Some Conceptual Building Blocks for the Sustainable Rural Development Paradigm

One common mistake about the new rural development paradigm (within the contemporary European context, at least) is to assume that it is simply a return to localism, and/or that it falls victim to the 'local trap' in general sustainability literatures. This assumes that there is an unproblematic set of elisions between the local embeddedness and overall sustainability. It is important to correct these sets of assertions by pointing out that a key feature of the rural development paradigm is the dual (i.e., with a strong agroecological root) socioecological process of rebuilding local resources (lets call these 'countryside capitals') at the same time as enlarging and deepening the interactions with the wider economy. Hence, it is not sufficient to simply read off socioeconomic or ecological actions from the particular geographical scale within which they may reside; nor to assume that local actions by themselves are the panacea. Rather, it is important to examine how new local (endogenous) and external interactions, as processes and practices, become constituted and reconnected in and through space. Nevertheless, this does not deny the significance of local and regional scales as potentially becoming new sites of resistance and innovation for the development of more sustainable actions and processes which can then be enlarged and diffused. What is crucial though is that new social, economic, and ecological processes begin to be put in place – to be rebuilt – which then connects in multifarious ways with the wider layers of the national and international economies.

These are important points of definition, not least because of the regular challenge that highlighting 'the local' also tends, by definition, to render it relatively marginal. In this sense the global and the macro marketbased perspectives, including those based around notions of competitiveness, have for too long been appropriated by those who, by definition, see the local as 'caged'; as the marginal.

If we hypothesize, as many of the results of international comparative European research suggest, that the 'capacity for local and regional forms of sustainable rural development are dependent upon enlarging the intensity and quality of their interactions with the wider economy', we can take one further step which then specifies this with regard to some key parameters of embeddedness and interactiveness which are necessary. Hence, we can suggest a set of key composite variables which are required and which need to be enlarged in order to create sustainable rural development:

  1. Defining rural development as an active structural and behavioral change in the rural economy, leading to a raising of its competitive capabilities in the face of 'cost price squeezes' and sustainability threats.
  2. Creating new local and regional institutional frameworks both involving the supply and demand management of rural goods and services.
  3. Raising the social and entrepreneurial capability for multiple resource use and synergy. That is the ability to generate different economic values from the same resource through coproduction, cooperation, and co evolution of the resource base; economies of scope rather than economies of scale.
  4. Increasing the quality, skills, and trust base of interactions between local resources and the wider economy.
  5. Increasing the number and density of the interactions between local resources and the wider economy.
  6. Increasing the degree of local producer and marketing negotiating power residing in the interactions between local resources and the wider economy.

It is clear that these are still somewhat abstract concepts, which in combination (rather than separately), and in the aggregate rather than in the singular, begin to provide a basis for real shifts toward more sustainable rural development, taking many of the earlier agroecological principles as their point of departure. These bring together some of the main components identified in empirical rural and agri food research over the past decade. Of course the parameters need to be grounded in and through particular rural spaces, given the inherent differentiation of these, and given the particularity of local agroecological and social conditions.

Two redefined principles need to underpin these rural development parameters. First is a 'reconfigured notion of competitiveness'. Competitiveness in this rural development context refers to not only price setting (although this can be both high and low depending on the variety of goods and services demanded by a growing quality based wider economy), but as importantly are the particular 'terms of trade' established between key actors and institutions in the supply and demand networks for these goods and services. In a world where markets, in a real sense, have been at least partially eclipsed by supply chain regulation, and where access to these chains becomes increasingly based around wider social and regulatory criteria, it follows that the overall competitiveness of any local rural economy is increasingly based around the two main infrastructural/competitiveness parameters (i.e., points (2) and (3) above). That is real competitiveness of the local rural economy becomes increasingly dependent upon the robustness and inclusiveness of new institutional frameworks, on the one hand, and the social and practical capacity to generate multiple value chains and products from the same resource base, on the other.

This latter point represents the second redefined principle: 'the relative capability for the local rural economy to do more than one thing at the same time from the same (and necessarily restricted) resource base'. We should remember that all historical forms of agrarian capitalism have attempted to meet this challenge. Early capitalism did it through the enclosure movement; Fordism did it through creating an increasing range of products from a very restricted agricultural input base; more recently 'post Fordism' in agri food, led by the internationalized retailers and processors, does it through the generation of over 25 000 food products in any one store and systems of logistics and category management which play havoc with our traditional (Fordist) notions of space–time.

