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The green Heart of Italy

In the middle of Italy there is an ancient land full of mystery, a region of mountains and caves, with clear springs, with small running rivers which flow over limestone. Wildlife roams free, and nature feels wild and pure. The locals are descendants of an ancient people called the Samnites, a people of pastoral warrior origins, roaming nomadically with their stock.

There is an old legend that says that each samnite tribe in the area had a special animal they followed, a white bull, a kingfisher etc, when the animal would wander so would they.

We at the Heartland Association chose this area in order to create a special model of Eco-tourism, integrated into the local fabric of life, one that helps repopulate the abandoned lands of the mountains, a model that energises green issues, such as responsible tourism and organic farming, putting them into a cohesive framework, turning this area into what it is already called: The Green Heart of Italy.

We have been working in the campsite industry for 15 years, mainly in the UK, and we own and operate a company, Spirits Intent, which manufactures nomadic tents, like yurts and tipis. Over the years we have created, or helped to create over 300 yurt campsites.

But all through those years we looked to create a deeper meaning, back at 2009 we started looking to get campsites to build a central “palace” in the middle of their campsites, a place where they can create events, a place that brings their clients into the real magic of living in a nomadic village, into the feeling of a tribe, into the magic so to speak, to give their clients something more than only a back to nature experience, we wanted people to also return to the tribe, to come together on those campsites not just sit in their own glamorous tent alone.

10-2So when we got to make our own site here in Abruzzo, we focused on creating the most spectacular tent venue. It’s called the zodiac tent, and adjoined 12 yurt complex with a massive central covered area; it’s a reproduction of a 12th century court tent of the mughul empire; it’s called the zodiac tent because it was made in the image of cosmos. The 12 yurts were the 12 zodiac signs, and the central tent that joined them was the celestial sphere, an image that represented the view of the cosmos in the 12th century, a tent that represented the whole world.

The idea is to take people into nature and let them feel their natural roots but also to wander across time into the tribal feeling of being together. It’s not just a holiday in nature, it’s an event centre with a heart, where people come together through life coaching events, allowing to bring real change into their life.

We have founded our site on an 11 hectare abandoned farm which is 1 km away from nearby neighbours in any direction, and it gives us the space to allow our visitors to totally detox from society, to remember another time, the land here offers a link with the past so that helps as well.

At the foot of the Majella massif we have found a land rich with nature, with small rivers, with free wildlife, a place that is rich with tradition and with a link to history that has never been disturbed. You can feel the Samnite tribes that lived in the land as if they only lived here 50 years ago; there is no cut in the strings of history. Tradition and culture run a continuous identity we never even imagined still exists anywhere in Europe. In the UK we are used to rural communities that have no more traditional identity because of the amount of buyers from the city; every house or farm has someone that came from somewhere else, the sense of rural identity has been lost.

But alongside all of the existing treasures we have found a land that has been de-populated heavily, neighbouring farmers that can hardly keep farming, local villages on the brink of being left abandoned, and whole areas in the country are left to be taken over by nature; places were families lived and farmed, even small churches are now overgrown and left to fall.

We decided we must help, we want to give something back for all the warmth they give us, to help this area make a stand, to come back and share its amazing history, its abundant nature.

So we decided to create a model for Eco-tourism using our 11 hectares of land, using our own yurt campsite, using our 15 years of experience. One that can be copied directly into other places across the region, to help use that new type of tourism, that is a little unknown in central Italy, as a platform for development, to open it to a new type of visitor, the slow and responsible type.

The Model is quite simple, we aim to use the fact that rural communes have been contracting inwards towards the villages, and this usually means there is a wealth of abandoned land up for development. The idea is simple: the lands at the edge of each local municipality get developed into a green park, at the heart of each of those green areas, there is a small tourist operator- a campsite or an organic farm with a b&b for example.

