Living the peasant way of life in Santa Cruz de la Colina

After a longer posting-pause in which I finalized my first research phase, identifying supporters of rural grassroots development initiatives in the Province of Soto, here a new update of my activities in Colombia:

Time is flying and I am finalizing my second research phase, asking grassroots development initiatives to evaluate the support they are receiving to build joint capacities. To be able to speak with rural development initiatives, I was invited to spend a week with a peasant family in the vereda St. Ana of Santa Cruz de la Colina.

Santa Cruz de la Colina, Matanza, Colombia

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DERREG film Westerkwartier

Over the last 3 years, we have been carrying out research in the Westerkwartier concerning global influences on rural regional development.

The Westerkwartier, Groningen Province, The Netherlands

This research was carried out as part of the European project DERREG. The Westerkwartier was involved in two work packages of the project: 1. Investigating arrangements through which public support for joint learning and innovation is provided to development initiatives active in the region (WP4) and 2. Investigating global networking activities among rural businesses in the Westerkwartier (WP1).

In the summer and fall of this year, three film students from the University of Aberystwyth in Wales made their way around Europe to visit all case study areas and to film the present development activities. In the Westerkwartier, the film focuses on our research conducted for WP4 (joint learning and innovation). In this film, several supporters as well as the beneficiaries were interviewed. Their stories describe the development activities in the Westerkwartier very lively and give a feeling of the enthusiastic and motivated engagement of the denizens in developing their Westerkwartier. The film is available on YouTube and can be viewed here. Enjoy!

Presenting my Colombian case study area

During the last two weeks, I was in Bogotá to talk to experts from the IER at the Javeriana University as well as the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development to find out about public support for joint capacity building in rural Colombia. Now, I am back in the department of Santander to start my field work.

In order to be able to do an in-depth study of a) how support for joint capacity building in rural areas is organized and b) how this support is evaluated by its beneficiaries, I narrowed my case study area down to one municipality: Floridablanca.

Main square in Floridablanca

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Excursion to Los Maklenkes nature reserve

Last Monday (21st of November), I participated in a field trip to Los Maklenkes nature reserve on top of the mountain La Judía in the municipality of Floridablanca, close to Bucaramanga. This nature reserve is managed by the peasants living around the reserve and, amongst others, sponsored by the Dutch state lottery. The field trip was part of the festival for urban-rural dialogue, in which I participated the previous weekend.

Los Maklenkes Nature Reserve, Floridablanca, Colombia

The day started with a gathering of all participants to make our way up the mountain to the nature reserve. It was an adventurous drive with 16 people in one Jeep, going up steeper and steeper mud-paths. I dared not to look to the right where the mountain was falling as steep to the ground as the road was crawling up.

Upon arrival at the entrance of the park, we were greeted by the local peasants and informed about the history of the nature reserve and its aim to protect biodiversity and water reservoirs. Following the introduction, we switched into our rubber boots and commenced with a three hour hiking tour through the reservoir.

Getting ready for our hike

Here, we saw the organic agro-forest farming activities which are being initiated under the facilitation of Fundaexpresión, a local NGO for promoting participatory research activities and education in peasant communities. I saw plantain and banana trees, coffee plants and avocado trees.

Banana tree

Following our hike, we settled in the communal house of the reserve to discuss nature protection activities in the high Andes and their impact on the livelihoods of peasants. At the end of the discussion, it was agreed that the provision of information and the creation of knowledge at local level was the most crucial point in enabling local peasants to deal with the resulting pressures on their livelihoods. The provision of information and the facilitation of capacity building were, however, regarded as poor. It was agreed that more attention must be given to the provision of information and the facilitation of capacity building at local level should peasants be enabled to deal with pressures on their livelihoods resulting from nature protection activities.

II Festival de Expresiones Urbanas y Rurales: Diálogo por la Diversidad y Buen Vivir, Bucaramanga, Colombia

Last weekend (18-20 of November 2011), I was able to participate in the II Festival for urban-rural dialogue in the barrio La Joya in Bucaramanga, Colombia. The festival was visited by peasants (such as fishers, women groups, and farmers), indigenous groups as well as knowledge brokers from all over Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela and Cuba. In addition, urban citizens from Bucaramanga, and La Joya in particularly, participated in the event. This mix of participants created a valuable learning environment for everyone (including me), and resulted in new ideas and organisations amongst the participants. In a way, this festival reminded me of the rural cafés I visited in the Westerkwartier, the Netherlands.

