses many of these topics, to a mixed audience of farmers, NGO members and academics from land grant public universities (such as Iowa State University).

The statistics provided by the project are quite startling. Agricultural land is increasingly in the hands of older owners (60+ years). Of all farm landlords, over 60% are over the age of 60 and 40% are over 70 years old. Many of them are women, because women often outlive their husband. Investor ownership is increasing. For example, in Iowa, 34 % of farmland owners were investors (2002). Nationally the percentage of farmland owners who are NOT farm operators is as high as 88%. So there are multiple challenges in farm entry, exit, tenure relationships and transfer to discuss here. Especially, because the estimates are that half of the US farm land will change hands in the next 20 years, which amounts to approximately 400 million acres.

Balancing between multiple realites

By Marlies Meijer, MSc-student combining Land Use Planning and Rural Sociology

“Only when we travel, and meet strangers, do we recognise other ways of being human” (Patsy Healey in Collaborative Planning, after Latour).

city - countryside transition in galicia

city - countryside transition in galicia

So here I am, travelling (or balancing) between land use planning and rural sociology, my Dutch planning knowledge and the Galician rural reality, between reading in Gallego, speaking in Castellano, writing in English and chatting in Dutch, between the Spanish working hours and my Dutch empty stomach.

As many students I wanted to stay abroad for a long period of time during my MSc. For students in rural sociology this is probably a logical highlight of their studies; students in land use planning leave their country less frequently. I wanted to go anyway. Since my interest in rural dynamics and policy making processes, contact with the RSO group was established quickly, together with the possibility to go to Galicia, Northern Spain.

Back in the Netherlands, I was aware of the Dutch context of my education so far. Most examples provided are Dutch, or could be placed in the planning Dutch context. I wanted to broaden my scope, go somewhere where policy making is less evident and face the effect of a different cultural context, but also to experience a real rural area. Now I find it hard to let the familiar Dutch context go and to explain what I exactly do study in the Netherlands (something like geography, people making plans and rural development) and what my research is about (even more vague). Multi-faceted policy, focussed on the spatial environment, does not exist here, as it exists in the Netherlands. So I keep on balancing, and exploring and let myself be surprised every day by the Galician way of doing.

Marlies also has a personal blog (in Dutch):