Did Traditional Rural Populations Live Well?

For centuries, populations inhabiting marginal agricultural areas organized their lives in a self-sufficient manner (Blondel 2006). The industrial revolution and the globalization of the food and labor markets brought many of these regions to an economic disadvantage with urban and peri-urban areas: increasing wages associated with economic growth and the low food prices in global markets rendered the low-productivity farmland uncompetitive.

Nowadays, marginal agricultural areas throughout the globe are classified as “poverty traps” where households suffer from scarcity of resources, low return on investment, lack of opportunities, and reduced social services (Conti and Fagarazzi 2005; Ruben and Pender 2004). For example, in mountains of Southern Europe, rural populations are constrained by the low productivity of small-scale parcels and the limited opportunities for mechanization and intensification (MacDonald et al. 2000). On average, across European mountain areas, the income per hectare is about 40 % lower than in other, non-disadvantaged, areas (809 €/ha vs. 1370 €/ha in EC 2009). The young have limited access to education and employment while the elders experience isolation and difficulties to access services (EC 2008a). This results in out-migration and aging of the population, leading to an inverted population pyramid. This rural exodus is driven by a “circle of decline” where low population density limits business creation, causing fewer jobs and more out-migrations which, in turn, accentuates the decrease in population density (EC 2008a).

Rural populations still value the quality of their environment and its scenic beauty (Bell et al. 2009; Pereira et al. 2005), but the working conditions in many of these regions have always been difficult. Terraces are some of the most admired cultural landscapes in Mediterranean areas, but locals often use the expression “slavery land” to describe the harshness of the working conditions (Pereira et al. 2005).

Are Current Efforts to Maintain Traditional Landscapes Likely to Succeed?

Traditional agricultural practices were characterized by being labor intensive for relatively low agricultural yields (MacDonald et al. 2000; Gellrish et al. 2007). These characteristics played a key role in the demise of many of the traditional practices when labor costs rose due to economic growth, an effect that contributed to and was exacerbated by rural exodus. Large numbers of livestock kept vegetation succession on hold for centuries, but in the past few decades livestock numbers have declined in many of these regions (Cooper et al. 2006). In Europe, the number of livestock (cattle, goats and sheep) declined by 25 % between 1990 and 2010 (FAOSTAT 2010).

Still, recognizing the role of European farmers in maintaining these landscapes (Daugstad et al. 2006), several measures have been implemented to limit farmland depopulation. As part of the European Common Agriculture Policy, Less Favored Areas (LFAs-Regulation 1257/1999) were designated mainly to prevent rural abandonment and maintain cultural landscapes (Dax 2005; Stoate et al. 2009). LFAs went from representing a third of the European Utilized Agricultural Area (UAA) in 1975 to more than half in 2005 (Dax 2005; MacDonald et al. 2000). Though the LFA classification often happens to match High Nature Value farming systems and extensive agriculture, it poses no limit to intensification and overgrazing (Dax 2005).

In the Rural Development Plan for 2007–2013, the payments to farmers in LFAs totaled € 12.6 billion (DG Agriculture 2011). Though the sum of these subsidies is substantial at the European scale, at the individual level they might not be enough

Fig. 1.3  Past and future trends of European agricultural area and rural population. Agricultural area (lines): land-use change predicted in the four scenarios of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (van Vuuren et al. 2006). The projections are based on the area of food crops, grass and fodder, and biofuels crops, between 1970 and 2030. OS order from strength, AM adapting mosaic, GO global orchestration, TG techno-garden. Rural population size (bars): historical values ( dark gray) and future projections ( light gray) (FAOSTAT 2010; past data for the Baltic countries from nationmaster.com)

to maintain young farmers or attract new residents (Cooper et al. 2006), especially in areas where the farm size is small. For example, when considering an average farm size of 23 ha in mountain areas (MacDonald et al. 2000) and an average LFA subsidy of € 100/ha (Dax 2005), the average payment is of € 2,300 per farm/year. This value can be higher if farmers also adhere to agri-environmental schemes, but overall LFA farmers still have lower incomes (Cooper et al. 2006): the Farm Net Value Added is 13,056 €/ Annual Work Unit in mountain LFAs, 14,174 €/AWU in other LFAs, and 18,923 €/AWU in non-LFAs (average for the EU25 countries between 2004 and 2005 in EC 2008b).

Hence the decrease in rural populations that started in the 1960s is projected to continue into the next few decades (Fig. 1.3). Future scenarios predict that the contribution of agriculture in regards to GDP and employment in Europe will continue decreasing (Eickhout et al. 2007; Nowicki et al. 2006) and the young generations will keep migrating to the cities, as long as their life quality and income prospects are higher there (EC 2008a; Keenleyside and Tucker 2010) resulting in the non-replacement of the aging population of European farmers.

Following the decrease in the rural population, agricultural area in Europe is also expected to keep contracting (Fig. 1.3), despite an expected increase in the global demand for agricultural goods, because enough food is obtained either directly by production on competitive land in Europe or elsewhere in the world (Keenleyside and Tucker 2010). Regionally labeled and organic products could help maintain

Table 1.1  Projections of future change in the agricultural area (arable land and pasture) from different studies

certain forms of extensive agriculture but this market remains restricted (Strijker 2005). Projections also take into account an increasing demand in biocrops (Rounsevell et al. 2006; Schröter et al. 2005; Verburg and Overmars 2009), which can explain a moderate increase in the predicted agricultural area in some scenarios.

The dimension of the agricultural area abandoned or converted into production forest varies widely between scenarios (Table 1.1). If we use the intermediate scenarios in Verburg and Overmars (2009), between 10 and 29 million ha of land will be released from agriculture between 2000 and 2030. Areas particularly susceptible to the decline of agropastoral use include semi-natural grasslands and remote or mountainous areas with poor soil quality (Keenleyside and Tucker 2010; Pointereau et al. 2008; Stoate et al. 2009). Some of these areas are located in Northern Portugal, Northwestern France, the Alps, the Apennines and Central Europe (Fig. 1.4).

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