Estonia is a small, sparsely populated country with plenty of forests and agricultural land, but at the same time its population is mostly concentrated in the cities. This reflects on the focus topic of Estonian MAP – social dimension of rural areas.
From the 45 000 km² of Estonian territory, 1 mil hectares is under agricultural land. Only about the third of 1.3-mil people in Estonia are living and working in rural areas and this number is constantly declining. When looking at the main reasons why people want to move into the cities, the traditional answer is: city life offers more jobs, higher salaries, more accessible services, better infrastructure, and better transport links and roads. Actually, there is a widespread opinion in Estonia that it is impossible to live in the countryside if you do not own a car and have a driver’s licence.
Young people wish to have an interesting, well-paid and gratifying job. They seek the attractive living- and business environment and closely-knit and active community. To guarantee sustainable rural life and food security, Estonia must work out a plan how to attract young people to live and work in the rural areas, how to influence companies to create attractive workplaces outside bigger cities and how to ensure that people who have grown up in the countryside decide to come back after getting an education somewhere else. To put it in short – we must find a way to make it great to live in the countryside.
The biggest benefits of rural life are beautiful nature, more peaceful and healthy living environment. During the COVID-19 pandemic the demand for countryside homes has rapidly increased: people started doing remote work and they could stay away from the city much longer. Fortunately, the digital infrastructure in Estonia is quite good to accommodate this growing need. But how could we attract them to live in the countryside permanently?
In 2021, the Estonian National Rural Network organised a think tank whose main topic was “Where do we want to be in 2040?”. It brought out several aspects, some of which are interconnected, that should be dealt with. The discussion emphasized the importance of social inclusion and viability – no one should be left alone or ignored. Strong community cooperates in all fields – it helps its members to age well, it can use the life experiences of the elderly citizens in several activities and at the same time educate them in digital matters; it can improve the accessibility of medical services, etc.
Another aspect that was deemed important was income, employment and jobs. The goal is that in the future, the jobs in rural areas are diversified and they offer adequate income. It can be achieved through promoting remote work centres and possibilities to work and study remotely, by creating incubation centres, organising creativity- and development campaigns to find new solutions, favouring youth entrepreneurship and developing the working habits of young people.
The third aspect brought up was the availability of basic services. It is necessary that all the basic services are available in the rural areas, to make it a great place to live in. For this we need to support the design of new services and encourage local communities to start offering certain services themselves. We must support short supply chains and change the procurement procedures so that local and preferably organic food would be the preferred one and it would reach schools, kindergartens and social institutions. We must develop local and independent energy regions and pay out the wage subsidy.
Estonia has already started dealing with the forementioned shortcomings and one of the biggest success stories is the LEADER funding which has been available since 2004. Based on their regional strategies, Local Action Groups implement bottom-up initiatives to focus support where it is most needed. Over the years, strategies have become more coherent, focused and business-oriented measures have been more clearly prioritised and more budgeted. Comprehensive co-operation and extension of measures to other EU funds has also been important. The country has started implementing a pilot program in 2021 in one of the most problematic counties to help people establish homes in the countryside. The first co-loan agreement for the construction of a new home has been signed in February 2022. The goal of this initiative is to empower people to move back to rural areas, to promote young people’s opportunities for self-fulfilment in the countryside and thus contribute to the balanced development of Estonia.
The Estonian MAP is a newly established platform within the SHERPA project. It is part of the 20 new MAPs rolled out in the second phase of the project.