Community Regeneration for Alternatives in Sweden

– a view from historic and synchronic perspectives

By Tord Björk

Thorsten Laxvik, Small peasant and chairman of local slaughter house cooperative, Edsele in the Ångermanland province. Text: We have to recreate an agriculture where famer and cow live in symbiosis and where the need for input is minimal.

Is it possible to look at the issue of regenerating alternatives from both a historic and synchronic perspective? The following is an attempt of doing this in a way that is maybe not so common, placing the present interest in Sweden in a longer more than 200 years perspective while at the same time attempting at situating what is going on in a global present context.

This is written several weeks after the presentation was made on July 16 at the ”Climate Change, Global Crises, and Community Regeneration, 8–17 July 2020” session of the Seventh South-South Forum on Sustainability SSFS7. Thus it may differ from the contribution made then, the main content is hopefully the same.

In March this year potatoes were planted in 130 municipalities in a large scale volunteer effort. As Sweden in total have 290 municipalities this was an unprecedented initiative. Soon after almost 10000 people participated or looked afterwards at a webinar on food organized by the transition movement. As Sweden in total have some ten million inhabitants this mean that 0,1 percentage of the population participated in this experience exchange

The immediate cause that triggered the interest was increased interest in food safety issue due to the Corona crisis. Other initiatives as local mutual help initiatives, volunteer making of protective gear etc also occurred as in many other countries. But what stands out at least compared to neighbouring countries is this large scale interest in securing food for the future.

It is easy to find also other factors behind the relatively large interest in this direction of responses to the corona crisis in Sweden. Until a unanimous decision in the parliament in 1990 to replace a regulated agricultural policy with letting the world market regulate farming Sweden had food self sufficiency. Willing contributors to this decision was not only free trade social democrats, the left party, liberals and conservatives but also the Greens and the center party. The latter grown out of an agricultural party established in 1910 in opposition both against urban liberalism, right wing and militaristic tendencies and socialism. Even the main farmer organisation LRF that in 1971 merged cooperative producer interests with representing farmer’s interest politically modelled after trade unions was all for it, only small farmers protested.

Yet it is not the whole picture. What is going on in Sweden is not only an interest in food but in the commune as such, the village, not as a physical construction but as a social manifestation. Furthermore it is taking place within explicit reference to historic experiences taking place both more than 100 years ago and even more than 200 years ago while at the same time being placed in the present global struggle against trade, finance, colonial and militaristic regimes. It is here it becomes interesting and maybe of wider interest than only a specific Swedish peculiarity.

The main dynamic seen from a class perspective is a dialectical relationship between economic and political forms of small farmers struggles. As small farmers in Sweden are heavily reduced in numbers and political and economical influence this relationship can result in sharp conflicts not only between those focusing on economic strategies and those focusing on political but also those working on all levels from the local to resistance against global institutions as WTO and those that focus on domestic issues. Small farmers also gets older. They know that with them much knowledge of locally adapted farming in Sweden will disappear.

This pressure from structural pressure on a diminishing sector cause problems when trying to come to common positions both within and between organisations. There are also as many as three main small farmers organizations, one with roots from 1913 called Familjejordbrukarna, Family Farmers, one started in 1982 called Förbundet Sveriges Småbrukare, the Federation of Small Farmers, and one NOrdBruk, farming in the North started as part of the international Via Campesina movement in the 1990s. The Family Farmers have a bit less than 1000 members, the small farmers one and a half thousand while NOrdBruk have only some hundred, the only of the three addressing international issues, not only concerning agriculture but also representing Via Campesina Europe in negotiations on forestry in Brussels. All have a medium age of ca 60 years, many live in municipalities loosing young people and especially women. Here the tax base is reduced meaning radical reduction of services both private and public. The awareness of that farming in Sweden in general both small scale and larger farms are in decline on what is called ”sluttande plan”, slooping plane, is wide spread.

There was also a farmers organizatiion started in 1929 were the majority were small farmers but also from the start included some owners of large farms. In 1971 this organizatiion merged with the farmers cooperatives were the large land owners had disproportionate influence into LRF, Lantbrukarnas Riksförbund, the agriculturalist federation. This new organizations became closely related to the state and the owners of large agricultural holdings depriving Sweden of a strong organization to defend the interests of family farmers. As this organization can provide service and access to power most small farmers belong to this organization in spite of that it works more in the interest of large farms and companies and not in their interest.

Some but not all young small scale farmers often prefer to see themselves as entrepreneurs in special branches while the small farmers organizations tend to discuss also the issue how farming in general in Sweden can be able to feed the whole population, some times being more forward looking than the larger LRF farmers federation. There is also a federation of ecological farmers. But they align quite close to LRF and include also large scale farms. They have contributed less to the revival of thinking in terms of community regeneration far more present in the minds of members of general small farmers organizations whether they use ecological or conventional methods.

Another strand among small farmers are those most concerned about rebuilding local community strength while at the same time promoting regenerative forms of agriculture in forests, pasture, mountain areas and elsewhere. They also radically refuse neoliberal and EU project money claiming to build economical strength on own terms.

This strand among small farmers that focus on other models of sustaining livelihood on the countryside and democratizing economic relationships gets much attention. It is well seen in large parts of society. By having cows in forests showing another way of recreating a food biotop and cultural landscape while controlling the whole chain from feeding animal stock with local resources, reclaiming biodiversity, slaughter animals and processing food locally they revive local communities and have become positive examples i national media and as sellers of high quality products to the best restaurants in the country and the Nobel prize dinners.

