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Revitalising rural areas through innovation

22 January 2018

The European Union has launched the project Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas (SIMRA) in order to explain what is needed to make good ideas succeed in underpopulated territories or in areas of difficult access.

Nowadays, the main challenges for rural areas include the decline and aging of the population, as well as increasing pressure faced by the agricultural and environmental sectors. In this context, social innovation can play an important role in revitalising local rural communities and in helping them manage their precious natural resources.

With this aim in mind, the European Union has launched the project Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas (SIMRA), in which the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute (IAMZ-CIHEAM) is involved. IAMZ co-leads the working group “Communication, Dissemination and Innovation Actions” of said initiative.

SIMRA is a cooperative research project funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 programme. The project is taking its first steps in the identification of examples of good practices and key factors to enhance social innovation in marginalised rural areas of Europe and the Mediterranean. It studies and explains what is needed to make good ideas or projects succeed in areas which are usually underpopulated, isolated or difficult to access.

IAMZ’s contribution is focused on the dissemination of the project outcomes in social and digital media, as well as on the organisation of workshops and courses where stakeholders can learn about the project results.

SIMRA seeks innovative solutions to minimise the problems of rural areas by revisiting social practices and implementing tested, successful civil society actions. This project, which involves 26 European and Mediterranean organisations (including non-European countries, such as Tunisia and Lebanon), started in April 2016 and is expected to finish by March 2020.

In order to understand what can make social innovation successful in rural areas, SIMRA is creating a database which contains more than 40 real experiences of social innovation in rural areas. The purpose of this database is to analyse and comprehend the mechanisms of success in social innovation. Some of those instances have already been selected for their in-depth analysis as case studies, including initiatives from fields such as agriculture, forestry, marine science, energy and rural development.

Assessment and analysis

SIMRA assesses and analyses projects in order to transform them into case studies, in accordance with the following criteria: remodelling of social practices in response to social challenges, active commitment of civil society or community-based organisations, areas or social groups which have not previously participated in this initiative, and improvement of welfare in environmental, economic and social matters. Furthermore, this innovation must be adopted in areas or with social groups which have not previously been engaged.

Social organisations are not the only active participants in this project, there is also a consultation platform which guarantees that stakeholders and local organisations can take part and benefit from SIMRA’s outcomes in order to meet the needs of local communities. These outcomes are addressed to decision-makers, politicians, local development organisations, communities and individuals who work in the community and rural areas throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.
SIMRA’s innovative actions intend to identify and develop social innovation initiatives in certain selected regions, for example Veneto in Italy, Lancashire in the United Kingdom, Lillehammer in Norway, Lebanon and Catalonia and Gúdar-Javalambre in Spain.

SIMRA’s main aim is to fill the vast gap of knowledge and understanding that exists in social innovation. However, it is necessary to take into account the characteristics of each of the rural areas where SIMRA’s initiatives are going to be developed. These include the European Union, partner countries and third countries, with a special focus on the Mediterranean basin and including the non-European countries from that area. This regional scope requires SIMRA to concentrate on specific objectives and working lines for this area.

All these initiatives will gradually become known through different meetings among stakeholders, who will then have the chance to present their initiatives and also learn from others. Likewise, SIMRA’s project contemplates the creation of online or physical sales areas, with the aim of making public both the projects which are being conducted and providing information about the products which are manufactured and traded in these rural areas.

SIMRA’s initiatives

Some of SIMRA’s initiatives are, for instance, “A Basket from the Sea”, an initiative which delivers fresh and sustainable fish directly to Greek consumers’ tables, whilst guaranteeing fair prices to local fishermen. Other initiatives include a biodynamic farm in Austria, which provides 30 consumers with sustainably grown food; or a community of volunteer fire-fighters from the Catalan county of Bagès, who have managed to reduce forest fires and have turned the wood from fallen trees into a clean energy source for schools and other buildings.

There are other examples such as a social agricultural cooperative which offers daily care for the elderly and children on farms; an Eastern-European project which promotes organic agriculture among people who are at risk of social exclusion and which includes an educational programme; traditional food cultivation projects; community-managed wind turbines and crowd funding projects of energy generation; smart energy storage projects for rural communities with intermittent supply.

There are several projects in Aragon which are included under the umbrella of this European initiative. This is the case of the initiative Apadrina un olivo (Sponsor an Olive Tree), which seeks to recover olive groves in the area of Oliete, in the province of Teruel, and introduce its olive oil into the market; the business incubator of Adecuara, in the area of Jacetania; the project of Recartografías (Remapping), which is aimed at rehabilitating the Mas Blanco district of Teruel; or Pueblos en Arte (Villages in Art), a project which has lead ten artists to settle in the village of Torralba de Ribota in Zaragoza.

