Building Rural Community Capacity in Croatia:
Adapting Rural Traditions for Sustainable Development
Rusty Brooks, Professor and Assistant Director
International Center for Democratic Governance
The Carl Vinson Institute of Government
The University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia USA 30602
As Croatia continues its path towards becoming a full partner with its European neighbors, it will increasingly find itself as a laboratory for a wide range of rural development programs and strategies. However, there are two important generalizations that can be made relative to the numerous rural development approaches that will, or have already begun, to be undertaken in Croatia. First, in many strategies for rural
development traditional rural knowledge, skills, and the variety of locally produced products that historically contributed to rural community and household sustainability, have tended to be discounted in favor of more 'modern' knowledge, skills, and products. This goes along with stereotypical notions that rural equates with outmoded knowledge, skills, and products. Second, many rural economic development strategies
propose that rural places have to 'change' in fundamental ways if these places are to become competitive in the new world economy. Both these generalizations assume that rural places in Croatia are essentially un-competitive, un-enticing, and un-attractive for successful community and economic development and that they must be, to use current marketing parlance, re-packaged, re-positioned, and re-done if they are to survive.
I advocate using a strategy of sustainable rural development for Croatia. My idea of rural sustainability for Croatia is more historical and 'place-based' in context. Rural places in Croatia, by their very nature, had to be sustainable. Rural people had to be creative to survive and sustain themselves. They had to produce food and fiber to feed and clothe themselves. They adapted to local environments, soil conditions, native plants and animal species, and developed adaptive animal husbandry and outdoor skills. They created local traditions and folkways toentertain themselves. They developed local music and dance, folk stories, and folk songs. They found ways to adapt and use local plants and herbs for medicines and for cooking. They adapted locally available raw materials to develop unique rural architectural styles exhibited in homes, farm structures, and public places. They developed rural crafts and artisans that produced utilitarian products for the home and farm including bowls, furniture, implements, and utensils. They also developed art and art forms through painting, sculpture, and pottery to expressthemselves and their relationships to their environments, their families and friends, and their faith and religion.
An Alternative Model for Sustainable Rural Development
My approach to rural community economic development, which I target at rural villages in Croatia, is to build on this historical and place-based notion of sustainable rural development. I firmly advocate a definition of sustainability that does not assume that rural places are outmoded and antiquated, but indeed that many of the rural villages and towns in Croatia have certain 'comparative economic advantages'
contained within the very nature of being rural, that have not been adequately captured and packaged for rural development purposes. Specifically, my approach suggests that current trends in leisure travel; nature-based tourism; heritage and cultural tourism; agricultural-tourism; the demand and interest in folk art and folk art traditions; the growth in demand for outdoor recreation pursuits; and, the current political stability in the region, all combine to provide significant opportunities for sustainable rural development strategies that build on traditionalcustoms, folkways, and lifestyles.
Most importantly, my orientation advocates an approach that contends that many rural places in Croatia still contain the necessary elements for sustainable development including strong traditions of building and craft skills; wonderful architectural traditions exhibited in homes, farm buildings, churches, and public places; excellent traditions of locally produced arts and crafts such as beautiful embroidery and needlework;
delicious traditions of local culinary specialties served along with excellent local wines and brandies; important rural traditions preserved, practiced, and performed in song, dance, and art; and, indigenous rural knowledge and traditions related to the natural environment of forests, wildlife, and rivers.
These traditions all function to create a strong foundation for rural sustainable development. People want to see, taste, touch, hear, and feel rural places in Croatia. Just like there is a market of consumers for the Adriatic Coast, the islands, and the charm of Zagreb, there are consumers who desire, and are looking for, the pace, charm, and lifestyle of rural places and people in Croatia. What has to happen is that pace, charm, and lifestyle has to be packaged and presented for consumers. However, that pace, charm, and lifestyle must also be protectedand preserved as well. I always remind rural towns and villages where I work to understand that many economic development consultants will advocate 'change' on their part. The consultants will encourage them to change traditional architecture, industry, culture, environment, and attitudes to be modern and competitive. However I admonish them that if they do look to change as their primary goal, then many rural
villages and towns in Croatia will lose distinct comparative advantages if they do advocate 'change' that fundamentally alters the rural character and landscape of the village or town or that discounts or discourages the cultivation and practice of indigenous rural knowledge, architecture, and traditions. They will lose the very uniqueness that sets them apart and makes them attractive, enticing, and interesting.
