Vibrant Villages


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.

UTNE
UTNE
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