Protecting and promoting our fragile and precious rural cultural heritage

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Participating in the workshop on Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development at the Closing Conference of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 #EuropeForCulture, organised under the outgoing Austrian presidency in December in Vienna, Tom Jones emphasised that the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) had fully supported the designation of the thematic year and the initiatives around it .  He also recalled that public investment must be "rural-proofed", to maximise support to rural creative sectors and local groups working to enhance the infrastructure of our rural heritage.

Our cultural heritage is one of our greatest assets, serving as a link between the past and the present, reminding us of the creativity, exchange of goods and people, inventions and innovations, but also of the conflicts, wars and social changes that have shaped our history. Through our wonderful and unique cultural sites, our history becomes tangible and it is in all our interests to preserve famous and less famous places and hand them down to future generations.

However, our cultural heritage is more than historic sites: it includes Europe's picturesque landscapes – from high mountains to beaches – as well as typical regional handicrafts and folklore.

Unfortunately our cultural heritage is more fragile than sustainable, warned Mr Jones at the beginning of the workshop. The maintenance of our cultural sites is dependent on private and public funding, tourism and voluntary support. As regards nature, we are losing biodiversity and habitats due to farming practices but also as a result of climate change. We are losing rare plants which may have as yet undiscovered medicinal properties. Last but not least, we are losing traditional craft workers and their precious skills

Cultural heritage – a responsibility for all of us

Europeans need to be aware of these dangers and it is the responsibility of all of us to reverse this trend.

The current EESC presidency has made culture a priority, alongside peace, sustainability and youth, since all these topics are interlinked.

The European Union, national and regional governments are important as they can provide incentives and financial support, but it is first and foremost the local communities, the people on the ground – the men and women, young people and children – with their ideas, vision and engagement, who need to take responsibility for our heritage," said Mr Jones, outlining in his address the main findings of the EESC's own-initiative opinion The contribution of Europe's rural areas to the 2018 Year of Cultural Heritage ensuring sustainability and urban/rural cohesion.

It is Europe's rural cultural heritage which – with all its richness and diversity - contributes to the economic and social wellbeing of all European citizens and therefore needs to be recognised and valued, he added.

For the EESC, it is important for public investment to be "rural-proofed", meaning that funding should be designed to support family farms and agricultural workers – the farmers and foresters who have been managing the countryside and have thus maintained, protected and promoted its biodiversity – but also the creative sectors and local groups working to enhance the infrastructure of our rural heritage.

Our landscape will be endangered if no more resources are provided. Therefore it is important to raise awareness of the contribution of the rural population in promoting sustainable nature. Cultural events such as farm open days, school visits to rural areas, shows, crafts and other fairs as well as cultural festivals can also help urban citizens to better understand why public support is needed.

Reviving old skills through training and incentives for young people

Another danger is the loss of craft skills. Increased investment in training is necessary to enable intergenerational transfers, but also innovation and adaptation to new requirements. Young people – all of them, not only farmers – should be encouraged and supported to become rural entrepreneurs, filling e.g. the gaps for professions in the craft and restoration and repair sector.

Rural cultural heritage should also be promoted through sustainable tourism. The production and marketing of regional products and the promotion and revitalisation of our gastronomic heritage are crucial in this respect.

The European Year for Cultural Heritage can only be the kick-off of a development which we are fortunately already witnessing in some rural communities with good leadership – villages and towns that have shown remarkable resilience in caring for their inhabitants and their environment, sustaining themselves socially and economically as well as culturally. They should become a role model and their strategies for maintaining rural economic and social cohesion rolled out over the whole continent.