Why do rural places still matter? – by Gary Paul Green

African dirt roadMost countries are rapidly urbanizing. Rural-to-urban migration is often viewed as a means of improving economic opportunities for rural residents. Rural communities have an especially difficult time retaining youth because they often move to urban areas for social and cultural reasons as well. Technological advancements in agriculture have enabled farmers to grow more food and fiber, which has ultimately led to lower prices for urban consumers. This technological treadmill means, however, that fewer farmers are needed to grow more food. The decline in population and employment in rural areas seems to be part of a natural process of development. But this process is not “natural,” and there are reasons to be concerned about the decline of rural communities.

  1. Rural economies are still rooted in natural resources, both renewable (e.g., water and forests) and non-renewable (oil and minerals). Rural people are the stewards of most of these natural resources, but poverty can lead to the exploitation of these assets. Improving rural livelihoods, therefore, is essential to protection of our natural resources.
  2. Although agricultural production has increased over the past few decades, these gains are undercut by the demands of population growth and biofuel consumption.  Depopulation of rural areas will leave control of these key resources, especially the land, in the hands of multinational corporations. These processes potentially affect access to food and energy sources in both rural and urban areas.
  3. The decline of rural areas adds to the pressures on cities to accommodate rapid population growth in developing countries.  These pressures can lead to a wide variety of social problems, including crime, poverty, food shortages, lack of affordable housing, and health concerns.
  4. The majority of the poor people in the world continue to live in rural areas.  A growing divide in living conditions between rural and urban areas can contribute to both social and political unrest.

What are the obstacles to improving rural livelihoods?

Rural development practitioners and policy makers face some common obstacles in addressing these issues. Low population density and distance to markets are often cited as major constraints to rural development because it is more difficult to provide services and to access markets.  These same factors also typically translate into the lower political power of rural people. The small scale of rural communities limits access to key resources, such as education, health care, cultural activities, and employment.  Rural communities also tend to be dependent on single industries, especially those in the extractive sector (e.g., forestry, mining, and fishing).  This dependency creates additional challenges to improving the quality of life in rural communities because residents are vulnerable to major shifts in markets and technology. 

What are some innovative rural development strategies?

  1. Regionalism. In many respects, globalization has made it more difficult for many rural areas to compete in international markets.  Rather than sharpening competition, rural communities need to be encouraged to collaborate more with other rural communities, and urban areas as well.  Regionalism addresses a key problem facing rural communities – political jurisdictions often do not match the geography of economics, social, and environmental problems.   For example, communities may be unable to manage environmental problems because the source of the problem is located in another jurisdiction.  Similarly, many rural communities have become bedroom communities for larger urban areas. Finally, rural communities are extremely limited by resources in providing a wide variety of services to their residents. Thus, there is need for greater coordination and/or cooperation among communities.  Government policy can provide more incentives for collaboration rather than encouraging the competition for capital and workers between communities.
  2. Amenity-Based Development.  Increasingly, the natural resources of rural areas are the basis of consumption rather than production activities.  This dependence on consumption economies is most often the case in tourism and recreation. Natural resources are, therefore, multi-functional—serving both production and consumption functions.  Production activities, such as mining and forestry, can promote development in rural areas, but they also may contribute to environmental degradation and marginalization of indigenous populations. Globalization has increased the opportunities for amenity-based development as interest in international tourism has soared. Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing sources of revenue and foreign exchange in many developing countries. There continues to be pressure from governments and corporations, however, to continue to extract natural resources (especially in forested and mining areas). Government policy needs to recognize the potential of integrating both consumptive and productive capacities of natural resources in rural areas.
  3. Value-Added Production.  Historically, rural economies have been rooted in extraction of natural resources (forestry, agriculture, and fishing) for export markets.  In many cases, these commodities are processed outside rural areas, and therefore, much of the value of the final product is accrued in these locations.  If processing facilities can be moved closer to the sites of extraction, rural communities will be more likely to benefit from these activities.

What is the future of rural places?

For several decades now, the population has declined in many rural areas and the income gap between rural and urban areas has widened. Access to key resources, such as health care and education, is also quite unequal between rural and urban areas. It is obvious that it is more costly to provide services to rural residents, even though improvements in communication and transportation have reduced some of the costs. Reducing the gap in services between rural and urban areas, especially health care and education, is essential to slowing the loss of population and employment out of rural areas.

Rural areas are quite diverse, and policy makers and practitioners need to recognize this diversity.  Increasing agricultural productivity does not necessarily benefit most rural people and places.  Rural economies are increasingly dependent on manufacturing and service sector jobs. Rural policies need to recognize that rural economies have changed and that agricultural subsidies may no longer be the most appropriate way to improve rural livelihoods.

Gary Green photoGary Green is a professor in the Department of Community & Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a community development specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Green’s teaching and research interests are primarily in the areas of community and economic development.  He received his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the past 20 years. His recently edited Handbook Of Rural Development has just been published by Edward Elgar.

Also available as an eBook for subscribing libraries on elgaronline

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