Can the rural environment become an opportunity upon the arrival of refugees in Europe?

Human migration has occurred throughout history and everywhere on the planet. The old continent has constantly witnessed major migratory flows. However, the current plethora of people, routes, motives and countries of origin, poses new challenges and a need to seek strategies to address these displacements.

If we speak of human displacement today, our mind jumps to the current influx of immigrants and refugees in the European Union (EU), originating mainly from social imbalances and armed conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is referred to as a humanitarian issue exacerbated by the exponential increase in the flow of asylum-seekers, vulnerable migrants, moving to Europe through irregular channels.

This is also a reflection of the economic downturn and a crisis of values affecting Europe; in short, a European crisis. Years ago, when the EU economy was solid and demanded labour for the workforce, there were no impediments to these persons joining the job market; but now we are looking at hundreds of thousands of people crowded in refugee camps in Turkey or Greece, or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

While these large flows of people occur, certain regions of the EU are challenged by the problem of depopulation, generated by domestic migration. This is the case of the regions in mainland Spain, suffering from an ageing population, loss of education and health care resources, neglect and overexploitation of natural resources, deterioration of the architectural heritage and loss of cultural and traditional values.

In this context, an increasing number of initiatives and projects are proposed to address the worrying depopulation rates. The reception of refugees and the current migratory movements are seen by some as a good opportunity to repopulate the European rural areas. But is this a real solution?

If we really want to repopulate rural areas by means of these migratory flows, it is essential to work on the culture of welcome, tolerance, openness and harmony in a context of diversity. 


Chequilla, in Molina de Aragón, Spain, has less than ten inhabitants in winter. Photo by María Barba

Let’s use our imagination to address these two challenges; refuge and repopulation of rural areas. We could combine both in an attempt to find an appropriate place for persons in search of new opportunities, of a life in peace to settle and at the same time, to revitalize villages on the verge of extinction.

Regardless of numbers, motives and origin, the arrival and settlement of a new population could mean a solution to the current problems of the rural environment. The towns would come to life again and regain their activity. Agriculture and livestock farming would be strengthened, increasing their socioeconomic importance, while new jobs would be created for the sustainable management of the natural, cultural, gastronomic, artisan and touristic resources.

The population increase of the municipalities would keep the village schools open, and they would be provided with the means and resources; it would improve school transport, and students would be able to learn professional skills without having to travel to the city, and thus expand the range of employment possibilities in rural areas. Social services and health care would guarantee home care, health centres and emergency services.

With these improvements in the employment situation, we would stop talking of an economy of survival. The shops and businesses would have significantly more customers, and would broaden the range of goods and services to meet the needs of the new population; bars, cafeterias and leisure centres would become new places of gathering and integration; there would be more participation in social and communal activities, leading to the recovery of the cultural and architectural heritage. Transport, telecommunications, libraries, accommodation, etc., would no longer be defined as insufficient or inadequate.

The environment would become a strategic sector in the development of new market niches. The rural areas would no longer have an ageing and male-dominated population. The streets would be buzzing again with families and young people.


If we consider what could be beneficial to the rural areas, the solution is not just to fight depopulation with the arrival and settlement of refugees. This is neither a simple process nor a failsafe remedy.

Considering the social reality of the rural mainland, especially in the region of Castile, the perception of the arrival of refugees in our villages may generate some fear and initial reservations that should be overcome. In areas where there are hardly any migrants, awareness has to be worked on previously, so that sharing spaces with the ‘new neighbours’ can be seen as something positive. This is what is known as a ‘culture of welcome’ and it requires all stakeholders of local communities to cooperate and establish ties to offer opportunities for integration in the host territory.

It is also key to consider and address all aspects involving migrants and refugees from the moment when they leave their country of origin, their journey, their means of entry and the initial stages of settling, in addition to their personal characteristics.

As inhabitants of the rural area, we know first-hand that the integration process is hindered by a more closed society on occasions. This, combined with the existence of consolidated communities of the same nationality (something that also happens in the cities), makes immigrants resort more to their support groups, thus limiting cultural exchange.