The new rural development model, in this sense is no different, however alternative and sustainable be its overall objectives. Based in and as part of a revised capitalist logic, at the very same time as attempting to create and wrest as much autonomy from it, a key condition for rural development needs to be the actual intensification of time–space in such a way as to create a variety of goods and services with the intent to service a wider variety of external and quality constructed markets. The central feature here is to create synergies between the heterogeneity of production with the heterogeneity of marketing and demand; to create economies of scope and diversity, rather than just of scale. This is the very antithesis to the monocultural tendencies of agri industrialism.

Giving shape to concrete and functioning activities, in this rural development domain requires grasping revised notions of the competitiveness in which local rural economies are situated. In addition, it requires an improved understanding of how new horizontal and vertical institutional and entrepreneurial frameworks and platforms can be put into place.

These parameters of new rural development processes have to be underpinned by the three key features of interaction between the local and the wider rural economy. That is the quality, number/density, and the actual power geometries which exist within these interactions. These, of course are in interdependent relationship with the above more infrastructural factors, and they can be fostered and changed over time. In this sense this is a dynamic rather than a static parameterization.

In depth research in the rural regions of Italy, the Netherlands, and the UK exemplify and support the conceptualizations outlined here. In these studies we see the differential processes of rural development occurring with, for instance, new synergies developing between agri food, tourism, local and locality food chain developments. Here the specified use of the term multifunctionality in the context of rural development and the reconfiguring of resource structures is important. In Tuscany, for instance, we have witnessed the importance of new forms of institutional frameworks – such as agricultural consortiums and cooperatives – as important building blocks in enrolling producers and in managing the volatilities in quality supply and demand of new, or reconditioned local and (exportable) quality locality foods.

To a lesser extent, and with weaker institutional development and, weaker degrees of synergy we have witnessed still significant levels of rural development impacts from our studies in South West England and Wales in the UK. Here, however, the still dominant and somewhat inert agri industrial and postproductivist institutional structures and local/external relations can act as an impediment to the flourishing growth of real rural development alternatives. It is also clear, more generally from these researches that there tends to be an inverse relationship between the degree to which the rural development parameters outlined above can really become embedded and scaled up, with the institutional power and regional and local dominance of the agri industrial and postproducivist regulatory systems.

Wales is a case in point here. Defined by the national state since World War II as a cheap producer of essentially three agri food inputs – beef, lamb, and liquid milk – it has struggled to develop an alternative agri food and rural development strategy based upon endogenous development and the principles and parameters of rural development identified above. Finding space for alternative rural development strategies is ironically somewhat easier in those regions and localities which the agriindustrial regulatory model tended to historically ignore or sidestep. Many upland and mountainous European regions, for instance, are becoming the centers for new forms of innovative rural development, while much of lowland North West Europe (e.g., Eastern England, Northwest Netherlands) struggles to disentangle itself from the 'lock in' effects of different combinations of agri industrialism and postproductivism.

Hence, the parameters outlined here serve as a way of theorizing and conceptualizing the inherent differentiation of the rural development model, as it confronts the still powerful forces of agri industrialism and postproductivism. It has attempted to ask: what are some of the common parameters and principles involved in the process of rural differentiation? And, how might an improved theory and understanding be developed of this inherently differentiating and heterogeneous rural development process?

What these studies illuminate, however, are that practices such as 'retro innovation' – bringing back agricultural and land based practices from the past; 'ecological entrepreneurship' – whereby key actors begin to create and sustain new networks of action; can begin to build new supply chains and action spaces in which more value added can be captured at the local rural level. Moreover, it is clear that fostering 'urban based forms of procurement', not least in foods; and linking these to their rural hinterlands could have a radical impact upon generating rural development benefits both in the North and the South. For instance, the city of New York requires 800 000 school meals per day. Innovations in bioenergy and renewable energy, as well as food procurement are so far in their early stages. Thus the recalibration of urban demands with the reconstitution of the rural resource base is an important area for development, and one which the rural development policy community needs to be attuned to.

The parameters of sustainable rural development outlined in the latter part of the article begin to assemble some of the building blocks which are relevant in harnessing the internal and external potentialities of rural localities and regions in a more mobile social and economic context. These building blocks have their intellectual roots in the earlier discussions concerning agroecology and sustainable agricultural principles.

What is clear (from our research evidence in Europe, as well as beyond) is that it is possible to rebuild rural development in ways which increase the interactions with the external (urban and consumer based) economy at the same time as maximizing the ways in which more economic and social value can be agroecologically fixed in specific rural spaces; that is, to fit more effectively rural spaces into the more mobile and consumer based worlds in which they are now necessarily situated. However, this will not occur through market mechanisms alone; and it relies upon rural actors and institutions being proactive in both distancing and escaping themselves from many of the existing and devaluing aspects of rural life, at the same time as reassembling and redefining resources and infrastructures in ways which carve out new diversified niches of sustainable production of goods and services.