The overall theme of the event was the environmental conflicts in rural Colombia resulting on the one hand from the numerous (and often multinational) economic exploitation activities (e.g. gold mining, hydroelectric power activities and monoculture) and on the other hand from conservation activities.

Poster presented at festival

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On the trail of regional learning in rural Colombia

Over the last two and a half years, we have been investigating arrangements to support regional learning in various rural areas across Europe (EU-project DERREG). This intense period of field work and data analysis has given me a first idea of just how complex this subject is, how diverse supportive arrangements can be, and how dependent their success is on the regional contexts in which they are implemented.

As if this complexity is not already enough to ponder about, my curiosity and interest in mutual learning for development has urged me to also investigate this topic outside the European Union. I was particularly interested in questioning how rural regional learning is supported in, what is commonly referred to as, “developing” countries. So, here I am in Colombia,

Downtown Bogotá, Colombia

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DERREG Policy Seminar in Brussels

Last Thursday March 31, a Policy Seminar had place to discuss the relevancy of the results from the EU-funded reserach project DERREG for EU-policies.  Although the project and the work is not yet completed, emerging outcomes and policy recommendations were presented by the project coordinator prof. Michael Woods and the four coordinators of the respective workpackages on Rural business networks, Rural migration patterns, Sustainable development and Rural regional learning. The emerging outcomes and recommendations are also capitalised in the European Policy Brief published at the DERREG website.

WU is coordinator of Workpackage 4. We focussed on how public support and faciliation of joint learning and innovation in grassroots (place-based) development activities can be best arranged. We have explored, mapped and analysed various such arrangements in six case study areas. See the example of the map of the ‘governance of joint learning and innovation’ in the Westerkwartier below.

Map of the governance of joint learning and innovation in the Westerkwartier (NL)

These arrangements and the support or faciliation given was evaluated by the beneficiaries (see earlier posts on case-study area Westerkwartier, AlytusDresden and Comarca de Verin).

Although we will extend our analysis and specifically elaborate more on ‘promising or good practices’ revealed, Wiebke Wellbrock and I presented the main findings and policy recommendations (see our presentation).

Key to our findings is that the effectiveness of support policies depends on well working operational interfaces between public policies, grassroots development initiatives and (knowledge) facilities to support joint learning and innovation. These interfaces get shaped in agreements between various public and private partners but it are operational agents or agencies fulfilling various intermediary task and roles connecting different ‘worlds’ that make them work (well).

Rural regional learning in the Comarca de Verín, Galicia, Spain

Within the European research project DERREG, we are investigating how public policy can best be arranged to stimulate capacity building within development initiatives operating at grassroots level in rural areas across the European Union.

To find out how public policy interventions can best be arranged, we and our research partners have spoken to various stakeholders in different rural regions across the European Union to find out how they intend to support and facilitate learning and innovation and- most importantly- how the support and facilitation agreed upon is actually provided to the grassroots development initiatives. To find out what is working well and what isn’t working well yet, we have spoken to a number of grassroots development initiators in the participating DERREG case study areas and ask them to evaluate the current support and facilitation received.

To be able to compare the results obtained in the different case study areas, I have travelled to Alytus County, Lithuania in October and Oberlausitz, Germany in December of 2010. In January of this year, I was able to visit our colleague Lola Dominguez Garcia of  Universidade de Vigo in the Comarca de Verín in the South-West of Galicia, Spain. In this blog, we intend to share our experiences. Continue reading

Rural regional learning in ‘Upper Lusatia’ (Oberlausitz), Germany

Following my visit to Alytus County, Lithuania in October, I travelled to Leipzig, Germany to visit our DERREG project partners Michael Kriszan, Robert Nadler and Joachim Burdack (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography) in their case study area ’Upper Lusatia’. In this blog, Michael, Robert, Joachim and I would like to share some of our experiences.