Considering that the labour market is small and there are few opportunities for self-employment, these new families or townspeople can often find themselves in situations that may be seen as a preferential treatment by local people with difficulties to access support.

Therefore, this process has to be dynamic and bidirectional, involving local communities and adopting a sensitive approach to the challenges and opportunities presented by migration.

On the other hand, we tend to think that there are no funds to promote the socio-economic development of depopulated rural areas, but Spain is one of states that have received most structural funding from the EU. Economic ‘practices’ have endowed the rural areas with impressive visitor centres, industrial estates with state-of-the-art technology, great sports facilities even with indoor swimming pools. However, despite these major investments, they may be abandoned or closed down due to lack of population. The aids to undertake economic activity are scarce and the initiatives that are underway face enormous difficulties for development, dealing with complicated regulations and bureaucracy.

If we really want to repopulate the rural areas, the global context of migratory flows must be taken into account. In this sense, it is essential to adopt and work on the culture of welcome, tolerance, openness and harmony in a context of diversity.

The perception of the arrival of refugees in towns and villages may generate some fear and initial reluctance that should be overcome.


El Regao vegetable gardens. Molina de Aragón, Spain. Photo by Ángela Coronel
El Regao vegetable gardens. Molina de Aragón, Spain. Photo by Ángela Coronel

At Fundación Cepaim our mission is to promote the model of intercultural society that facilitates immigrants’ full access to the rights of citizenship, by creating policies to fight against all forms of social exclusion and collaborating in the development of their countries of origin. Being aware of the difficulty of these processes, we are working to address the urban-rural issue. Through the project of integration of immigrant families in depopulated rural areas “New Paths”, Nuevos Senderos in Spanish, we work on the inclusion of immigrant families and individuals who have decided to move to rural areas. In addition to geographical mobility and the improvement of their quality of life, the aim is to generate and promote community development in the towns and villages.

In the New Paths project, we must overcome the fact that the rural environment is not seen as an opportunity for employment and quality of life. There are disadvantages such as the difficulty to be accepted in some communities, unequal opportunities for women, shortage of resources and services, and the widespread idea that urban environments offer more social, occupational and recreational opportunities, etc.

In addition, the few job offers that arise in the rural environment are very specific, temporary, and follow the gender roles established by a patriarchal society. For instance, the vacancies for male shepherds often consist only of shepherding the flocks and do not include collective tasks related to milking, breeding or health, which in many cases limits the acquisition of technical skills, and hinders the learning of the language, since they spend most of their time on their own.

Another job in demand would be housework or home care for the sick and elderly, for which women are sought. They are mainly seasonal jobs, usually for the summer, when many elderly people return to the hometown. It is a job with little recognition or rights, and employers often do not sign contracts or guarantee a minimum wage and acceptable working conditions.

There are also some temporary job offers in the catering and hotel industry, as rural population increases in the summer. Sometimes they demand self-employed people to manage the local pub, where it is impossible to make a living in winter, serving 3 or 4 coffees a day and paying for cable TV for a few customers to watch the football match.

It is no wonder that in view of such offers, mostly unattractive in principle, not many people are motivated to move to the rural area.


Based on direct experience in our work, we know that if we want the rural environment to have an important role in promoting the acceptance of refugees and become an opportunity to revitalize life in the towns and rural areas:

– The rural environment should be seen as a space for opportunity and quality of life.
– There must be a political commitment at different scales, so that the measures and investments in rural development can support initiatives and projects that come from the area.
– A rural environment is to be enhanced with quality public services and productive activities that foster culture, heritage, agriculture, food and natural resources in a sustainable way.
– Policies should be managed correctly and coordinately to benefit both the immigrants and the local communities.
– It is understood that living in rural areas is neither better nor worse than living in the city, it is just different.

Ultimately, if we want to end depopulation of our rural towns a real social and political commitment is required, leading to an equilibrium that guarantees the continuity of the rural environment and the basic needs of its residents.

