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Equitable rural policies needed

June 13th, 2015 9:43 AM

By Southern Star Team

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Letters to EditorSIR – Equality and financial regulation have been prominent in recent public debate. Like the business sector extolling our financial credentials during the property boom, many Irish entities are now extolling our ‘green’ credentials.

‘Origin Green – we are Natural,’ ‘Wild Atlantic Way,’ ‘We have an eye for the birds’ and ‘Contract with Nature’ are some of the slogans presented by the Irish State and semi-State bodies. These important rural stakeholders (farming, tourism, forestry and peatlands) are presenting an image of best practice sustainability – a three-pronged concept based on economic, community and environmental vitality.

Mindful of unfounded assertions, during the Celtic Tiger years, we need to scrutinise all wishful thinking. In preparation for the recently-concluded Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) negotiations, most of the farming media and representatives were lobbying on behalf of the so-called ‘active and productive’ farmers – indifferent to its derogatory corollary.

The allocation of public monies, through farm subsidies, became transparent over the weekend and clearly demonstrates the huge disparity between individuals receiving over €300,000 annually and those recipients on less than €5,000. A form of ‘farm payment discrimination,’ based on soil fertility, is one uncomfortable conclusion that could be drawn from the distribution of these public payments.

Independent socio-economic analysis of the viability of farms (Teagasc deem 66% farms as non-viable) and rural communities (population change, unemployment, disposable income, etc) shows that a sizeable percentage of our Republic is currently unsustainable. Remote rural communities will always be at a geographic disadvantage, when competing for investment from companies competing in international markets.

Where farm payments are solely based on livestock or food production value, small farmers on peaty or wet soils will always lose out. Despite over 40 years of investment in rural development programmes, these communities and landscapes are still at a disadvantage.

For anyone who is indifferent to rural decline and rural economies, they should bear in mind the exceptionally-large social welfare costs incurred by the national exchequer in response to these rural unemployment black spots. The social consequences of undermining the beef and sheep sector in favour of the dairy sector (the new cash cow!) and covering more than 50% of some uplands in conifer plantations seem irrelevant, to some.

Alternative economic, social and environmental options are available, which have proven benefits in terms of small isolated rural micro-economies. Surely, we have the wit to run a fair twin-track approach to landscape management in Ireland; maximising food production on good soils and utilising the hidden economic benefits of poorer soils.

A smart economy would utilise and stimulate; the green image of less intensive farming, landscape tourism values, native woodlands and associated opportunities, carbon sequestration and slow water release of wetlands during flood events.

If we cherish our green image, for cultural or purely marketing reasons, we need to tackle the demonstrable ongoing decline of our upland and wet meadow landscapes and wildlife.

Most urban taxpayers expect a fair distribution of public monies. But powerful vested interests are blocking alternative, sustainable, approaches to landscape management in parts of rural Ireland. None of the political parties have acted as a rural regulator, calling halt to unsustainable and biased economic practices in rural Ireland.

To date, the relevant rural economic commentary has focused on the laudable annual income from food and softwood exports. Very little attention is given to the social welfare costs, the cultural and community costs and the environmental costs (flooding and wildlife) of an outdated rural policy, largely directed by the farming hierarchy and foreign markets.

As we approach an election, there is now an opportunity to develop and debate informed and equitable rural policies, before our lofty ‘green bubble’ is burst. As a result of recent international branding, deflating our green image would now have consequences for the dominant intensive dairy sector also.

Lorcán O’Toole,

Golden Eagle Trust,

Letterkenny,

Co Donegal.

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