The old roads get developed slowly (using shared resources to minimise expenditure) into a sort of responsible tourism attraction, creating a network of walks in nature, into places where people can come and enjoy the outdoors, small handprinted signs sharing the history of the place, its wildlife,

img_0099-1Focusing on the one person at a time sort of tourism, rather than creating modern attractions that bring busloads of people. We believe the most important feature of this type of development is not to change the identity rural communities have, but to help them share their treasures of rural life and natural products in a sustainable way. Methods of giving houses away to investors if they renovate them, for example, or the whole sale of villages, we believe, is wrong because it encourages the loss of local identity.

Small investors can then come and take those abandoned areas, and develop them into a small attraction for visitors, the farmers around that area can support the activity by growing more and more organic produce that can be sold directly, and bit by bit the area gets developed into a natural haven. Finding people wanting to go back to nature isn’t hard. Yes, southern Europe is a little behind on that level, but there is a new trend full of people wanting to go back and create a small farm in nature, or start a little campsite, to farm naturally and live in an integrated relationship with the surroundings.

Basically we are implementing all we learned in the 15 years of campsite building into a very rural mountain area in Abruzzo, Italy, in order to help it develop using the small financial resources it has, but building on the wealth of nature and traditions it is famous for, because we believe this is the only way those areas can be brought back from becoming extinct: by using organic farming and eco-tourism hand in hand, creating a small network of attractions for visitors and small high quality restaurants that offer local product and traditional food, complementing organic farming with small touristic farm stays, an integrated network of back to nature, using the old traditions that have usually only just started disappearing.

In order to get this type of tourism to take hold, we are trying to get the region of Abruzzo to understand the concept of Eco-tourism, and see if it can develop some incentives to help small scale investors to develop those abandoned places. What we think is the best route of action is to create some planning by laws that maintain that eco tourism operators, organic farmers, or anyone who is willing to develop the countryside in that manner, is allowed to do so by building on farming land using low impact methods, like wood and mud buildings, straw bale, or even tents.

We are now looking if change of land use into a campsite, for example, is necessary, as this would create a lengthier and more complicated process for individuals, in a way it would be best if one were allowed to simply develop straight on agricultural land, because in most cases this is what one finds, so the local planning office needs to shed some light and be brought in on the scheme.

The idea is to use our own land and site, to use our experience in creating Eco-tourist campsites as a guinea pig. We intend to take a little more heat, in the hope that what we can establish here can later be copied elsewhere, saving others the time and hassle of going through the process.

We believe that because of the fact that rural communes in Italy usually lack the funds to fix the small roads and maintain them, a sort of deal can be struck where the small scale investor is asked to pay less tax to the commune from his business, in return to maintaining and developing those areas, with the understanding that because he or she developed the outreaches of the municipality it’s often hard to get all services to the site, and some kind of deal is struck so the investor can make a living,  with consideration that in fact the municipality is asking the investor to develop some of its infrastructure in return.

The most important aspect for us is that we have created an actual pilot rather than another study. All too often all the available funds get lost on creating studies or on paying consultants, they make nice graphs and collect local projects that hope for funding, but in the end no local cooperation takes place, no network of local attractions is created and there is a lack of a central body to lead small scale innovation.

We believe those little green areas, those small time investors can become the hub of those networks in each municipality, it takes a certain type of individual or organisation to do that, but it’s often that sort of person that will go and live at the edge of society so to speak, a person that develops nature, that would focus on changing others too.

We have found others here too in Abruzzo, small scale organic projects. We were amazed to see that not only they worked their fields by hand, teach an endless string of volunteers. They have even got into the local administration in their municipality in order to change things in the village.

It’s that type of individuals that needs the help, that needs the funding, people who spend years dedicating themselves to save nature, saving seeds of ancient grains, learning traditions, talking to the locals, helping in their fields.

