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Transnational cooperation between rural areas

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Skogslandet’s competitive trilogy -
nature, culture and solidarity
(Sweden):

LEADER polar circles

 

Penalised by its northern latitude,
the largest LEADER area is graced
with an exceptional environment,
a unique cultural heritage and
active “development groups” in
each village. Three major assets
that the LAG of Skogslandet
(“Land of Forests”) combines and
intends to further consolidate
through cooperation.

 

“We are conducting the most futuristic project in the world,” proclaims Per-Erik Jönsson, “our objective is 1,469 years away, can you imagine!” Apparently 1,469 years is the time that it will take for the Arctic Circle to reach Nattavaara (population 400), for the tilt of the earth’s axis is imperceivable but inevitably changing and the Arctic Circle is moving about 14.5 meters a year to the north. Given that in 1999 their village is about twenty kilometers north of the famous line of the midnight sun, the inhabitants have calculated that in the year 3468, Nattavaara will indeed lie on the Arctic Circle.

“Waiting for the Arctic Circle” is the village slogan and since 1995 the “development group” of Nattavaara has been working on a series of actions, with LEADER in particular, to bring new dynamism to the place: opening of a “local centre” and a small leisure complex, purchase of the last petrol station, etc. In addition to these projects there have also been several operations to promote the image of the place, the most spectacular being the construction by a local artist of an immense arch in the middle of the forest, right on the present line of the Arctic Circle.

Because of its history and the way in which its residents are mobilising to improve their present and build their future, Nattavaara is very representative of the LEADER area of Skogslandet (“Land of Forests”) as a whole. Founded in 1670 when the north of Sweden was being colonised, it was the largest village in Lapland in the 18th century. At a latitude where it was virtually impossible to grow crops, small farmers raised beef cattle and reindeer, but the settlement was also an important place for cultural exchanges and trade with the Samis [1]. At the dawn of the 20th century, Nattavaara benefited from the construction of the railway and from the mining of iron ore which began in Malmberget and Kiruna. Then began a period of decline in activity and population. Today, the village is mainly inhabited by pensioners and by workers who do not hesitate to travel 120 km every day between their home and job in Gällivare-Malmberget, the closest town.

 

Distances


“That’s ‘normal’”, says Roger Ritola, one of the three LEADER development agents. “I often travel 400 km in a day by car to meet project holders...” The LEADER area of Skogslandet is the largest of the some 800 LEADER II areas: 42,760 km2, or an area about the size of Denmark!

Irene Lundström, vice president of the LEADER group, considers the long distances a major handicap. She has been trying to set up a network of communication professionals (journalists, graphic artists, illustrators, etc.) in order to take on more substantial contracts: “despite the technology, it is difficult to create networks in a region like ours quite simply because it is difficult to physically meet on account of the long travel time...” The Skogslandet LEADER group comprises 16 “shareholder members”: 4 municipalities, 6 representatives of the private sector and 6 representatives of “village development groups”. “The existence of these groups offsets at least in part the travel constraint,” explains Kristina Öhman, director of the LAG. “It is their action in each village that makes us a genuine ‘local’ action group despite the immensity of our area of intervention...”

 

Breeding ground


Norrbotten County has 450 of these development groups, or about 13% of the groups in Sweden, whereas with its 264,000 inhabitants, the region has less than 3% of the national population. This dense network of local groups is a breeding ground for the LEADER strategy. Mats Skytt is the living proof of this, being both LEADER development agent and president of the Norrbotten Rural Council which represents all the county’s village groups.

“The rapid expansion and officialisation of the development groups these past ten years in Sweden is the political recognition of the local initiative and its efficiency,” says Mats. “We don’t have any choice: the Welfare State, the large public or private companies which hired in droves are now more or less a thing of the past...” To cope with the diminished number of military personnel, the closure of the sawmills and the “rationalisation” of certain hospitals, the village groups became organised. First of all to maintain local services. “Murjek Resebyrå”, the development association of Murjek (population 170), was innovative in Sweden when it managed to formalise the first partnership between a group of villagers, the Swedish Railway Company and the Post Office: in 1993, the Railway Company wanted to close the Murjek train station which it considered unprofitable, just when the village was engaging in a strategy to develop tourism. After intense lobbying, Murjek Resebyrå convinced the railway authorities to keep Murjek, to conclude agreements with the local coach companies for correspondences and even to let the village manage the train station. The following year, the association persisted... and signed an agreement with the Post Office. Today, in addition to receiving six trains a day, the Murjek train station has become a rural complex with a post office, a chemist’s, a cafeteria, a shop for basic necessities, a local crafts outlet, and even a travel agency.

In total it provides the equivalent of 2.75 full-time jobs and a variable number of temporary jobs. “A young family was able to stay in the village, for example,” notes Ann-Mari Rönnquist, the group’s spokesperson. “Thanks to the relative job security of his wife who was hired at the station, the husband, who had been laid off from the sawmill, was able to launch his tourist business.”

 

A municipality of 18,500 km2 and 200 words to describe the snow...


