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

Social farming in Italy: an added value for peripheral rural areas

Social farming, or care farming as it is also called, defines short or long-term activities that use agricultural resources such as animals and plants to promote and generate social services in rural areas. Examples of these services include rehabilitation, therapy, sheltered employment, life-long education and other activities that contribute to social inclusion (Di Iacovo and O’Connor, 2009).

Social farming activities emerged in the northern European countries (e.g. Belgium and the Netherlands) in the mid-20th century; and they soon spread throughout Europe as a result of a growing perception of the positive impacts on both the social and the economic welfare, particularly in peripheral rural areas (Gallis, 2013). While social farming has developed differently in the European countries, it can be seen as a way of addressing specific social needs and promoting innovative patterns of rural development that are rooted in local resources. On the one hand, social farming activities, by combining the agricultural environment with rehabilitation and care services, benefit peoples’ quality of life and their social inclusion. On the other hand, social farming activities represent an opportunity for farmers to broaden and diversify their multifunctional agriculture, to open up new markets and offer alternative services that go beyond food production.Continue reading

Participants of the 2016 EFIMED Week. © Giuseppe Tripodi.

Social innovation underpinning Mediterranean forest bioeconomy. Insights from the EFIMED Week 2016

The 2016 EFIMED week was recently, held at the core of the Calabria Region (Italy). A marvelous mixture of pastures, fruits orchards and forests with the sea in the far distance framed the event, summarizing in one sight all the main features of rural landscapes in Southern Italy. This multidisciplinary event brought together partners from different European and Southern Mediterranean regions so as to discuss: “smart Mediterranean forestry, bioeconomy and social integration”.

Prof. Laura Secco
Prof. Laura Secco (Univ. Padova and SIMRA Project). Photo: Flickr

The need of societal changes and innovation in an era of crises in terms of economy, cultural identity (urbanization) and migration fluxes, was stressed both from foresters and non- forester participants. “Are forests a mean of social integration or is social integration a mean for forest management?” was a key question posed by Prof. Laura Secco (Univ. Padova). The debate suggested that to build up innovative bioeconomy strategies, technological and process innovations are to be integrated with changing social realities. That would strengthen the resilience and effectiveness of the bioeconomy strategy within the forestry sector.

Some cases of social innovation in forest-based projects were presented. Joachim Englert (SocialForest) is a social entrepreneur who works for labor integration of unemployed young people and migrants -a vulnerable segment of the Catalan society- in the forest sector. Joachim drew attention to the need of evaluating social forestry businesses for their work quality rather than for the social element per se, which is fundamental within the business culture.

Moreover, forests hold a rich potential for innovative services and related jobs, i.a. forest pedagogics, forest geragogics, forest therapy. Petra Schwarz (Austrian Research Centre for Forests) highlighted the complementary of these new services within modern bioeconomy models.

A Greek case helped in understanding bottlenecks for social innovation in marginalized rural areas. Spyridon Mamalis (Kavala Institute of Technology) explained how the Greek economic crisis was “turned into opportunity” when thousands of youngsters decided to return to the rural areas to start new green businesses. However, the lack of infrastructure and public services to encourage entrepreneurship, act as insurmountable barriers for young innovators impeding the establishment of profitable and lasting businesses.

Participants of the 2016 EFIMED Week. © Giuseppe Tripodi.
Participants of the 2016 EFIMED Week. © Giuseppe Tripodi.

Immigrants in rural areas constitute a chance and a challenge. Alina Sabangeanu (Kogayon Association) showcased the weak integration of immigrants in a Model Forest governance system in central Spain. Immigrants constitute an important link in the wild mushroom value chain. However, conflicts with locals arise based on prejudices, hence becoming neglected in the development strategies. An opposite example was the emotional presentation by the Mayor of Riace (Italy). The willingness of his local community to revive of traditional practices, to renovate abandoned houses and to rejuvenate the local economy triggered the successful integration of 550 immigrants within a local population of about 1800 inhabitants.


Elena Górriz Misfud (EFIMED)

Valentino Govigli (EFIMED)

Innovate, folks!

Last 19th and 20th of October, the SwitchMed Connect 2016 event was held in Barcelona.  Such meeting aims to build strong network among social innovators in the Mediterranean basin as to scale up solutions, increase awareness and exchange knowledge and best practices.

Valentino M. Govigli (EFIMED) took part in this very inspirational conference. The event was structured in innovator talks and thematic tracks, namely Civil Society, Entrepreneurs, Policy, Finance, and Industry. The thematic tracks carried the audience through a journey of exciting innovative projects and bottom-up solutions for modern societal challenges across the whole Mediterranean basin. Some of the thematic covered included energy supply, education, water and waste management, topics all very relevant for the advocated switch towards a new circular and inclusive economy.

Switchers were the core of the event, as enablers of social innovation to move towards a more sustainable and responsible world.

These are just some of the new projects that Switchers from around the Mediterranean have developed and presented during the event.

One of the organizers, the SCP/RAC (Regional Activity Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production) trains Mediterranean practitioners about entrepreneurship and eco-innovation. Following the Civil Society Track, SCP/RAC presented some examples on the needs of Mediterranean local trainers. The willingness of local stakeholders towards the development of collaborative networks emerged as success factor. Within a dynamic working atmosphere, participants got a clear awareness of the need of peer-to-peer learning and the development of long-lasting cooperation networks.

Innovate, folks!

Author: Valentino M. Govigli (EFIMED)

Shaping social innovation for marginalised rural areas

As the Coordinator of the H2020 project “Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas” (SIMRA), I am very pleased to share the news that the 1st Workshop of the H2020 SIMRA Social Innovation Think Tank (SITT) that took place on October 26th – 28th 2016 in Bratislava and was endorsed by the Slovak presidency of the Council of the European Union, was a success. We received helpful feedback from stakeholders on the SIMRA progress since April, when this project was launched receiving funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under grant agreement 677622.  Systematic knowledge exchange and learning process in understanding and assessing social innovations for marginalised rural areas was the main objective of the first Transdisciplinary workshop hosted by the centre of excellence SPECTRA – joint research centre of the Institute of Forest Ecology Slovak Academy of Sciences, Slovak University of Technology and Comenius University in Bratislava. Members of the SIMRA consortium (consisting of 26 partners from 15 countries) met for the first time with more than 20 members of the SOCIAL INNOVATION THINK TANK (SITT, i.e. the Scientific Advisory Board and the Stakeholder Involvement Board of SIMRA, consisting of European, Associated and non-EU experts in forestry, agriculture and rural development). The Science and Stakeholder Labs of SIMRA have started working together. The questions considered, with answers suggested, included: What are the overall and specific variables of the emergence of social innovation in marginalised rural areas? How do they affect a range of success factors and the lessons learned in different rural areas? What are the most appropriate approaches, methods and tools that can be used for assessing social innovations? What does policy support to social innovation mean in different regional settings and contexts?  We are very grateful to the SITT members for their splendid contribution to this workshop. I have a strong belief now that in 4 years SIMRA will succeed in producing high quality scientific outputs and will eventually contribute to making a real difference on the ground, in marginalised rural areas of Europe and beyond, and especially in the Mediterranean region.

Author: Maria Nijnik, coordinator of SIMRA projectmaria-nijnik_0

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

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)

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.


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



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