Amongst young people, the desire to leave the city and urban spaces is higher than we think. This has been uncovered in the sociological study performed in WP4 of the RUR project, but I have also personally experienced it through my personal connections and the Grassroots Event we organised from the XCN on July 17th. The study that was performed in Catalunya, showed there was a significant trend of young people that had interest in moving to more rural areas, leaving urban areas behind, and had already started doing so, but encountered many barriers. This trend was also very prominent in the attendants that came for the Grassroots event; the great majority were youngsters that wanted to do the shift from urban to rural, and attended the event to get more tools and information about how to carry out the shift. In my personal experience and wishes, I also share this desire to distance myself from the urban context and settle down in a rural environment, working with and for the land and creating a community there.
Ecosystem services and the new land stewards
There are several reasons that I have come across when asking young people about wanting to move to rural areas, however, usually the most prominent is to reconnect back with the land, move away from the stress of the cities and live sustainably. More and more people are getting familiar with the concept of land stewardship, where individual citizens, either landowners or leasers, can directly act on the land they live in or work to ensure a sustainable use and contribute to the conservation and preservation of the area. Land stewardship and all it implies is strongly linked to the preservation of the ecosystems services of the land. Ecosystem services are, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), the “benefits that people receive from ecosystems” (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). These benefits can be observed in different spheres, depending on the type of ecosystem service. This makes them one of the biggest drivers for nature to be conserved through land stewardship.
Currently across the EU and in local contexts, there are more and more programmes that are rewarding land stewards that ensure the provision and continuity of these ecosystem services, especially the ones related to regulating ecological and climate dynamics. In the EU, there are there are several territories win which this practice of compensating the landowners or leasers to ensure the provision of ecosystem services has already been implemented through the “Results based Payment” programme, where the payment is not calculated according to the monetary value, but according to the cost that the landowner needs to assume in order to provide them. In Catalonia, there are also localities where this measure is being considered. The Operationa
l Group in Garrotxa, is working to enhance the importance of nature conservation with the importance of extensive livestock farming through various compensating mechanisms.
Through land stewardship, young individuals and communities can directly care for the land. This is a rising trend amongst the young population; many want to leave the cities to live a more sustainable lifestyle, tied to respecting the land, make the most of rural communities and in many cases, becoming more self-sustained by working the land themselves in bigger or smaller measures. This shift in mindset and lifestyle can directly be linked to the rural generational renewal, as the more young people settle in rural contexts, the more people, present and future if they start families, will be able to keep alive the practices and traditions of these rural contexts.
Barriers and opportunities
Young people and associations choose to take care of the land, returning to the countryside under the values of agroecology, food sovereignty, and understanding the land as a common good that must be protected. However, they have to deal with the problem of access to land, among others. In spite of this desire by an elevated group of young people, there is still a lack of urban exodus due to the lack of tools, information and opportunities we can access. From my experience and from studies conducted, one of the biggest barriers they face is the lack of support at taking the first step. This involves the lack of information about available land to settle in, the lack of smaller scale agricultural opportunities that can use agroecological practices, and the lack of significant capital. In addition, we need to compete with the industrial and conventional agricultural industry to obtain land, as well as the instability of the agricultural land market.
All these barriers call for immediate and concrete action, both from the civil society and public local authorities. There are already many resources available, such as land banks, rural communities, testing sites for farmers and farm incubators, rural and agricultural schools for new entrants, etc, but they are very scattered throughout the territory, are not very well known or used to their full potential. That is why we need action, from the civil society and local authorities, working together to achieve the same goal. This would be to exploit these incredible opportunities that are already developed, make the most of them through connecting them to the people that need them, create new opportunities and keep innovating so that the rural future looks brighter, with new and enthusiastic communities, committed to taking care of the land, the people living off the land the the future generations.