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Culture and Rural Development

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Culture,
an important tool
in rural development

by Bernard Kayser

The differences between regions, localities and villages,
generations and social groups are mainly cultural;
instead of aiming to remove them, or standing by while
they become eroded, would it not be more constructive to emphasize
and promote them? Cultural development should
no longer be considered as an optional extra,
but rather a motor for economic and social development.

 

Culture and local development is a simple subject. It can, however, still prove rich and productive if all its aspects are examined; particularly if, when considering the projects, we resist the temptation to separate the culture of the people in a locality from culture for the people in a locality, particularly in the rural communities.

 

Culture of the people and culture for the people. The question of "culture of the people" –local culture and more specifically rural culture– should be put in a worldwide context. However original a culture may be, it is today bombarded by messages and information transmitted instantaneously by the media and impregnated with what we must call a "mass culture". We should have no difficulty in understanding this if we remember that culture is not simply art and literature, but also a set of lifestyles and values: in a word, civilization.
Culture for the people involves other ideas; in this context it means culture as a set of services made available to the population: cinemas, museums, theatres, etc. The organization of these services, which is usually the responsibility of the public authorities, is the result of cultural policy and, as such, raises principles which are constantly under discussion. Should we make user services as uniform as possible, consequently reducing their quality, or should we aim to improve them by helping to increase mobility? This question is closely linked to that of the appropriation of cultural products: without the initiative and the participation of the local actors, "imposing" these products, entertainments or exhibitions on people carries the risk of removing all the genuine elements.
Culture of the people and culture for the people cannot in any case be separated from local development. Nor should the cultural dimension be absent from development projects, without which they would simply stagger along, deprived of a part of their effectiveness.
In exploring these issues, we are continually faced with the question of identity, the myth of rural culture, the rural population's aspiration to cultural parity and the dictates of local cultural action.

 

The question of identity. Despite the spread of worldwide communication and exchange of information today, retreat into a specific culture is often the source of, or the pretext for, separatism or nationalism with their consequent territorial conflicts. This shows how important culture is to ethnic or regional groups.
Cultural demands may become important at a local level, however they can cause conflict, thus paralysing all attempts at development, though it must be said that generally it fosters and encourages them.
Of course, a local cultural identity is often asserted through small competitions and contests between different parishes, villages and regions; these sometimes provide the only outlet for individual or collective emotions. However, searching for or attempting to reconstruct a territorial identity is the obvious sign of an individual, group, locality or area which is seeking to find roots and a point of reference in a society which it perceives as being adrift. It is for this reason that everyone acknowledges their regional culture through those specific inherited elements which are still in evidence, such as accent, language or dialect, tastes, collective and individual behaviour.
The time when uniformity was imposed in the name of equality is past, although this has been fruitful in some respects. Variety is now the treasure which we must preserve or rediscover, as it forms a major asset for local culture. The countryside in particular has a deposit of latent or expressed cultures, all of them original. The differences between regions, localities, villages, generations and social groups are cultural in nature. Instead of aiming to remove them, or standing by while they become eroded, would it not be more constructive to emphasize and promote them? Cultural development policy must be properly adapted and selected, decided upon as near to the grass roots as possible. We should always be concerned that the goal of providing economic benefits should not obscure that of stimulating the desire for culture amongst communities and amongst individuals themselves.

 