We are now looking to create a network across Southern Europe, one that is going to use Eco-tourism to change local communities, we are looking for small operators, people trying to find a place to build a small organic farm, to own a small campsite in nature, but also bigger cooperations and funding bodies. We aim to help the region change some by-laws and make planning for that sort of tourism applications easier, to create laws that allow one to build eco buildings and low impact structures for tourism on agricultural land, without the need for change of use, we hope to establish a sort of network, of similar projects, so as to have a power in mass, to create this as a platform for change.

heartland_1It is an amazing experience to be able to help a whole region. We are now not only operating our own site (also called Heartland) but also working with the Heartland association to promote all green issues in Abruzzo. We are part-organisers of the Naturafest Abruzzo festival, which takes place this year on the 1-2 of October in the town of Lanciano. This festival is a sort of gathering of all the local organic and small scale tourist operators, a window for us to bring those issues to the public, and to come together as a whole.

If you are interested in co-operating, if you too are part of a rural community that needs to find sustainable progress, we are open to working with you, to help you implement the same methods to reach greener goals. You can view some of our work on http://spiritsintent.com/group-consciousness/

The website also has our contact details for anyone who wants to get in touch. The Heartland association has been created to focus on those issues, feel free to get in contact to become a member or if you need some help to establish a similar project because those are the aims of our Association, to help Southern Europe to make a rural stand.

Author: Nitsan Morag (Spirits Intent)

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Insights from the 8th International Social Innovation Research Conference by the Centre for Mountain Studies

Last week, the 8th International Social Innovation Research Conference (ISIRC 2016) was held in Glasgow. It was an informative and inspiring conference that gathered together a great number of researchers –mainly European but also from other parts of the world- to discuss their recent research in the field of social innovation. Although our project is in still in its early stages and so it is not ready to disseminate findings yet, it was nonetheless visible at the Conference. Our colleagues from all around the world received a SIMRA leaflet within their Conference packages and a poster describing our project was displayed in the main hall.

Other exciting projects studying social innovation in rural areas were presented during the Conference which gave us a significant opportunity to learn about what our colleagues are already doing in this field. For instance, there is RurInno, which was presented by Ralph Richter from the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS, Germany). This project studies rural enterprises as drivers of social innovation and local development and is focused on four case studies across Europe: NIDA (Poland), Stevia Hells (Greece), Otelo (Austria), and Ballyhoura  (Ireland). Also, Andrew Copus, from Nordregio, presented conclusions of the SIN project which focuses on territorial social innovation in demographically vulnerable municipalities in the Nordic Countries and Scotland.

Apart from examples of studies that have parallels with SIMRA, the ISIRC 2016 was a good opportunity to discover the trending topics in Social Innovation research. Plenary and parallel sessions contained an interesting variety of possible typologies and categories to describe social innovation. For example: generic, tailored, and systemic innovation; micro-innovation, ‘exnovation’, frugal innovation, disruptive innovation… However, all of them seem to share a common goal which constitutes the heart of the social innovation concept: the pursuit of a positive social change.  This idea appears to be the core of the social innovation features far more than the ‘innovative’ aspects.  In this regard, another frequently discussed idea is that all innovations must be considered in context, i.e.  developing a project that is similar to those developed in other places does not mean that it should not be considered as social innovation.

Beyond the big common ideas, each presentation approached the topic from a particular perspective and through a lot of case of studies, all stages of social innovation initiatives –from funding to impacts- were discussed during those three days.

The six stages of social innovation. Source: Murray, Caulier-Grice & Mulgan (2010: 11)
The six stages of social innovation. Source: Murray, Caulier-Grice & Mulgan (2010: 11)

There was also time for critical perspectives on the topic, and the ‘dark side’ of social innovation was discussed through the sessions. Two of the most spread ideas are that: i) innovations are not always good, and ii) social innovations must be carried out by people and not to people. In this sense, Taco Brandsen (Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands) delivered one of the most provocative presentations comparing social innovation to a fashion show. From his point of view, excessive importance is given to the ‘new’ part of the social innovation initiatives while the sense of newness itself can take the focus away from models that work. Excessive focus is sometimes put also on best practices while failures are not taken into account and the role of small and informal initiatives and projects downplayed. These trends altogether boost somehow a particular type of professional social innovation industry following almost the market logic. In fact, the relation between social innovation and capitalism was present in the theme of the Conference (Social Innovation in the 21st Century: Beyond Welfare Capitalism?). So, it is not rare that Ana Maria Peredo (University of Victoria, Canada) spoke directly about how social entrepreneurship would be furthering neoliberalism; although she developed arguments about the resistance components that are deeply rooted in social innovation initiatives such as the prevalence of commons.