Some initiatives

  • Put the X on the map again

Recartografías (Remapping) is an association of people concerned about depopulation in rural areas and its consequences that are not only cultural but also environmental. There are many ways in which the effects become patent. One of these effects is the phenomenon of “demapping”, that is, the gradual disappearance of certain places from the map caused by depopulation and rural decline.

The association comments on the current situation: “A village school, pub or farm closes every year, or the people whose jobs were linked to the fields or mountains grow old and pass away. Ancient culture is slowly lost, as is the expertise of farmers, landworkers and craftsmen such as wickerwork or ropemaking. Transhumancy shepherds are also disappearing”.

Nowadays they are working on a restoration project following ecological standards in Mas Blanco, a district in the municipality of San Agustín (Teruel). Currently, only three people permanently reside in the area, although it used to have more than 200 inhabitants in the early 20th century. To this effect, they have managed to obtain the voluntary transfer of some property from the Council of San Agustín and various owners in order to restore it and reuse it as cultural and didactic spaces and tourist resources for the town. This association is entirely funded through the sale of their own products, such as T-shirts, bookmarks, crafts or books.

  • Put an olive tree in your life

Apadrinaunolivo.org ( Sponsor an olive tree) was created with the aim of recovering the olive groves in the area of Oliete in the province of Teruel. This area holds more than a hundred thousand millenary olive trees which were abandoned three decades ago due to the rural exodus experienced in this town. In three years of operation they have been able to recover 5,200 olive trees, create six permanent job positions and another six part-time positions. More than 3,500 people have come to the area to visit their olive tree and to learn more about the project, Oliete, and the Iberian culture.

As a gesture of appreciation, the association sends a bottle of olive oil produced with the olives from these trees to each of the sponsors. This oil is also introduced into the market, thus contributing to the structuring of this territory through the generation of employment and welfare for the farmers in the area and putting an end to its depopulation. They point out that where everyone else saw old and unproductive olive trees, we saw the driving force for welfare and economic development that Oliete needed to survive. Besides its clearly environmental nature, the initiative Apadrinaunolivo.org has a social-economic nuance due to the collaboration of the members of Atadi (Group of Associations of People with Intellectual Disabilities from Teruel).

With an amount of 50 euros per year, which is the price to sponsor an olive tree, the sponsor not only contributes to the survival of a tree, but also of a whole population.

  • Business support in rural areas

Adecuara was founded in 2000 with the aim of encouraging business activity. This association promotes territorial development at cultural, economic and social levels in the areas of Jacetania and Alto Gállego, and is specially devoted to rural areas.

All the public entities from both areas are involved in Adecuara, as well as the economic and social fabric represented by more than 144 bodies —including cooperatives, agricultural associations, and other associations or groups— which represent all economic, cultural and social sectors. Adecuara’s business incubator, focused on agribusinesses, is an initiative included in SIMRA’s project, although its addition to the database is still pending. The agribusiness incubator is a shared workspace with different rooms and workshops for the production of agro-food goods such as honey, cheese or bread.

The aim of Adecuara is to temporarily promote and encourage the creation of new enterprises and to facilitate the operation of existing local enterprises which produce outside these areas. The incubator not only provides spaces designed and adapted to the necessities of each business, but also offers the possibility of engaging with other businesses from the same sector. Furthermore, it allows entrepreneurs to have access to information, support and advisory services for their business activity. Nowadays, ten enterprises are settled in the two headquarters, in the towns of Jaca and Biescas.

  • Torralba, a village of artists

At least ten artists have already settled in Torralba de Ribota, a village with about 200 inhabitants located just a short drive from Calatayud, which has turned art into its pole of attraction. This is part of the initiative Pueblos en Arte (Villages in Art), which is also included in SIMRA’s project database.

The initiative was created in 2000 by the artists Lucía Camón and Alfonso Kimt with the aim of “attaining people’s and villages’ sustainable development using art’s transforming power as a source of inspiration and as a basis for social change.” They consider that culture “is a key element to build a fairer world and foster the economic development of people and communities.”

In Torralba de Ribota and its surrounding villages, the promoters of this initiative have established various spaces, some as symbolic as the Casa de las Aguas in Calatayud, for the artists to spend certain periods of time seeking inspiration for their work, exchanging ideas and experiences or working. However, some have eventually settled there permanently.

They are the driving force behind a varied programme of cultural activities and training and recreational workshops which constantly attract neighbours and tourists to this village. “Having a broad cultural programme in villages is a dream we want be part of,” state the members of the association.

Translation of original article by Alejandro Royo published in The Heraldo de Aragón on 8 January 2018