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Environmental competitiveness

[ Summary ]


Chapter 1:
From exploiting resources to environmental competitiveness


1.2 Lessons learned from LEADER concerning environmental competitiveness


By adopting a territorial approach, LEADER has helped to give renewed importance to preserving, reclaiming, valorising and enhancing local resources, including physical resources, which play a leading role. In this way it has contributed to the emergence of the new approach to the environment.

Lesson one: LEADER has helped to foster among the population an interest in the environment, often by targeting young people.

    Awareness of the value of the environment entails first rebuilding the links between local players and their area, which is both a living environment and a common point of reference. The development of new consumer models and the influence of exogenous cultures have often weakened such links, blurring and sometimes even obliterating people’s original attachment to the area. Many LEADER groups have focused a great deal of attention on this aspect, showing special interest in the behaviour of the young people on whom the area’s potential revival relies.


      In Penacova (Centre, Portugal), a group of young people organised a local association whose primary task was to arrange weekend dances. The association radically changed its direction the day one of the group was killed during one of the dances. This collective trauma prompted them to redirect their activities to restoring a dozen abandoned mills situated on the top of a low mountain overhanging the area. For years they invested all of their spare time in this initiative, and, thanks to financial support from LEADER, they managed to create a tourist centre of exceptional value on a spectacular natural site by converting a number of mills into dwellings and another into an eco-museum, and installing a restaurant and leisure centre below. Inspired by this initiative, the Adelo LEADER group has now launched further initiatives to redevelop the environment in conjunction with other groups of young people.

Lesson two: LEADER has helped to highlight the importance of local resources, even where they are not economically profitable in the short term.

    The practice of exploiting resources and then abandoning them as soon as they are no longer of immediate economic interest has left scars that are still much in evidence. This is particularly true for:

    • rural areas that have undergone traumatic enforced economic transitions (uprooting vines, abandoning transhumance, closing mines or textile industries, etc.);

    • rural areas that have been subject to rural depopulation, with serious consequences as a result of neglecting the natural and architectural heritage and abandoning traditional collective forms of management;

    • rural areas that have suffered the enforced closure of certain services which macro-economic cost/benefit calculations had decreed to be non-cost-effective, in spite of the existence of infrastructure such as railway lines, canals, etc.

    In stark contrast to this principle of abandonment, LEADER has worked to develop and reclaim an area’s endogenous resources, considering them as a prerequisite for acquiring a specific identity and a new form of competitiveness. As a result, resources deemed to be without interest under the former rationale have gained renewed value in the territorial development context. This is one of the consistent features of LEADER interventions.

    This prompted several LEADER groups to redevelop breeds that had been abandoned because they were judged to be non cost-effective, by finding special outlets for them. Breeds of coarse-wool sheep from Styria (Austria) and from Douro Superior (Portugal) are fine examples of this.

Lesson three: LEADER has reinforced the idea that responsibility is more important than ownership.

    The importance of the resource/individual or resource/ administration relationship has played a decisive role in the neglect of resources considered to be unproductive in the short term. In the past, an abandoned building or site was of concern only to its owner, and an unmaintained railway line was the business of the national railway administration alone. According to this rationale, the possibility of restoring or reutilising such resources was dependent only on them.

    In order to redevelop abandoned local resources it was therefore necessary to remove the barriers between public administrations and between the public and private sectors and to call into question the idea of the unconditional freedom of owners.

    This type of approach frequently called for cooperation with non- local bodies, especially when infrastructure belonging to national public organisations was involved, such as railway lines or mines, or to absentee private owners, such as abandoned houses. In matters such as these, the problems are often complex: establishing a new use for historic buildings, for example, means finding the absentee owner and sorting out legal ownership problems and rules on conserving the historical heritage.


      In the Montana Palentina area (Castilla-Leon, Spain), the LEADER group succeeded in ensuring that former railway lines could be reutilised by cycle trolleys mounted on train wheels for use by tourists. For this it was first necessary to negotiate with the Spanish railway companies.

    The development of public/private alliances is sometimes the only available means of ensuring that resources are maintained or replenished and resolving problems of ownership or reassigning functions.


      The Noordwest Friesland LEADER group (Friesland, Netherlands) provided support for the conversion of abandoned buildings into high-class tourist accommodation. With its own language and culture, Friesland is a region with a strong identity. Having been disused for several years, some of the region’s historic monuments and buildings were deteriorating or even falling into ruin. It was important to restore this heritage whilst taking into account the very high costs involved in building restoration. This led to the idea of assigning new functions to the sites to be restored. As a result, several public buildings were converted into high-quality appartment hotels (“stedsloazjeminten”). They are managed by private operators whilst remaining under public ownership.

Lesson four: LEADER has demonstrated that environmental valorisation relies on a territorial strategy that is not limited to protected natural areas, but takes into account all of the area’s resources.

    LEADER has demonstrated that the idea of environmental protection is better understood by local players when it integrates all elements of the living environment and is not confined to natural resources, protected areas, rivers, etc. Territorial strategies have therefore broadened the concept of the environment to encompass the landscape, biological products and constructed sites, harmonising installations and facilities with the landscape, etc.