Ultimately, the scholarly community seems to agree that more focus should be placed on the study of small-scale initiatives and social innovations run by communities even if they are not formally organised. So, there is an interesting niche to be explored which aligns well with the work we are doing on social innovation developed in rural areas. ISIRC 2016 provided an exciting and inspiring overview of the research fields on social innovation and discussion of concepts and ideas that SIMRA is going to explore.

References:

Murray, R., Caulier-Grice, J., & Mulgan, G. (2010). The open book of social innovation. London: National endowment for science, technology and the art.

Author:

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Diana Valero (Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College, UHI)

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Partners’ Lands to restore Spanish abandoned forestry areas

This post is available in Spanish here/ Este artículo está disponible en castellano aquí.

It was between 1855 and 1924 when the Spanish Government expropriated and auctioned the assets that belonged to the Catholic Church and the religious orders and the barren and communal lands of the municipalities. The principal aim of this confiscation was to get extra income to pay off the public debt securities that the state had issued to finance itself. Previously the owners of these assets used to pay very low or no taxes and with the change of their property the state could get more and better taxes.

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Goats browsing in a forest area. Photo: LLM

Most of the lands auctioned weren’t a good investment for potential buyers, because their profitability was going to be limited. However, they were essential for the survival of the nearest villages, because the neighbours had always used them for livestock farming, for getting timber and firewood, etc… So, their food (meat, milk and honey), their clothes (wool, furs and leather), their main energy source (firewood and coal) and the access to basic commodities for building (wood and stone) were at stake in an eminently farming rural system.

That is why, the neighbours, afraid of losing their livelihood, decided to get together and find enough money to access the auctions and acquire the land that sustained their way of living. These initiatives were very common in different parts of Spain and could be called Montes de Socios (Partners’ Lands), as a summary of the different local names: Monte de la Sociedad de Vecinos (Neighbours Association Lands), Montes del Común (Common Man’s Lands), Sociedad del Monte (Lands Partnership), Sociedad de Baldíos (Barren Lands Partnership), etc…

Over the years, many Spanish rural areas have been abandoned, including whole villages and their surroundings and even whole valleys. With the aim of recovering and promoting the Partners’ Lands social approach, and also to contribute to economic diversification, modernization and the improvement of the quality of life in rural areas, The Forestry Association of Soria has developed the project Montes de Socios (Partners’ Lands), funded by FEADER and The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

To achieve this goal, they will follow three main actions: Making the Partners’ Lands known, implementing practical examples of renovation of the Partners’ Lands through the constitution of executive committees and putting forward a proposal for basic regulations to establish a specific legal framework for the Partners’ Lands.

Meeting of three Management Boards in Ucero (Soria, Spain). Photo: montesdesocios.es
Meeting of three Management Boards in Ucero (Soria, Spain). Photo: montesdesocios.es

Thanks to the Forestry Association of Soria, the Ley Básica de Montes 43/2003 (Basic Law of Lands 43/2003) was modified to allow the Management Boards (Juntas Gestoras) to take over the land management without the imperative to find and collaborate with all the owners’ heirs. This change has favoured the creation of many Management Boards throughout a growing number of provinces.

According to the researchers, in Spain there are at least 1.500.000 hectares of Partners’ Lands, and most of them are located in areas endangered by depopulation. Sometimes, innovating in marginalised rural areas means looking back to the past in order to move ahead to the future.

More information is available at www.montesdesocios.es

Author:

Lucía López Marco (IAMZ-CIHEAM)
Lucía López Marco (IAMZ-CIHEAM)