Does a "rural culture" still exist? There are different local cultures. There is however a different, more generalised culture –the "rural culture". Everyone recognizes that in all the countries of western Europe, although the culture of the small farmer was an obvious reality fifty years ago, albeit a disappearing one, the only remnants of it today are a few outdated traditionalists. We would do well to ask ourselves however, how far this particular culture still permeates life in the countryside, although it may no longer exist as such.
One fact is patently obvious: the number of people involved in agriculture has fallen drastically over the course of a few decades, and from now on they will form a small minority of the population of village societies. In France, for example, the population involved in agriculture has fallen by two-thirds over 35 years. In spite of this, after being in decline for more than a century, the total rural population has tended to stabilise over the past few years and is even beginning to increase slightly. This is because other social groups have superseded the farmers. There are many villages quite near the towns which will from now on will mainly be inhabited by people working away from home. There are also many villages outside the main urban routes, in more remote regions such as the pueblos abandonados in Aragon, which seems condemned to death in the near future. Nevertheless, the statistics show that even the wildest countryside is not in a desperate state everywhere. In the United Kingdom, the census of 1991 showed that the population of the remoter mainly rural districts had increased by over 10% since 1981. During the eighties, the mountain communes in Italy witnessed a growth in population of 3%, making up for the losses of the previous decade. Almost everywhere, there is a rapid increase in the village populations. The most usual pattern is that the middle classes, such as professionals or executives, are making up an increasingly larger part of the population. We can see that this cannot fail but to have an influence on the cultural atmosphere. Pensioners often tend to make up the largest and most well-off social group. Some of them have roots in the village, but most of them come from the towns. This also has a considerable effect in terms of "watering down" the collective culture.
Rural culture still exists today: although they are in the minority, farmers still manage the greater part of the land and consequently play a correspondingly important role in the decisions of the community. Furthermore, the architectural heritage –the houses and monuments, the squares, streets and byways– will still remain typical signs of rural culture for a long time to come. In his novel about Akenfield, a village in East Anglia, Ronald Blythe notes that the city-dweller is jealous of the certainties of the villager, and, in Great Britain, has always considered urban life a temporary necessity. One day, he will find his cottage in the country and his true sense of values. Akenfield is indeed the kind of village in which the Englishman feels he has a right and a duty to live one day. He comments that the first need of any newcomer to a village is to find and feel the pulse, to identify it for what it is and to fit into the mould. Even if this is a slight exaggeration, or idealisation, it is striking that German writers echo this English author. Beate Brüggeman and Rainer Riehle, describing Walddorf, a village in the Black Forest, write that the countryman's "way of thinking, behaviour and references are reflected in the "peasantness" of the village, even though small farmers have become a marginal group" and that this reveals the existence of an integrated structure, which, in accepting the newcomer, prevents conflicts". In a more lyrical and lucid fashion, the Spanish writer Avelino Hernandez remarks that "when the wind of history is favourable, the living elements of lost cultures are re-energised. Rural culture is not dead, but it has been conquered. This is why it will remain alive, like the embers beneath the cinders of the passage of time; its persistence will continue to illuminate the elements conjured up in the names, places, rites, traditions costumes and festivals, fixed like lichens to the current culture."

 

Aspirations to cultural equality. Rural culture, or "sub-culture" (as the more literary might define it), has been and is still characterised by specific features: it is this that continues to give a sense of reality to the idea of the farmer. His distinctive features are linked to his double origin. Firstly those features resulting from his internal culture –his permanent contact with nature, the manual activity, the multidimensional culture of the craftsman who has constant recourse to biology, chemistry, mechanics, economics, etc. Then there are the consequences of external cultures– for the farmer this means the consequences of the mistrust, alienation, even oppression, which he has suffered over the course of the centuries.
This culture possesses the most marked and specific elements of a local and regional identity. While sub-cultures are always impregnated by history and the traditions of the territories over which they extend, it is most marked in the farmer. It is, however, self-evident that described in these terms, rural culture is neither isolated nor independent. It is deeply affected by the dominant culture, which it accepts as it is, or more rarely, interprets, to assimilate it to itself. Having said this, we know that the level of education of rural people tends to match or even exceed the average national level. An increasing percentage of the rural population has a level of education which is the equal of other social groups. Furthermore, increasing contact with those outside the rural community and direct access to information broadcast by the major media networks has put the farmer in a position where he is confronted with the models created by mass culture "like everyone else".
Although there may be a specific perception based on these models, it is nonetheless true that his distinctive culture has been profoundly altered.
Under these conditions, the desire for equality, which is a kind of constant in the country mentality, is intensified. Farmers desire the same level of income, the same level of consideration and dignity. It is only after achieving this equality that they can begin to want the identity or the specific individuality which accompanies it. The most basic right, in cultural terms, is the right to conformity.

 