      In Northern Ireland’s West Tyrone LEADER area, the main road through the area traverses a particularly rundown stretch. The LEADER group therefore decided to work on restoring the aesthetic value to the landscape it crossed. The group began by ordering computer-designed redevelopment proposals in the form of synthetic images showing the seasonal aesthetic changes of the various scenarios, with suggestions regarding the species to be planted, the areas to be reorganised, etc. The group is currently seeking funding so that it can carry through this redevelopment project.

    Likewise, LEADER experience has shown that the participation of local players in managing protected areas in response to highly diverse problems, ranging from the introduction of appropriate means of transport, to tourist management, spatial planning, etc., opens up new prospects for areas such as these which often find it hard to take off economically.

Lesson five: LEADER has demonstrated that the environment can serve as the cornerstone of an area’s identity and the unifying theme behind an overall territorial strategy.

    Attributing an identity value to certain environmental components is one of the methods used by LEADER groups to interest local economic operators in abandoned or neglected resources. This includes, for example, former plantations that, whilst forming part of the landscape and providing an identity that is essential to the area’s tourism development, have been more or less abandoned because they were not sufficiently cost-effective.


      Sweet chestnuts in France and Italy are a particular case in point. The task of the LEADER groups in this case was to create walking and tourist routes around the theme of the sweet chestnut for people to explore the area. In parallel, research and development initiatives were undertaken to return the sweet chestnut trees to a productive state.

    LEADER’s experience has therefore taught us that the environment can be an asset to local development when it presents a tangible economic interest and that it can act as a unifying theme, enabling the players involved to draw a link between their economic concerns and their area’s positive environmental image.

    The various examples of tourist attractions created around a theme that associates natural resources with an area harbouring a number of heritage resources amply testify that a combination of the architectural heritage and natural resources can serve as an anchor for local development strategies.

    Strategies have also been developed around preserving the lesser heritage, derelict industrial land, abandoned mines, disused railway lines and even local resources such as water.

Lesson six: LEADER has helped to show that environmental preservation can inject new life into activities in crisis and can create new jobs and occupations.

    Certain initiatives developed under the LEADER programme highlight the benefit of environmentally-friendly practices in opening up new economic prospects to areas that were hitherto devoted to intensive agriculture and livestock production.


      In the Obere Altmühl LEADER group area of central Franconia (Bavaria, Germany), beef producers launched the “Franki” brand for meat from local brood cows raised on pasture. To do this they created the company WFG, guaranteeing that the animal was of local origin, was fed on pasture throughout the pasture growing season, has travelled no more than two hours on foot, has been carefully slaughtered and that the meat has been matured for 14 days in a vacuum. The initiative has been quite successful and 60 farmers are currently selling their meat under this label.

    Furthermore, in order to cope with the problem of maintaining areas that have suffered as a result of declining agriculture, LEADER has introduced new jobs and occupations that are essential in preventing the deterioration of rural areas.

Lesson seven: Lastly, LEADER has helped to bring an end to the traditional conflict between nature conservation and development, by advocating the need for a gradual process of education.

    Environmental concerns are often perceived by local players as a source of restrictions, especially where they involve protected areas, which arouses strong opposition when such areas are imposed by decree. It is only possible through a gradual process of education and consultation to secure acceptance for changes in the way resources are exploited. Such an approach takes time, but also requires the proponents of such new practices to acquire a legitimacy in the community and, above all, prove the economic benefits of such practices.


      In order to overcome the resistance of livestock producers to the creation of the Haute-Sure national park (Luxembourg), which was in conflict with some of their intensive livestock production practices, the LEADER group recruited a technical expert who gradually convinced the livestock producers - starting with the younger ones - to produce quality meat using less intensive and more environmentally-friendly livestock production methods. A quality label was introduced (“Véi vum Sei”) making it possible to sell the meat at a higher price. Although the principle of the park has not yet been accepted by all the livestock producers, the trend is now in this direction.



After eight years of experimentation in a wide range of different territorial contexts, LEADER has helped to forge the new approach to the environment that is emerging today, by providing answers to basic questions and to the methodological problems that arise when this new approach is put into practice.

However, there remains much to be done in order to ensure that the environment is taken fully into account in territorial approaches. For example, the LEADER groups have only had a limited opportunity to intervene on more fundamental environmental issues such as pollution, maintaining biodiversity, protecting biotopes or spatial planning. Some of the reasons for this may be the difficulty that LAGs have in establishing partnerships with players and/or institutions with the know-how and legitimacy to intervene in such fields. This because these players and/or institutions come from outside the area (universities, specialised research centres), or because they form part of more restrictive protection approaches, or even because they work in fields of no direct concern to LEADER (infrastructure, planning and regional development, etc.). The creation of links with other players specialising in the environment and in spatial planning in order to turn these aspects into fully-fledged themes of the territorial approach still poses a major challenge to local action groups, especially under the LEADER+ Initiative.

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