Covering an area of 18,500 km2, Jokkmokk is, after Kiruna, the second largest town in Sweden and one of the least populated: 6,300 inhabitants, or 0.3 inhabitants per km2. Further still 3,500 people reside in the town centre itself, while the 2,800 others are scattered among some thirty very isolated villages and hamlets. This is where LEADER intervention is concentrated, since as Kent Ögren, the mayor of Jokkmokk, indicates: “roughly speaking, here you have the classic distribution of tasks between Objective 6 - ‘heavy’ investments - and LEADER - ‘intangible’ investments - targeted here at the villages, the networking of entrepreneurs, tourism and culture.”

The town of Jokkmokk is the cultural capital of Lapland. A traditional gathering place of the Samis, its winter market which has taken place each year since 1605 on the first weekend of February draws tens of thousands of visitors. The small town probably has the most beautiful Sami village in the world. Inaugurated in 1989, it presents all the facets of the culture of Scandinavia’s first inhabitants.

Yngve Ryd is a regular of the museum and even a museum in himself: this self-taught ethnologist has for the past 20 years been compiling the stories of several old Samis “who belong to the last generation that knew about the traditional way of life,” he explains showing his 500-page manuscript. “It’s a treasure that was going to be irremediably lost...I meet with them individually once a week and have them talk about everything: life, nature, their depiction of the world...It’s not only a gold mine in terms of cultural heritage, but I perhaps also have ‘the’ survival guide for life in the North. Just imagine, the Samis have over 200 expressions to describe the snow, depending on whether it is hard, soft, fresh, packed, etc.!” A real local character, Yngve Ryd is a valuable resource person for the LEADER group, the local culture being a very important field of intervention for Skogslandet. In the words of Kristina Öhman, “people like Yngve or, in a very modern version, Michael Johansson in Gällivare who records CD-ROMs with Sami songs are irreplaceable: their work enables us to reappropriate and project our roots.”

Lennart Pittja and Anders Kärrstedt have turned the discovery or rediscovery of these roots into a business venture. The former is a Sami, the latter is a “Swede” married to a Sami. Together they have created the “Väevisaren” (The Scout) company which offers all kinds of activities related to the Sami culture. LEADER provided them with ECU 10,000 for a training course and for the purchase of 12 reindeer which is now enabling them to organise one-week outdoor excursions for groups of 7 to 12 people. Asked to judge his work as entrepreneur, Lennart manages to sum up the challenges of the relationship between tourism and culture in the land that UNESCO has named “Laponia”: “We have been able to preserve our authenticity, that’s the main thing, but we have to be more professional, publish a catalogue, improve the ‘before’ and ‘after’ part of the trip by staying in touch with the customers. In five years, Väevisaren will be what is the best in Sami tourism. The trilogy - quality, authenticity and environmental responsibility in tourism - is possible if you do it the right way... The Samis are beginning to understand that the type of tourism that we want to develop is good for the local economy, good for the environment and also good for their wallet. The reindeer breeders are sooner or later going to be faced with the same problems as farmers in general: the need to have large herds and to have more than one job, particularly with tourism.”

 

Iter Laponicum


There are some one hundred small tourist businesses like this in Norrbotten, including twenty in Skogslandet. Paradoxically, the entrepreneurs who seem to be the most advanced in this “adventure ecotourism” are neither Sami nor Swedish: originally from Stuttgart and Dresden respectively, Bernhard and Diana Zimmer moved in 1989 to an old farm completely isolated and some twenty kilometers from Nattavaara. “We had already worked in tourism, had fallen in love with Lapland and were looking for an activity that focused on culture and the environment,” explains Bernhard. Having trained ten reindeer, they created the Iter Laponicum company devoted to 3 to 10-day expeditions. “Our three niches are ‘incentives’, team spirit training for companies and family tourism.” And it works: Iter Laponicum has between 200 and 250 customers a year, especially Germans and German-speaking Swiss. “We have people almost the whole year round and one third returns several times,” adds Bernhard, who to test the market a few years ago did not hesitate to rent a space at the Tourism Show in Berlin and to put up a real log cabin there, going so far as to bring in part of the wood from Sweden! “It went over big with the public, the problem was that we had to tell people ‘leave your address, we’ll write you’, because we hadn’t started yet, nothing had been done!”

 

European Wilderness Challenge


“LEADER is our ‘networker’, the race is going to consolidate the bonds that LEADER has begun to establish.” It is another Sami who is talking: Roger Rimpi, alternate member of the “Sametinget”, the Swedish Sami Parliament [1] and owner of a rest stop precisely there where route 45 between Arvidsjaur and Jokkmokk crosses the Arctic Circle.

The “race” is the “TEO” (“The Endless Odyssey”), 650 km on foot, on horseback and never by car, from the Norwegian Sea to the Gulf of Bothnia, “a great way to advertise the region to the outside but also a wonderful way for the local communities to network,” claims also Kristina Öhman.

Skogslandet has in fact since 1996 been engaged in cooperation with the LEADER groups of Western Isles in Scotland (see LEADER Magazine n°19) and Kalabaka-Pyli in Greece. The aim is to set up a European circuit of adventure racing called the “European Wilderness Challenge”, with the idea of local development in mind.

