Over the next two days (18-19th April) I’ve been invited to attend what promises to be one of the most interesting meetings in recent Spanish conservation history. The seminar is entitled “Conservation of Biodiversity and Rural Development” and is organised by the RUNA project under auspices of the Fundación Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente. Some 40 representatives from an array of Spain’s leading conservation and rural groups will be attendance along with experts in e-portals and information technology. The aim is to help to define the RUNA (rural – natural) project, which seeks to find ways of combining rural life with the natural world, and hand back the custody of the latter to the people who live in isolated rural areas, and who, by accident or design, over the centuries managed to foster such a rich biodiversity. This is to be a partnership between those who live and work in the rural world (farmers, hunters, foresters, etc) and those who work in natural history (biologists, wardens and environmentalists), turning biodiversity into an economic asset which can foster sustainable development and bring young people back. Benigno Varillas, founder of Quercus, and the person in charge of the project notes, ”The rural as we know it is coming to an end. It needs reconversion… Nature conservation stands at a crossroads… As the rural population grows older and EU money dries up, the rural world must change.

The Internet platform will be formed by several distinct areas. These include (there are more):

  1. Public and private forums and blogs. Some of the forums will be closed to the public as they will deal with sensitive information discussed by experts.
  2. The division of Spanish territory into areas each with a threatened species which will function as a flagship species around which to concentrate efforts (conservation, IT, education, business). The first of these flagship species is to be the brown bear.
  3. A digital book covering all issues affecting Spanish nature.
  4. A single-topic magazine sold in kiosks covering all aspects of each of the flagship species.

Some questions:

  1. The project is very ambitious. How to organise so much information and so many people with so many different ends.
  2. How to make these admirable digital contents useful for the real projects in villages and the countryside. That is, how to transform information into a real economic asset for the inhabitants of the rural areas, especially those least visited, and to turn their protection into an economic asset, and provide a real alternative to the attraction of mass development (skiing, golf, residential estates for the rich. industrial agriculture) in some areas and to the rapidly dying communities in many, many more. I repeat. We must offer real alternatives. The project must in the end be useful for the inhabitants of these areas and not just for the usual suspects (like me).
  3. How to get everybody to work together. As Roberto Hartasánchez notes in this month’s Quercus, it is not only farmers, hunters and who are in conflict, but often pointless infighting between conservation groups themselves. As a Spanish friend recently commentated, the Reinos de Taifa come to mind.

A few ideas off the top of my head:

  1. Rural tourism was seen several years ago as the panacea to all ills but in its present model of just offering accommodation it has reached a saturation point in many areas, with properties being full for a few key dates of the year while the rest of the year owners are faced with very low occupancy levels. Rural tourism must be promoted – as it often is – with additional activities or as part of a route if it is offer more. I’m stating the obvious I know.
  2. Conversion of activities – as an example I heard yesterday in Grazalema- with the end of EU grants a goat farmer is going to convert to horse riding activities. But the land will no longer be grazed which will affect the landscape and for example the orchid biodiversity.
  3. Setting up/strengthening national commercialisation channels for agro products to bring the produce to the cities. Although the production costs will remain the same, distribution costs could be reduced. Perhaps a national brand “Producción de Biodiversidad” Agreements with large supermarket chains in return for improving their corporate image. Health food shops are not enough to bring about a revolution.
  4. Broadband

More on this soon.