Javier González (Fundación Cepaim)
Iván Maldonado (Fundación Cepaim)

Translated by:
Susana Artieda (IAMZ-CIHEAM)
Marie-Louise Tall (IAMZ-CIHEAM)

Article originally published in Revista Soberanía Alimentaria, Biodiversidad y Culturas, nº 26

Social innovation in mountain territories: insights from the conference “Mountain regions, territories of innovation”

“Mountain regions, territories of innovation” was the title of an international conference held on January 11-13, 2017 in Grenoble, France. The conference was organised by Labex Item, the platform for mountain research and territorial action in the French Northern Alps; it regroups academic and public institutions and other local stakeholders in the French departments of Savoie and Isère.

The aim of the conference was to discuss the relationship between mountain regions and innovation in the context of a wide variety of topics ranging from tourist resorts to social innovation and spatial management. SIMRA was well represented at the conference, with the specific goal of fostering discussion on the issue of social innovation. Project partners attended, moderated, or presented the SIMRA project in several sessions.

How to define social innovation in mountain territories?

Catie Burlando (UNIPD) and Manfred Perlink (UNIBE)
Catie Burlando (UNIPD) and Manfred Perlink (UNIBE)

The session “Transformative social innovations in mountain territories” co-organised and run by Manfred Perlik (Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern – a SIMRA partner) tried to answer the following questions:

How are social innovations different compared to other innovations?
– What are the specificities of social innovations in the mountains?
– What is an innovation in the context of a regional transformation process?

Several themes from different disciplines ranging from history to social anthropology, economic geography and political science were examined to address the socio-economic and cultural transformations in mountain areas, the relationship between regional actors and social innovation, as well as the specificities of social initiatives and governance in mountain regions.

Central issues were What is social innovation and how can we define it? To what extent are social innovations transformative? The presentations that took place during this session highlighted different definitions (see examples below), and SIMRA’s working definition was introduced:

Collective initiatives taken by citizens in response to social needs which are not otherwise fully satisfied by the market or political organisations (Klein and Harisson, 2007).
– Social innovations are new solutions that simultaneously meet a social need and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources (European Commission).
– The reconfiguring of social practices in response to challenges associated with society, economy or environment based on novel ideas and values. These practices include the creation of new institutions, networks and governance arrangements, and seek to enhance societal outcomes, especially but not exclusively for disadvantaged groups and recognising the likelihood of trade-offs among competing interests and outcomes. While these practices may include diverse institutions, they necessarily include the voluntary engagement of civil society actors [working definition based on the definition seen in the H2020 proposal of SIMRA (Nijnik et al., 2016) further developed by Slee et al. (in preparation)]

Several examples illustrated the richness of concepts associated with social innovation, which included references to new markets, governance, alternative networks, civil society mobilisation, cultural initiatives resources and relationships. For instance, one presentation focused on import-export dynamics in the macro-regional context of the Alps, highlighting the economic aspects of social innovation connected to competitiveness. Another presentation focused on territorial dynamics, asking how the origin and nature of relationships between residents of a region facilitate the emergence of social innovation, exogenously or endogenously.

How did SIMRA contribute?

mountains 2Many SIMRA partners are interested in exploring the issue of social innovation in mountainous regions. Such areas can be regarded as marginalized with regard to their geography (difficult terrain, remoteness of internal areas, limited infrastructure, etc.) but are also highly heterogeneous. These characteristics were introduced by Martin Price (Perth College, University of the Highlands and Islands – a SIMRA partner) in his keynote lecture.   Because mountain regions have specific constraints, looking at social innovations in mountain regions can help identify salient characteristics of these innovations and provide some answers regarding the patterns of emergence and development of social innovation in a physically constrained environment.

The conference included three SIMRA presentations largely based on joint considerations and shared views of team members from partner organizations and contributors: Carla Barlagne from the James Hutton Institute presented the SIMRA project with its conceptualisation of social innovation; Catie Burlando from UNIPD presented preliminary reflections on methods to evaluate social innovation in mountain areas; and Manfred Perlik from CDE (UNIBE) focused on the ambiguous character of innovation in the context of the Alps. In his point of view, a social innovation could be the questioning of the current Alpine specific strategies of regional development, and marketing.