Cultural action and development. We must finally admit that cultural development is the result of the interaction of local skills and abilities with external means (e.g. private investors and public loans). This is the case for every sector; and of course it is the case for culture. Within the dynamics of development, culture is closely linked to other sectors–local initiative, human potential, politics, etc. Very simply, at this level culture means heritage, nature and creation.
Heritage is both material and intangible; in terms of the material aspects we immediately think of the architectural heritage; in terms of the intangible, the oral traditions, the knowledge and skills, the language, the dialects or the local expressions spring to mind. Everyone agrees that the heritage must be preserved, as this is the primary aim of any cultural action. The question of its commercial exploitation and its relation to economic development gives rise to views which show a certain degree of subjectivity. Should everything be "sold" (in the metaphorical sense of the term)? Does the restoration of a little church, an old farm or the renovation of a village square only make sense if it brings tourists to the area, or can this work be carried out simply for the pleasure and the culture of the inhabitants? One of the principal components of culture is the everyday environment, which for almost everyone now means the architectural environment. The aesthetic quality of this environment raises the cultural level of the residents. Nature, in a rural area, is the most basic component of the environment. As such it is an integral part of culture, expressed in the form of the countryside. As we are well aware, however, this nature, this countryside is... cultivated. Even the forests would not be what they are if they were not maintained. The future of familiar landscapes is linked to the farmers who have fashioned them for centuries. It is insufficient to say that at the local level we do not care enough for this culture which nature offers. We should be able to find new resources there to educate children; we learn more things in the woods than in books, St. Bernard said long ago.
Artistic creation, on a local and more specifically rural level throws up series of delicate questions in its relation to development. They are delicate because they concern taste and subjectivity and do not have to concern themselves with different levels of quality. These questions could be answered simply by asking "By whom?", "For whom?". "Rural" literature, plays and the plastic arts occasionally emanate from local artists, but more often they are the products of artists imported on a temporary or permanent basis. The difficulty is always the same: persuading the local population to seize the cultural initiative and using this initiative to strengthen their identity and social cohesion. There are all too many festivals and art exhibitions where the countryside simply serves as a backdrop for entertainment almost entirely reserved for a population of city-dwellers. A choice should be imposed between entertainment chosen to amuse holiday makers at a loose end and art which is more authentic, more varied and more likely to prepare the ground for development. The cultural policy of the public authorities, at state level and at local level, is justified by the help which it contributes to development. There is a genuine ambiguity here. It is not so much intended to raise the cultural level as to stimulate economic activity. This is the reason, for example, why in a summary of the themes of the draft agreement, the French Ministers of Culture and Agriculture were able to declare that cultural development should no longer be considered an optional extra, but a motor for economic and social development.
However, the responsibility of those decision-makers setting up the programmes leads them, or should lead them, to a fundamental rethink of the balance which needs to be maintained between satisfying cultural needs and economic needs. It is true that in the country, the symbiosis between culture and economics often takes the form of tourism, but there is nothing preventing the promoters of cultural projects from reconciling the necessity of attracting an outside public and the desire to satisfy the needs of the local population, which all too rarely find expression. Today's ever-increasing number of projects leaves us with the problem of assessing the results of this twin process: this is not a simple matter. Subsidies, which are both indispensable and expected, often fail to measure the real benefits of these projects, and more often, the financial drawbacks. On the other hand, the results of temporary or short-term entertainment in strengthening social links and the collective spirit of enterprise can only be seen over the long term. Here we must be pragmatic, severely self-critical and demanding in our appraisal. When the curtain falls we should not put everything away and wait for the next season; we must weigh up the situation, both in terms of quantity and quality.

 

The actors. The players have left, without their drums or their trumpets; but it falls to another group of actors to do the weighing up; those involved in cultural policy –a collection of people and institutions, regulations and initiatives. In examining this system in detail, we must not forget the general background. Times dictate that people's access to culture basically and predominately depends on school and family education on the one hand and audiovisual production on the other– meaning that it is more easily accessible, but also of lower quality.
In this very significant context, the actors' role is far from negligible; the issues cover areas of liberty whose importance we would be wrong to underestimate. In the very first place come the local communities: it is they who invented cultural policy in the last century. There were many local officials who provided museums, theatres, libraries and the like for their towns; their success in the business world was marked with prestigious monuments, sometimes even in small villages. Today local authorities are still culturally active; in France their expenditure in this sector has tripled over the past twenty years.
We must not fail to mention that amongst the most prominent actors, voluntary associations work to support, complement and extend the efforts of the public authorities: associations mobilise and thereby compete for development. It would also be useful, finally, to remind ourselves the prominent role played by the State and the European Commission. We cannot leave it at that. Any technical summary, which will by its very nature be somewhat cold and detached, risks missing the essential point, which can be summed up in this concluding phrase –in whatever form which it takes, culture is the best and most efficient means of attracting development, because it contributes to the exploitation of collective and individual potential and because it helps individual personalities to bloom.


        A Professeur at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail (France), Bernard Kayser is Chairman of the "Groupe de Prospective des Espaces Ruraux" and President of the European Rural University. The author of numerous works on rural development, Bernard Kayser has been a consultant to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and has been responsible for technical and educational aid missions to southern Europe, north and west Africa and Latin America.

source: LEADER Magazine nr.8 - Winter, 1994


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