We first discovered that the case study regions Westerkwartier and Upper Lusatia are very different in their geographical and demographical characteristics. The LEADER region Westerkwartier in Groningen province comprises four municipalities on an area of 374km² and has a population density of 173.4 inhabitants/km² (as of 2007). In 2006, its GDP per capita was estimated at 55,400 Euro and the area has recently witnessed a population increase due to its popularity amongst young families who work in the city of Groningen and value the countryside as their residential area. The Southern part of the Westerkwartier is thus characterized by a high population density and a number of conflicting interests regarding the use of the countryside while the North of the Westerkwartier is primarily used for agriculture.

Upper Lusatia consists of the two Saxon districts Landkreis Görlitz and Landkreis Bautzen that have only been established in 2008 in the process of a reform of the administration units in Saxony. The case study region has an area of about 4,500 km² and has a population density of 135 inhabitants/km². It comprises 122 municipalities- of which 30 are urban centers- and had a GDP per capita of 18,329 Euro (district Görlitz) respectively 19,396 (district Bautzen) in the year 2007 . The region is divided into ten rural development areas, six ILE regions and four LEADER regions. In contrast to the Westerkwartier, the population of Upper Lusatia is shrinking rapidly. Young inhabitants are leaving the area due to a lack of employment opportunities, leaving the elder people behind. Rural development in this region is therefore not only affected by an aging population but also by a shrinking human capital available for development purposes. Through the reform of administrative units altogether four previously distinct districts (Landkreise) and two cities (kreisfreie Städte) have been incorporated into the two “new” districts of Görlitz and Bautzen. The previous Landkreise, however, are very distinct in their physical appearance. The former district Niederschlesien-Oberlausitz for example is characterized by a low population density and shaped through past and present coal mining activities while the hilly district Löbau-Zittau is recognized as a touristic area and winter sport resort. Due to the lack of a common history and the physical distinctiveness, there is no regional identity of the population within both districts.

To evaluate the support and facilitation available for learning and innovation within local grassroots development initiatives in Upper Lusatia, Robert, Michael and Joachim organized a workshop for regional stakeholders.

Workshop in Upper Lusatia, Germany

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Rural regional learning in Alytus County, Lithuania

Last week (October 21-22, 2010), I was given the opportunity to visit our DERREG project partner Emilija Kairyte (Institute NeVork) in her case study area of Alytus County in the South of Lithuania. In this blog, Emilija and I would like to share our experiences.

Like the Dutch DERREG case study region Westerkwartier in the province of Groningen, Alytus County comprises four rural municipalities. In terms of demography and economy, both areas are very different from each other. For example, the Westerkwartier has a population density of 173.4 inhabitants/ km², whereas the population density of Alytus County is estimated as 32.6 inhabitants/ km². While the Westerkwartier has witnessed an increase in citizens over the last years, amongst them a large number of young families, rural development in Alytus County is strongly affected by an increasing out-migration and an aging population. Living standards differ considerably. In the Westerkwartier, the GDP per capita was estimated as 55.400 Euro in 2006 while the GDP in Alytus County was estimated as 19.100 Litai in 2007 (equals 5.531,74 Euro, October 2010). Also in geographical terms the two regions are very different. The Westerkwartier is characterized by open grasslands in the North and small fields with framing hedgerows in the South. Alytus County is renowned for its vast forests and lakes.

During my visit to Alytus County, I accompanied Emilija to two workshops, one for the LAG and other public administration authorities on the 21st of October and one for rural initators and actors on the 22nd of October, which she organized in order to evaluate existing arrangements for support and facilitation of joint learning-by-doing activities within rural development initiatives. At these workshops, I presented supportive arrangements and benefiting rural development initiatives that we found during our investigations in the Westerkwartier and which we evaluated together with local stakeholders at a workshop organized by the Rural Sociology Group in the Westerkwartier on the 18th of October.

Meeting with rural development initiative supporters in Alytus District LAG office, Alytus

To my surprise, both regional learning supporters (including the LAG) and rural initiators did not see striking differences between the existing arrangements and support given to rural development initiatives in Alytus County and the Westerkwartier. Emilija and I however learned that there are some basic differences in the foundation and operation of the Countryside House (Plattelandshuis) in Westerkwartier and Seniūnija (NUTS5) in Alytus County. Continue reading