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Europe: Farmers Cooperate To Protect Environment

London, 11 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Western farmers, faced with problems including degraded soil, polluted water and wind erosion, have hit on a new cooperative way to better protect the environment.

Many farmers are forming community-based voluntary associations, such as conservation groups, ecological cooperatives and "land-care" clubs, whose aim is to improve the stewardship of natural resources.

In a report this month, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says several thousand farm conservation groups have sprung up in its almost 30 member countries. They range in size from 20 to 100 farmers, a few groups number 1,000.

Some of the strongest groups are in four OECD countries: the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They tend to focus on concerns such as reducing wind erosion, controlling pests, and repairing damaged features of the landscape. The OECD report says: "Local cooperative approaches to responsible management of agricultural land and water resources can usefully complement public policy.�

In the Netherlands, a farmer-led eco-cooperative group is seeking ways to reduce fertilizer pollution from intensive livestock farming. In Australia, a land-care group is working to reduce salt and silt running off fields into a local river. Other projects seek to assess the state of animal health and welfare, vegetation and soil and water quality.

Many cooperative groups work together to prepare farm plans. Usually these plans take a "a whole farm approach," encouraging farmers to consider all the environmental, economic and sociological factors that have a bearing on the sustainability of their enterprises.

Many community groups get financial aid from governments who have found that it can be more effective and cheaper to implement environmental policies by targeting groups rather than individuals.

An example of this group approach is provided by the voluntary agreements worked out between OECD governments and industries to control chemical pollutants and to increase energy-efficiency.

Local cooperative groups can generate many benefits to farmers because they encourage a sharing of expertise, innovation in tackling problems, and they channel the energies of local community leaders. They also lead to increased social contacts, especially in remote areas.

What motivates farmers to join cooperative groups? The OECD report says their prime motive is self-interest: to protect the value of their land and other assets, and to avoid the burden of direct government regulations or other interference. Farmers' groups say they are more likely than an outside authority to achieve locally acceptable solutions to problems.

How can governments help foster the formation of land care groups?

First, some project-funding for group endeavors would encourage activities that would benefit communities as a whole.

Second, farmers should be trained in management and institution-building skills to increase their competence and commitment to group action.

Third, partnerships between farmers and scientists would encourage innovation.

Fourth, involvement of farmers in decision-making would benefit regional planning.

Fifth, the decentralization of responsibility would give farmers more flexibility and force them to pay more attention to the financial and ecological costs of their own land management practices.

In conclusion, the report says the cooperative approach has "given farmers a sense of control over their own destinies."