The return of remoteness: re-appreciating mountain amenities

By Thomas Dax, Federal Institute of Agricultural Economics, Rural and Mountain Research (BAB), Austria.

In the past, mountains have been primarily perceived as places distant from centers of economic and cultural development. This led to common views that these areas represent Less-Favoured Areas (LFA) and, consequently, consensus for public support to farming activities in those areas has gradually risen since the European Commission defined mountains (1975) as the type of areas most affected by LFA challenges.

Austria_Styria image Thomas Dax
Peripheral location and difficulties in accessing mountain areas are seen as most characteristic threats for integrating those regions into efficient and global economic processes. Image: Thomas Dax

 

In addition to the ruggedness of the terrain and climatic disadvantage, the peripheral location and difficulties in accessing these spaces are seen as most characteristic threats for integrating those regions into “efficient” and global economic processes. They are hence understood as remote places in current socio-economic narratives of regional development. This logic and line of argument still reflects the common mindset and is predominating in our status quo of dealing with mountain LFA challenges (see The status quo of dealing with mountain issues in Slovenia in NEMOR’s blog by Andreja Borec, Slovenia) and considerations to increase sustainability in shrinking mountain communities (see Planning for sustainability in shrinking mountain communities in NEMOR’s blog by Hans Olav Bråtå, Norway).

Intensive scientific and policy discourses over the past decades have strived against this predicament of limited development options, being trapped in this defensive view of powerlessness and aiming to revert the “downward-spiralling” processes in these regions. Program and project development was eager to celebrate “best practice” which was sometimes taken as replication model for other areas, yet overall with limited success. However, some good practice examples unveiled new views on the role and functions of mountain areas, and strengthened the trend towards looking differently at mountain and remote areas. They are not any more seen only as “backward” and “doomed to fail” but include significant amenities, assets and attraction that alter our perspectives.

Crete, Mochlos. Image: Thomas Dax.
Rural policies aimed at nurturing place-based assets and enhance amenity provision, awareness and recognition of potentials, public goods acknowledgement and local initiatives. Image: Thomas Dax

 

Traditionally rural policies aimed at nurturing place-based assets and enhance amenity provision, awareness and recognition of potentials (OECD 1999), public goods acknowledgement and local initiatives (Dax 2019). However, increasingly recent studies focused also on gaps in assessing policy performance. The simplistic cause-effect relationships, alleged by the methodological instruments Theory of Change approaches are questioned more and more to achieve a realistic finding of institutional prerequisites and policy processes (Dax and Copus 2020). What has been discussed since long but hardly accepted in its practical effects in implementation is the decisive nature of assumptions attached to explanatory frameworks of policy assessment, and the relevance of geographical, social and market, and policy context. Change processes cannot be referred to as one-dimensional targeted plans, but crucially are related to understandings and views, and emotional approaches on useful action and desired futures.

With emerging critiques on neo-liberal lifestyles, assessment frameworks and value systems, remoteness is seen differently, not just as an “obstacle” to development. In contrast to the “flat world“ theory, anthropologists have been very clear to emphasize the return of remoteness, underpinning that remote areas are not a “primordial condition“ but rather the result of “a social and political process“ (Saxer and Andersson 2019, 140). In June 2022 initial findings of the H2020 Project MATILDE (Migration Impact Assessment to Enhance Integration and Local Development in European Rural and Mountain Regions) were published as MATILDE Manifesto, entitled “The Renaissance of Remote Places” (Membretti et al. 2022). Its aim is to reveal the ongoing shift in perceiving remote regions, and, at the same time, to contribute to a new narrative about rural and mountain territories. This intends to address the complex spatial dynamics of in- and out-migration, social inclusion processes and calls for innovative policies at local, regional, national and EU-level.

H2020 project MATILDE
The H2020 Project MATILDE.

 

Realizing the deeply rooted perspectives of rural and mountain regions as dependent, less competitive and “marginal” places, in comparison to urban areas, it is concluded that “it is time for a new rural and mountain narrative” (Dax et al. 2022). However, rural and mountain development policy instantly reach deadlocks when they remain locked in predominant polarizing development frameworks. Local actors increasingly seek and explore new perspectives on rural and mountain challenges and opportunities that reflect creative use of “positive narratives”. Such a turn in perspective seems the decisive change to nurture new understandings of spatial relationships and local potential, raise ambition, and enhance action in these so far undervalued areas. Set into place-specific narratives, future action is to reflect the changes in mindsets and advance a promising outline for strategies and action in these contexts. The renewed perspectives would mean also new local functions with higher attractiveness and places of community building that are suitable to incomers and new immigrants. Rural and mountain places would hence be seen as:

  • Places that conceive attractive living modes, considering in a balanced way challenges and opportunities linked to the specific location
  • Places that enable empowerment and participation of all inhabitants, including marginalized groups and newcomers
  • Areas which are aware of their interrelations with other spaces, and aiming to elaborate synergies by combining place-sensitive activities and using mountain-lowland interactions.

 

As MATILDE authors underline the use of a positive language, implying the emerging options and presenting visions for ‘good life’ in these spaces is crucial. This discourse is particularly dependent on local involvement, open access to newcomers, social innovation and an understanding of transformation oriented at a renewed vision of remote and mountain areas.

 

References:

Dax, T. (2020) Neoendogenous Rural development in Mountain Areas, in: Cejudo, E. and Navarro, F. (eds.) Neoendogenous Development in European Rural Areas. Springer Geography. Cham: Springer, 3-19. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-33463-5_1

Dax, T. and Copus, A. (2020) Final Report – Annex 13 How to achieve a transformation framework for Shrinking Rural Regions. European Shrinking Rural Areas: Challenges, Actions and Perspectives for Territorial Governance, ESPON 2020 project ESCAPE. Version 21/12/2020. ESPON EGTC, Luxembourg, 45pp.

Dax, T., Dalla Torre, C. and Machold, I. (2022) Thesis 3: It is time for a new rural and mountain narrative. In: Membretti, A., Dax, T. and Krasteva, A. (eds.) The Renaissance of Remote Places. MATILDE Manifesto. Routlege Focus. Routledge, Abingdon, 35-42.

Membretti, A., Dax, T. and Krasteva, A. (eds.) (2022) The Renaissance of Remote Places. MATILDE Manifesto. Routlege Focus. Routledge, Abingdon. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003260486

OECD (1999) Cultivating Rural Amenities, An Economic Development Perspective. Paris.

Saxer. M. and Andersson, R. (2019) The return of remoteness: insecurity, isolation and connectivity in the new world disorder. Special Issue Introduction. Social Anthropology 27(2), 140-155. doi:10.1111/1469-8676.12652