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Fifth session of Working Group 1 – Agriculture and Rural Development (Chapter 11) “Local stakeholders in the function of the development of rural areas”

The Fifth Session of WG1 on the topic of “Local stakeholders in the function of the development of rural areas”, was held in the MPs’ Club on June 18, 2019 in Skopje. At the Session there were more than 30 representatives from relevant state institutions, NGOs in the field of agriculture, professors from the Faculty of Agriculture, experts from the country and abroad, as well as representatives of SFFA and foreign diplomatic representatives. The debate focused on the particular importance of rural development as a key factor that would incentivise the local population to remain in their rural residences. For this it is essential to apply continuous effort and coordination in the activity of all local stakeholders, as well as have the support from the relevant State authorities and international institutions.

Opening the working Session, Professor at the Faculty of Agriculture – Aleksandra Martinovska Stojcevska pointed out that the concept of NCEU, first applied in Slovakia, and then through SlovakAid the model was applied in several countries, as in this country, NCEU-MK truly contributes to an easier adaptation of different aspects in the process of EU accession. In the two-year period, NCEU-MK has realised almost 30 Sessions, in its four working groups, with more than 1000 participants. WG 1 in this, as in the previous Sessions, was focused on the development of agriculture in rural areas, as a key factor for maintaining local communities. Rural development creates the opportunity for local employment, which in turn creates multiple economic, social, environmental and territorial benefits, and contributes towards a solution to one of the major problems of today, which is migration and immigration from rural areas.

In his introductory address, Petar Georgievski, President of the Rural Development Network, stressed that this body, which does not have a political background, is a forum for debating the needs of the rural areas. For that purpose, they recently prepared a Manifesto that outlines the problems and solutions to the questions of where and how to proceed with rural development. One model, which has been operating in the EU for 20 years, and has a multi-sectoral approach, is LEADER (a shortcut from French, which denotes a link between development activities and the rural economy). It is one of the most successful achievements of the EU, which has gone through four phases, and since 2007 it is an instrument of a common EU policy and strategy, integrated into the national and local agricultural development programs in the Member States. This approach encourages rural communities to use their resources to ensure sustainable development, which addresses social, economic and environmental challenges. At its core it is a philosophical concept that influences the change in the mentality of all relevant stakeholders in rural areas. The changes refer to a united common approach in solving the specific problem.

According to Georgievski, LEADER’s approach to state structures is a new topic, but not for the Rural Development Network (RDN). Since 2010, RDN has been involved in the promotion of this approach, and recently, it is actively collaborating with appropriate state institutions. The MAFWE is starting to support the Local Action Groups (LAG) and in 2019 the first call for annual financial assistance of EUR 13,000 was issued.

The formation of the LAGs started in 2012, but they were registered as civil society organisations. Initially, 16 LAGs were established, and with re-registration in the MAFWE, now there are 13 organisations that meet the prescribed criteria for using funds through the National Program for Rural Development. These registered Local Action Groups cover about 70% of the national territory. It is important to state that 4 new regional initiatives have been launched. The initiative in the Prespa region is under discussion because of it does not meet the criterion to cover at least two municipalities. However, as a resource-rich lake region, the authorities are exploring possibilities to follow through with the registration, which is also rightly contained in one of the draft recommendations of today’s Session. Mr Georgievski underlined that he fully supports the registration of this region.

The legal framework for LEADER / LAG is contained in the Law on Agriculture and Rural Development (Articles 87, 88 and 89), the Rulebook on Detailed Requirements for Registration in the LAG Registers, the Rulebook on the Content and Methodology for the Preparation of Local Development Strategies for Rural Areas , as well as other relevant laws such as the Law on Local Self-Government and the Law on Balanced Regional Development. It is a solid legal structure in which the emphasis is placed on the development of the capacities for realisation of small pilot projects, for which financial donor are USAID, SIDA, Swiss assistance, GIZ and UNDP. There is an evident need and interest in the implementation of the LEADER approach, which is expected to start using appropriate EU funds in 2021/22. It should be stressed, however, LAGs are still organisations in their infancy, and for their success, good preparations and a great involvement of the citizens are needed. As organisations they encourage association of the public, civil and private sectors, as well as the creation of innovative sustainable local strategies. The approach should be bottom-up, that is, it should be initiated from real local needs.

Anton Marcincin, advisor to the Ministry of Finance of Slovakia, expressing his satisfaction at the invitation to attend, saying that, according to their experience, what is done under the National Convention is of exceptional importance for the country on the road to the EU. He was professionally able to witness at a time of transition, and the loss of a rural tradition in his country. This was not the case in some other countries, such as Slovenia and earlier Austria. The villages are revitalised with the support of local tourism and placement of agricultural products.

