The summer sun lingers high in the evening sky as residents of Ramsoo gather in the community's open-air theater. About half of the village's 220 residents are on hand and applaud the good news that they netted almost $25,000 at last month's country fair, which drew people from all over central Finland. Part of the money has been targeted to pay for paving the road that runs through the village, and it's suggested that some be spent on another fair, this one just for the people of Ramsoo. Without a second's delay, the young woman running the meeting asks for volunteers to prepare salads and cook potatoes. Next on the agenda is recognition for the crew--mostly retired men--who built this new theater, which is also used for theatrical performances put on by the villagers each summer. The group explodes in cheers as each of the volunteers steps up to receive a commemorative key and quick kiss.
The people of Ramsoo may not realize it, but this little event--the monthly meeting of the local Village Action Committee--runs counter to the current of human progress, as progress has been explained to us to by government planners, business leaders, and the mainstream media. Village life is supposed to be a relic of the past, especially in the industrialized North. And even in the developing nations of the South it is on its way out as their economies mature and join the global marketplace. But the people of Ramsoo, and of many other Finnish villages, have been disproving this 'wisdom' since the 1970s.
For many years economic and political trends in Finland were decidedly anti-village--despite a traditional Finnish love for small places. Schools and post offices were closed by the government, shops went out of business, and people retreated from public activity as television and social service agencies replaced traditional patterns of recreation and community service. Through the '60s and '70s, Finnish villages began to empty as young people sought jobs and cultural amenities in regional cities, in Helsinki, or in Sweden.
'These were the signals of death to many villagers,' writes Hillka Pietila, a lecturer at the University of Helsinki and researcher on development issues, in the book Rebuilding Communities (edited by Vithal Rajan, Green Books, 1993). 'For too long they had been waiting for action by the central government and administration--now they had to take their fate into their own hands.'
Village Action Committees sprang up during the '70s and '80s, offering new hope for rural Finland. Drawing on the power of talkoot, villages' strong tradition of voluntary community labor, the committees went to work creating economic opportunities, increasing political influence and enhancing community spirit and self-confidence.
Pietila notes that committees have not only worked hard to improve their communities' infrastructure--roads, buildings, sports grounds--but have also recorded and restored the cultural heritage of rural regions by recording local traditions and reviving convivial customs. The Village Action movement understands that it is not just jobs and good roads that make villages attractive places to live, but also cultural activities, a sense of tradition, and feelings of community.
There are now 3,000 village committees throughout Finland, up from 1,000 in 1979, when the Ramsoo committee was founded. Probably half the villages in the country are now represented by a committee, and the committees are beginning to work together in regional and national coalitions. They are a prime example of what Czech writer and president V?clav Havel and others call 'civil society'--they have no links to government agencies and run on an informal basis.
'The social structure of Finland would be significantly different today without this movement,' Pietila writes. 'The Village Action movement has been able to slow down the migration of people from villages and it has also created a return flow to the villages, which not only compensates for the outflow but steadily increases the population in many villages.' Forty thousand more Finns moved to villages from cities during the '80s and early '90s than moved to cities from villages, notes Tapio Mattlar, a committee leader who moved to his village from Helsinki.
Pietila adds that the Village Action movement is 'the only major movement of villagers and rural people in an industrialized country to have emerged as a reaction to the kind of development that implies deprivation of rural life.' Because of its example to the whole world, the Finnish Village Action movement was awarded a Right Livelihood Award, the 'alternative Nobel prize,' in 1992.
Finland's villages face new challenges as the nation enters the European Union. The traditionally generous government support offered to farmers will be slashed as a result of directives from the EU and a change of government in Helsinki last spring. Leena Manner, chief information officer for Finland's Ministry of Agriculture, says, 'Half of the farmers will be out of business in five years.'
The U.S. farm crisis of the 1980s sent thousands of farm families packing for cities, where they were pitted against urban workers for a shrinking supply of jobs, but Finland is committed to finding new livelihoods for rural people. The consensus among Finnish politicians is that it's more economical to find a way to allow farm families to stay in the countryside than to pick up the tab for the welfare and infrastructure cost of their moving to the city.
Tourism, cottage industries, handicrafts, sustainable agriculture, forestry, telecommuting, and new businesses are all seen as areas of growth and will qualify for funding as part of the government's new rural program. A family with a reputation for making great bread and cakes, for instance, might get a start-up loan to open a bakery. Farmers can get five years of incentives to make the transition to organic agriculture.
It's anyone's guess if these new enterprises will be able to compensate for the losses in rural Finland's traditional agricultural economy. As welcome as supportive policies in Helsinki are, the work of the Village Action committees in thousands of villages like Ramsoo shows that what's more important is people's collective determination to protect and improve their rural communities--a determination that can actually prove stronger than the global economic forces that devalue and destroy village life.