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November 18, 2004

The hills are not so alive: The decline of "hill country" - and how this can be reversed

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Hill areas throughout Europe are facing serious problems: a decline in traditional agriculture, a lack of viable alternative forms of employment, and a declining population. Lincoln Allison considers what can be done to save these beautiful places.

I first hitched around Western Europe more than forty years ago and I have recently completed a six week, five thousand mile post-retirement tour. So let's start with the obvious and banal comparison that nearly everywhere is vastly richer than it used to be. Most cities are thriving and it's often difficult to get into a hotel at weekends. Anything which might remotely be described as a provincial capital has wealth coming out of tourism, conferences and service industries. Unlike those in Britain most continental seaside resorts look prosperous and well used; more than a million dwellings have been built, for example, on the French coast since 1990. Lowland and specialist farming have benefited from at least a generation of Common Agricultural Policy.

The exception and it is a vast one is hill country where marginal agriculture and poor communications have meant the exchange of one kind of poverty for another. My image of the Massif Central forty years ago is of small town bars packed with men in blue denim and berets who briefly fell silent when a young Englishman walked in. My image now is twofold: in the summer season it is of British and Dutch cars, caravans and coaches, of walkers and canoers, but at other times it is of totally deserted villages where nothing moves and all the shutters are up.

I should make clear that I am talking about hills and not mountains. The distinction can be a complex one and differs between languages, cultures and even regions. But for my purposes it is dead simple. You are a mountain region if you can support a serious skiing industry. Last year while we were on our skiing course we attended the son et lumiere put on by the people of Val Cenis on the theme of the history of their valley (torch lit, -11 degrees, hipflask essential). The old life was illustrated by hauling logs out of the forest on sleds while the death march played. Then three English ladies arrived, haughty and with absurd accents. They proceeded to explain to the dumbfounded and silly locals that the point of having a mountain was not this ridiculous business with cows going up and down on different pastures at different times of year: it was to slide down the thing on a plank. Cue to bring out some really old skis. They then demanded, "Ou est la route a Florence?" and left, leaving behind them enlightenment and lots and lots of money.

The NUTS system whereby the EU classifies the prosperity of different areas has often listed mountain regions like the Alto Adige (aka Sud Tyrol) and Haute Savoie as the richest on the continent. The image and the industry have transformed regions because skiing attracts human resource industries and investments of all kinds. Grenoble, for example, has been transformed from the impoverished backwater where my father studied in the 1930s to a hi-tec city six times the size. By contrast, hill regions are most prominent among those at the bottom of the EU prosperity league. A great swathe of them from the Highlands down to the Algarve and from Sweden to Calabria have qualified for "Objective One" social funding for which the prime criterion has been a per capita income below 75% of the EU average.

I'm hardly making an original observation in pointing out the problems of hills. They have been the subject of major EU reports and policies and also of national policies such as France's Contrat Agricole which allows farmers to be paid for their social, environmental and cultural role as well as for production. There has been a well-funded scheme to try to replace hill farmers, who are on average well over fifty, by their younger successors at an earlier date to avoid a sudden demographic collapse at a later date.

The hill question has even featured prominently in reality television. The population of hill areas is preponderantly male - it is men who overwhelmingly inherit farms and women who find good urban jobs, most often as secretaries and nurses. A Spanish TV station in the 1990s came up with the idea of bussing jaded urban girls with a desire to settle down up to the hills to meet farmers. There was even a British version called The Farmer Wants a Wife. I don't know if anything permanent at all came out of these programmes; they mainly served to show how unattractive farming is to contemporary women.

The hill problem is one with which I have a personal sympathy, being a bit of a hillbilly myself. The area I am from is now officially labelled "Lancashire Hill Country" and opposition fans are wont to chant "hillbillies" at Burnley fans; also "Dingles" which is apparently a reference to the rural underclass family in Emmerdale. In true hill fashion we have managed to lose more than 50% of our population over the past century and our farmers are economically marginalised. But, of course, the connection between these facts is not the usual one: the decline of Lancashire hill country has been the decline of a global industry, cotton, and not the decline of agriculture.

It is also an unavoidable phenomenon as you travel and has an equally unavoidable public goods dimension. The Pyrenees, which are effectively hills rather than mountains, at least on the French side, show dramatic signs of change and decay. Towns like Foix, Oleron and even Limoux with its successful Blanquette wines, look noticeably poor, like British ex-industrial towns and have the real estate prices to match. We were in the high village of Lescun which once had 1100 people based on a seasonal-pastoral life. It now has fewer than a hundred people and it is impossible to imagine circumstances in which that form of farming will revive, even though the local ewe cheese is now sold in Harrods. The major environmental change is the spread of bracken on former meadows. The situation was far worse in Central Portugal where hill farming was based on terraced agriculture which could not be effectively modernised or mechanised. For forty miles we drove past abandoned farmhouses where farming had been replaced by re-afforestation. In 2003 most of the forest had burned down and what was now happening was effectively a kind of near-desertification.