Marcincin, presented a comparative analysis of a series of financial indicators for the states of several Countries in the region. Regarding our country, given that farmers represent 23% of the total labor force in the Country, he noted that this is an important sector. However, conversely it is also true that the contribution of this 23% to the total gross product is only 8.4%. This must be changed and improved. Production should be restructured in the view that survival from agriculture alone is difficult to sustain. It is necessary to connect agriculture and agricultural-tourism, including portfolio of offers, export-oriented final agricultural production, etc. An individual producer can hardly be competitive on the market and therefore needs association. With wise use of EU projects and finances, the development of agriculture can be accelerated.

The foundations of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are set on two pillars: market support and rural development. It is a European response to the need for a decent standard of living for 22 million farmers and agricultural workers who provide food supplies for 500 million citizens. The competitiveness and sustainability of EU agriculture is provided through direct payments to stabilise duties and financing projects for specific national or regional needs. Slovakia, on the basis of direct payments, receives 3.03 billion euros, which includes 345 million euros, that national authorities transfer for the period 2015-2020.

The key changes expected with CAP are: promoting the competitiveness of the agricultural sector (investments in 1250 farms and 400 food producers); preserving the ecosystem and efficient use of natural resources; creation of conditions for economic and social revitalisation of rural areas. For them, it is typical that there are large farms, with an average of 80 hectares, while the EU average is 16 hectares. There are 121 LAGs on local level, of which 87 have successfully applied for financial support, which on average amounts to 1.6 million Euros. LAGs cover 2/3 of the territory, with 2.3 million inhabitants in 1,744 local communities. According to their experience the needs of a local but also national level should be harmonised. At the national level, it is necessary to determine what is wanted in order to develop competitive performance in the market. It is also important to know whether people should move to cities or stay in rural areas and produce organic food. Agriculture is labor intensive and it is difficult to achieve rapid growth. This is possible in the automotive industry, but with that, a part of the population is lost and the territory they live in is neglected. For local economic development it is important to involve local factors, but it does not need to be self-isolating.

According to Mr Marcincin in North Macedonia, agriculture is a key economic branch that covers almost 1/4 of the employees. The use of the EU CAP for restructuring agriculture is welcome if it is used carefully and with account for local needs. LAGs should be part of regional and national development. Without partnerships with local authorities, employers, schools and NGOs, decisions and strategy for local development will fail. The LAGs, in short, do not live in isolation.

Aleksandra Martinovska Stojcevska opened the discussion on the draft recommendations that emerged from working meetings, consultations and interviews with stakeholders. The main motive of the Session was to understand the situation from bottom-up, and rural development to be perceived from the perspective of the role of local residents. The situation is complex and as a result the draft recommendations were numerous. They were grouped in three areas: 1) encouraging the development of rural areas; 2) strengthening the Local Action Groups (LAG) and the possibilities of the LEADER approach; 3) improving the institutional setup and capacities for the LEADER program.

Maja Lazareska Joveska informed that MAFWE has already established a LEADER / LAG unit within IPARD, and expect this measure to be included in the IPARD 2 program. Call for funds for which all registered LAGs have applied from the available sources has been announced, and the award is in the process of review.

Biljana Petrovska Mitrevska pointed out that the local communities can be a significant local factor, but they do not accept innovations easily. In addition, there are still no adequate local structures to support the LAGs, in our Country. This is why it is even more important to provide monitoring of the use of the funds that will be awarded.

Professor Orde Jakimovski presented his views on rural development, emphasising that there are communities that are failing and they have little use of new institutions. Meat communities that exist should have the status of legal entities with extended competencies that require changes in existing legal regulations. The situation is critical in many rural environments and therefore it should be considered to establish a special Rescue Body in the village in need, as well as the formation of non-partisan Social Rural Movements, as is the case in some EU countries.

Mileva Gjurovska, Francois LaFond and Nikola Todorovski commenting on the draft recommendations stressed the need for the recommendations to be as specific, functional, and applicable, as possible. By providing concrete recommendations, the NCEU can act in the direction of assisting the establishment of the LEADER approach and LAGs in Macedonia.

Further in the discussion more concrete suggestions were presented. It was suggested that the Ministry of Local Self-Government should regulate the legal status and to extend the competences of the local communities, based on the analysis with the participation of ZELS. Further, as soon as possible to establish an Office and appoint a person responsible for the LEADER / LAG to prepare for the expected official inclusion in IPARD 2 in the following period. To strengthen the human resources for the LEADER / LAG and not to be exposed to unjustified changes with the changes in the leadership of Ministries and state agencies. There is a phenomenon of duplication of project activities and a coordinated activity is in line with the LEADER approach; direct payments from the budget funds are noticeably present, and in small rural development projects it is possible to be activated as a donor and domestic economic entities; to formally form an Inter-Ministerial Body that would act in synergy with the Rural Development Network and all other factors involved in the development of rural areas.

The debate at the Fifth Session of WG1 concluded with the conclusion that the recommendations should be supplemented and specified so that they can be directly attainable. By electronic means, they should be submitted to the participants with the possibility of further specification, in accordance with the character of the National Convention as an open permanent forum for dialogue on issues related to the process of RSM accession to the EU.

Tomas Strazay and Peter Brezani from the Slovak Association for Foreign Policy also took part in the work of this Session of the WG1.