The audience was reminded that social innovation has the potential to be a sustainable answer to economic and social crises. During a crisis, new modes of governance can rebuild trust relations and connections between individuals, thus also promoting economic relations and trade. A key element in the development of SIMRA is its emphasis on the involvement of stakeholders throughout the construction, implementation and evaluation of the project, particularly via the project’s Social Innovation Think Tank. SIMRA stakeholders can provide methodological advice, propose case studies, support network-building and offer feedback and contributions to ensure the project reflects the values it is trying to promote throughout the project and beyond.

Regarding evaluation methods, presentations and discussion during the conference highlighted how the identification of specific critical issues in the evaluation of social innovation can support more effective and inclusive mountain development policies via the adoption of indicators that capture the tangible and intangible elements of social innovation (e.g. network building, trust, quality of participation).

A few concluding remarks

mountains 4Transformative social innovation was presented at the conference in the context of mountainous regions. As mountains are part of global peripheries, experiences from the mountains can be fruitfully applied in other marginalised areas. While it was again recognized that there is no agreed definition of social innovation, and there might be a need for a general, rather universal, common vision of social innovation, it remains a very case- and context-specific phenomenon, so that several definitions can co-exist.

The definitions introduced by the different speakers focussed on two categories of scale. The first highlighted actions that emerge from and are led by individuals of civil society. The second related it to territorial innovation, seen as profoundly entrenched in the characteristics and dynamics of territorial institutions with their norms, values and conventions. Despite the differences, both types of definition stressed the importance of territorial embeddedness but also networks (formal or informal) as drivers of social innovation. Both reiterated the potential transformative power of social innovation and drive to create change within governance systems. For example, the emergence of social innovation was analysed while keeping in mind the long trajectory of a territory’s cultural legacy, highlighting how it can lead to changes in practices and consequently to a rethinking of norms within territories. Finally, strategies to build resilience and to adapt were discussed in terms of how they are linked to social innovation.


LAUREN MOSDALELauren Mosdale (Euromontana)

maria-nijnik_0Maria Nijnik (James Hutton Institute)

Carla_BarlagneCarla Barlagne (James Hutton Institute)

catie burlandoCatie Burlando (UNIPD)

Manfred Perlik_kleinManfred Perlik (UNIBE)


Fly Fishing in the Pyrenees to fix population in the International Year of Sustainable Tourism

Aragon is an autonomous region located in northeastern Spain. It holds reservoirs and rivers of great interest for sports activities. Many of those reservoirs and rivers are in rural areas whose towns have suffered large depopulation processes, as their lands have been flooded to build reservoirs and activities such as agriculture, livestock farming or mining have been abandoned. Some local companies have decided to pursue a model of quality, experiential tourism based on sustainability criteria to reverse the depopulation. This is the case of companies that provide fishing, rafting or canyoning guides, among others.

Fly Fishing Pyrenees 2The Pyrenees mountain range is in the North of Aragon. The Pyrenees Fly Fishing Company ( was started by two young men who chose Biescas as an ideal destination for a fly-fishing holiday on the sunny side of the Pyrenees and a good option to stay and live in the area.

Fly Fishing Pyrenees 3The Pyrenees are considered a unique place worldwide for fly-fishing, since they host the oldest ecotype of Zebra Trout in the European continent, and offer sunny days, warm weather, stunning landscapes and rivers, and a unique gastronomy and culture, in addition to national and natural parks belonging to an impressive ecosystem.

catchandreleaseFor the Pyrenees Fly Fishing guides it is important to promote and encourage this type of touristic model, especially now, since 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. This activity requires the services of one guide for every one or two fishermen, with the subsequent potential to generate employment. Moreover, being catch-and-release, this activity respects the fishing resources and adds value to the protection and conservation of elements of high ecological value such as rivers. As the guides say, “the rivers will not be conserved until the local economies perceive the benefits.”

Adrián Satué (Pyrenees Fly Fishing)
adrian 2