What can save the hills? It's going to be OK for the places which are extraordinarily beautiful or spectacular like Rocamadour and Collonges la Rouge in France, for instance. A visit from the Virgin Mary (or something similar) can be extremely helpful: Knock, Lourdes and Fatima do not have to struggle as similar towns in similar places do. There is also the possibility of immigration. The English in the Dordogne are a well publicised case, but they may prove a temporary or even costly benefit as they are mostly fairly old and at least to some degree force property prices up and make life more difficult for local people. I have heard hopes expressed about Eastern European immigration and in the Pyrenees I even heard an interesting Mauritian rumour. This was that a local farmer had been so well satisfied with the wife he had acquired from the island, that he already had at least one imitator and that there was supposed to be a potential queue of Mauritian ladies on offer to bachelor Pyrenean farmers.

The orthodox and general answer to the problem must be tourism, but there at least three unavoidable problems with tourism: it has a short season, is highly competitive and the tourists prime objectives are often essentially free goods (like landscape) or their income accrues to very specific persons or institutions. I have often felt slightly guilty about thoroughly enjoying myself during a day's walking without having contributed a penny to the local economy. It was interesting to hear a local politician in the Massif complain that "the French have now acquired the habit of spending their vacations in places like Turkey and the Dominican Republic" yet another example of the iniquities of "delocalisation". French towns try every trick they can to avoid the free goods phenomenon. For example, if you want to visit Lascaux II, the replica of the 17,000-year old cave paintings, you have to buy your ticket in the nearby town of Montignac. So you have to park and go to the tourist office and hopes are obviously entertained that you will eat, drink or shop as well.

When the tourist figures for August in the Dordogne came out they were 4% down. There was a highly amusing leader in the local paper which began: "I have told my mother that I am working as a security man in Baghdad. I daren't tell her that I am working for the local tourist authority as she would be too worried." It went on to suggest that the level of back-stabbing and career-threatening which went into just the construction of tourist statistics was at a level at least as high as that in any urban occupation. But there was good news: it was that "September is the new August" insofar as increasing numbers of pensioners and childless couples (two massively increasing categories in Europe) are taking their holidays in September. This alleviates slightly the problem that hills can only really expect five months of trade whereas mountains can manage ten or even more.

Increasingly, tourism must focus on an actual activity; that is what tourists want and it enables money to change hands and creates employment. The biggest (away from the dry riverbeds of the Mediterranean) is canoeing. It is on exactly the same principle as skiing, the "de haut en bas" principle. That is, a machine takes you up and gravity brings you down, in the case of canoeing the machine being a minibus. Which makes the thing pretty easy: as two middle-aged novices we had no difficulty in returning the thing 15 kilometres back to base. (One of my brothers-in-law, on being told of this achievement said, "What? In the same boat?"). It was extremely beautiful and I would recommend anybody to try it.

My political instinct is to react with scepticism to all the speeches and policies which offer forms of subsidy to deal with the "social" problems of hill life. One should always suspect those curses of democracy: waste, corruption and patronage. One Englishman, living near Ledesma in impoverished western Castille, told me that he thought every Euro of EU money spent in his area had tended to make the place uglier without doing anything to alleviate the dire employment situation. But there are several good arguments which suggest that public intervention is proper and necessary. One is that there are valuable public goods at stake, higher pleasures which we can enjoy and generations will be able to enjoy, but which will disappear if farming and local communities decay to the extremes that they might. But the solutions are sometimes also the problems: there is a tendency to put dirty public goods including power stations, smelting plants and dangerous landfill schemes into remote hill areas which tend to welcome any sources of employment. The obvious role of government is "infrastructure"; the normal reality of this is motorways and we were astonished at how new roads have proliferated in the Iberian Peninsula over the last ten years. In an extreme case, Castelo Branco in Portugal on the Spanish border, we discovered that what we thought was an obscure hill town was actually a brand new industrial town with a brand new motorway to the coast. The old hill town was still there, though it had all but fallen down.

There are some difficult arguments and decisions here, not least the reconciling of the two shibboleths of tourism and infrastructure: we go to find charm and an "other" to modernity, not Milton Keynes. But the argument I would go to the stake for is the public goods argument or, in other words, the spiritual value of hills. In a whole collage of European experiences of cities, beaches, churches, events and mountains the hills still stand out in my memory. There was watching the great vultures soaring over the beige, arid hills and green oasis-like valleys of Castille. There was walking from Collonges to Souillac in the Correze, an idyllic landscape combining soft fertility with the wildness of the forests and rocky outcrops, where the (elderly) local peasantry still offer all passers-by the formal courtesy of a "M'sieu'dame" and where we picked and ate figs, plums, apples and walnuts growing wild along the way. Above all there was the eerily beautiful drive from Cuenca to Albarracin in Castille: lakes, forests, the occasional village in what looked like an impossibly rocky situation, the strange rock formations of the Ciudad Encantada and a road so quiet we became convinced we had taken the wrong turning to the Back of Beyond. At the extreme risk of sounding like a Victorian vicar I must end by saying that the hill country may be our poorest kind of place, but it is also our richest.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His recent travels have also given him the opportunity to see what is happening to European cuisine: Globalisation and Gastronomy: News from the Front.

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