The concept of “adventure racing”, the “multisport race” or “competition-expedition” was designed in New Zealand in the 1980s. The “Raid Gauloises” which has taken place each year since 1989 in a different place (until now mainly in the Southern Hemisphere) and “Eco-Challenges”, organised since 1995 by a television channel, are the two major international events, but the infatuation for multisport activities is growing and new races are launched every year. In all cases, the idea is to cross without ever using motorised means a more or less large expanse of wilderness area, dotted with sites to be captured and obstacles to be overcome: mountains, cliffs, rivers, glaciers, caverns, etc. It is easy to understand that this is a particularly difficult sport both physically and psychologically, reserved for an elite group of multidisciplinary athletes who find a “simple” marathon unchallenging. It is also easy to understand the excellent location and the interest of the “Land of Forests” for this type of event.

Since 1994 the Scottish partners have been organising a “Western Isles Challenge”: up to 300 participants - athletes but also “ordinary people” looking for thrills - cross the Hebridean islands over 6 or 7 days. After holding the challenge three times, the Scottish LEADER group felt that the event was threatened by competition from other regions in the world and began to look for partners interested in setting up a similar competition in their area so that they could offer a multisport event in Europe in three parts. Skogslandet in Sweden and Kalabaka-Pyli in Greece answered the call.

Skogslandet has a highly skilled “multisport” tour operator, Erik Ahlström, who has been interested in adventure racing since 1990. He was the one who organised the first 400 km trial competition in the summer of 1998 in which 7 Scandinavian teams participated. This “warm-up” was a big success and made it possible to develop the top- level event - the TEO per se - in terms of logistics, the number of stages, safety, etc.

It also helped make the towns aware of the importance of the event and secured the support of important public and private sponsors for 1999: the Swedish Tourist Board, a car maker, a large manufacturer of telephone equipment, etc. The cost of organising TEO 99 (about EUR 212,000) was in fact evenly divided between LEADER and the private sector whereas the Tourist Board took care of most of the international promotion and Norrbotten County financed the shooting of a film on the event. “Our Scottish partners estimate that the media coverage given to the Hebrides crossing was worth a 6.7 million euro advertising campaign,” notes Frederik Broman, head of the TEO project.

Whatever the case, from 25 to 31 July 1999, “The Endless Odyssey” saw 10 teams from Sweden, Finland and the United States cross Lapland, from the Norwegian Sea to the Baltic Sea, covering 650 km in 7 days in the following order: canoeing, rock climbing, caving and canyon repelling, mountain climbing, mountain biking, dresin cycling, swimming, trekking-orienteering through marshes, horse- riding and running, going through an obstacle course, rowing and finally rafting!

This TEO 99 was an opportunity to begin testing another fundamental part of the event: ACT-events consisting of races lasting one to three days will be held alongside the TEO. The objective is to organise many smaller activities for the wider public to take part in and to test their physical strength and capacities.

Like the Western Isles Challenge, involving the community (by having them participate in a sport event but especially through volunteer work) and the districts (logistic or even financial support) is a fundamental element of the project.

The last word is for Britta Jonsson-Lindvall, member of the board of directors of the LEADER group and of “Bykraft” (Village Strength), a development association involving 8 small villages from the district of Boden: “the race is perhaps our most important project because it creates bonds with all the tourist and cultural projects that we support. It’s a very powerful instrument that shows people outside and inside the area that we’ve got spirit and resources in the literal and metaphorical sense... And then, during the TEO, the spotlight is on us for once, not on the centre of Europe!”

And guess what name was given to the local activities organised alongside the TEO? “A.C.T.” for “Arctic Circle Traverse”. Crossing the Arctic Circle is definitely taken seriously in Skogslandet.

 

LEADER SKOGSLANDET

Surface area: 42 760 km2
Population: 41 337 inhabitants
LEADER II funding: 4 560 000 ECU
EU: 1 310 000 ECU
Other public funds: 1 310 000 ECU
Private: 1 940 000 ECU

Skogslandet LEADER II AB

Box 100
S-942 22 Älvsbyn
Tél: +46 929 128 50
Fax: +46 929 128 30
E-mail: Kristina.skogslandet@mbox301.swipnet.se

 


(1) “Sami” or “Same” is the name of the
first inhabitants of Lapland (“Sapmi”). This name
is today preferred to “Lapp” which is the name
given to these nomadic people by the colonists
who came from the south and which can have a
negative connotation. The Sami population
is estimated to be about 65,000 of which
40,000 in Norway, 17,000 in Sweden (6,000 in
Norrbotten), 6,000 in Finland and 2,000 in the Kola
peninsula (Russia). About 2,000 Samis still herd
reindeer. Like their Norwegian and Finnish
counterparts, the Swedish Samis have since
1993 elected their own Parliament (“Sametinget”),
an advisory body located in Kiruna and primarily
responsible for culture and land use rights.


 

source: LEADER Magazine nr.21 - Autumn, 99


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Agriculture
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