Many rural villages and towns in Croatia are having difficulty in making the economic restructuring necessary to be competitive in the new economic environment in which they find themselves. Lack of job creation and retention strategies, absence of support and encouragement for entrepreneurial activity, and insufficient public and private sector economic development financing are major problems for these rural villages and towns. Many economic development initiatives become stalemated because government at the national level is
stretched for funds to invest into its undeveloped rural areas and governments at the local level do not actively pursue, or perhaps better yet, understand their important role in the nurturing, encouragement, and support for local community economic development activities. More critical to this proposal, is the contention that people and leadership in Croatia overlook the historic and place based advantages rural places
have because they are looking at 'new' economic development strategies to overlay on traditional rural places. In sum, rural people and local government in rural areas of Croatia overlook the comparative economic advantages of rural village architecture, handicrafts, culture, and lifestyle.
In rural villages and towns the main economic activities have traditionally included textiles, wood and timber, metalworking, agriculture, native handicrafts, and tourism. Tourism is one of the most successful aspects of the overall economy of Croatia and contributes to almost half of the national budget. Given that the country has lost almost seven of the past ten tourism seasons, tourism infrastructure and tourism businesses are
struggling to survive. Tourism activities in the principal destinations, which are primarily along the coastal areas and in Zagreb, have weathered the difficult years better than rural destinations. For the most part tourism is an under-utilized community economic development asset in the rural areas of Croatia, even though these areas contain many historic sites, wonderfully attractive landscapes, locally produced handicrafts, exceptional food and drink, and great cultural diversity.
Potential for the Region
Because of the abundant and underutilized potential of the history and culture of the rural villages and towns of Croatia there is great potential for attracting visitors/tourists to these areas. However, the barriers to achieving this potential are poor transportation/road systems, inadequate tourism infrastructure such as lodging and restaurants, lack of funding to support efforts to repair and rebuild historic sites, and lack of a coordinated approach to developing/marketing the tourism potential of the region. Factors that can contribute to successful improvements in
the potential of rural villages and towns for tourism are the existence of historic sites such as castles, churches, and homes, architecturally significant family dwellings and outbuildings in need of repair and restoration, and a passion of the people of Croatia, both within Croatia and Croatians around the world, to retain an attachment to the area of their family heritage. Some of the major factors that can contribute to enhancing the opportunities for rural tourism in Croatia are the rural people themselves, their many unique skills and talents, their indigenous
knowledge of rural life and culture, the crafts and handiworks that have been traditionally produced, and their work ethic for perpetuating quality craftsmanship. Most important however, is the desire and interest of people and leaders to try new approaches to creating sustainable economic opportunities in rural Croatia.
New businesses can be developed in these rural areas over time but there are many people with specific skills and trades that are unemployed and more importantly, underutilized as resources for rural regeneration. There are many historically significant traditional dwellings, as well as other structures in these villages and towns that need repair and which could be attractive to tourists that can visit these rural places. These dwellings and structures could serve many roles for rural villages and towns including lodging places, museums, restaurants, historic sites, information centers, retail shops, centers for the production and exhibition of locally produced arts and crafts, commercial facilities, community centers, and government offices. Many of the underutilized skills and trades of rural unemployed and underemployed people could be tapped to repair and restore these dwellings and structures for tourism and community use.
Additionally, rural craftspeople can be encouraged and supported in perpetuating their skills for broader economic development purposes in rural villages and towns. There are strong traditions of beautiful and functional handicrafts in Croatia. These traditional handicrafts represent a wealth of 'folk art' that is highly desired by collectors and consumers worldwide. This proposal will advocate strategies that expand the involvement and employability of rural people in the production of specialized handicrafts. For example, pottery making is a skill that employs
a single potter at a wheel. How do you expand the impact of this single potter on a rural village? You begin to identify and develop the skills of others who can paint/design pottery, others who can glaze/fire pottery, others who can work a kiln and move items in and out of the kiln, others who can present and sale the pottery, others who can build a wooden box/stand to display the pottery, and still others who can interpret the story behind the pottery and potter for those who will want to know something about the bowl or cup they have purchased.
My work in Croatia advocates linking the entrepreneurial, technical, and organizational skills, knowledge, and successful experiences of artists, historic preservationists, architects, planners, and community economic developers in the United States with rural people, local governments, NGO's, and universities in Croatia for sustainable rural development. How will this be accomplished? We will succeed by building on the
traditions, skills, and charm of rural places and people in Croatia as a catalyst for sustainable development through creating an atmosphere of rural community entrepreneurship. Rural community entrepreneurship is about seeing and using local heritage, culture, and environment as sustainable development assets. This notion of rural community entrepreneurship will be created by bringing the entrepreneurial experiences
and knowledge of successful and experienced U.S. partners together with people, communities, and resources in Croatia. These U.S. partners will share experiences and provide technical assistance that demonstrates a variety of innovative and successful ways to use the very elements of the rural place, e.g., traditional handicrafts, rural architecture, the rural environment, agriculture, people, foods, lifestyle, history, culture, and the arts, as the basis for generating employment, income, and sustainability in rural villages and towns. When this happens we willhave taken great strides towards helping Croatia be the great destination she should rightfully be and the phenomenal economic success she deserves.