The three small farmers organizations fighting politically against overwhelming odds gets much less attention. Temporarily there can be interest among political parties or mass media but not lasting for long. A lasting alliance though have developed since 2010 with the system critical mainly urban based Friends of the Earth Sweden and after a while also solidarity movements seeing that Swedish small farmers have the same political and economic problems as the small peasant movements they cooperate with in the South. It is in this learning process this article emerged.

At the face of it, it looks less plausible that these small farmer organizations and initiatives can have any decisive influence on the future. Yet that is what is claimed here. The reason being that we cannot eat money. It is true that the money value from agriculture and the number of people active in agriculture is decreasing meaning that both economic and the political weight in formal economy and politics is decreasing. And yet we have seen the past decades that small farners have been central in most of the mass mobilizations against the present world order whether we talk about WTO, climate or food issues.

This is due to the contradiction between the promises made that constant growth of large scale corporate rule, urbanization and technological paradise is faced with degradation of the ecosystems as well as unemployment and growing militarization of internal and external relations. And a growing concern about how will we get healthy food in the future among wider part of the population which is a reason for building class alliances of the kind Via Campesina asks for between rural and urban population including those working in the fields, forests and fisheries as well as in industry and services including segments of the middle class. The number of small farmers may decrease but the number of people possible to mobilize in a class alliances for saving our environment in close cooperation with small farmers is increasing.

This rural-urban alliance has has fostered two different views on how to organize locally. Both have emerged in the same region of the country, geographically in the middle, economically and in terms of demography way up North. It is a part of the country that has seen some of the most dramatic worker’s, peasant/small farmer and peasant-worker joint struggles.

The economic mobilization on its way to become a peace movement

One is inspired by a focus on economic issues and the need for democratic revival at local level and rebuilding regenerative use of nature. This movement explicitly questions the land reforms starting with the Great Partition beginning in the mid 18th century enforced more throughly in the North in the mid 19th century by a new land reform. The first land reform in the 18th century was built on consensus decision in the village, a hundred years later it was sufficient that only one land owner demanded the partition and it was implemented. The discussion about this issue has developed during a decade with considerable success by linking to transition and environmental movements but only in vernacular Swedish language.

The result of the land reforms was splitting up the villages with the exception of one region, Dalarna. It also introduced commodification of life with introduction of putting a price on more and more of goods when buying and selling. Class differences also became more accentuated and many had to sell themselves as wage earners in the industries that in the North where situated almost exclusively along the coast.

The vision that has started to be implemented is to create new social relationships built on trust around the need to feed yourself. A core concept is ”Bredbandsbullerbyar”, broad band ”bullerbyar”, villages combining modern needs to be able to connect to the internet equally fast as urban populations with image of old days villages immortalized by the author Astrid Lindgren in her books for children about Bullerbyn, internationally so popular that in Germany 200 schools are named after the author.

This idea grow out of the need to strengthen local economy by reclaiming further processing of products from agriculture and forestry establishing a local slaughter house. A local academy emerged to address issues from avoiding industrial forestry methods and self critical reflection on how relations of subordination and leadership develops also i small scale economic cooperatives. As not only the state but also the municipality abandoned the villages to a large degree leaving them without vital services together with commercial enterprises the inhabitants have been more and more left to themselves to solve their daily problems. The many initiatives by EU and the Swedish state to distribute project money for vitalizing the countryside is by many refuted as a way to create a bureaucracy of administrators of temporary project money while standing in the way for self organized lasting local solutions.

From this local experience the idea developed that there was a need to repopulate the countryside by strengthening local economies with agriculture and forestry at the core. The claim was that regeneration of local communities needed a change of the overall development of all of Sweden including promoting 1 million more people in a country with 10 million to repopulate the countryside. Such a program is stated as needed to make Sweden food self sufficient again as it was in the 1980s and be able to solve the social and ecological crisis including reducing the ecological footprint Sweden makes. At the moment 4 planets would be needed if everyone would live like a the average person in Sweden.

The main tool for the struggle proposed is economical. A key factor is the need for building modern villages in the countryside as the existing houses has deteriorated and new are not built. In the early 1990s state guaranteed loans for building houses on the countryside was replaced by a privaticized system giving banks the monopoly of this task. The result has been a sharp decline and loss of value of buildings in rural areas. The concept Bredbandsbullerbyar is made as part of municipal efforts to renew housing. Such modern villages can accommodate both direct producers in agriculture and forestry as well as people working in towns and cities. Plans are now underway in the municipality of Sollefteå.

At the same time networks of producers and consumers build a wider and wider webs of different ways to take care of local natural conditions to grow food, manage animal husbandry, make use of the forests and local further processing industries. This also include rural-urban webs. Consumers and producers invests in the harvest and share the risks. Direct selling of agricultural products from the farm to the consumer at temporary organized local markets, so called rekoringar developed as a model in neighbouring Finland. There is also growing interest among urban populations for food which has been strongly strengthened during the corona crisis.

Central activists in this rural-urban interest in regeneration of local communities with the food issues and building local trust has also been involved in the new network Folk och Fred, People and Peace. This network is concerned both for peace on Earth and peace with Earth. It was started by the environmental movement and small farmers linking peace, welfare and environmental concerns with international links but have been successful in renewing also older peace organizations.

The political mobilization meets stronger opposition

The other is inspired by political issues confronting the growing conflict between so called periphery and the center which is not only taking place at national level, the EU and globally but also at regional and municipal level. The land reforms enforced more throughly in the mid 19th century provided the conditions for large scale corporate intervention in large part of Sweden dominated by forests covering more than 60 percent of the country, the highest percentage of any EU country.

As many owners of farms had democratic voting rights in the municipalities i peasants had political weight in many parts of the country including the parliament, a role dating back some 500 years. The corporations changed that. In the North they bought the forest part of the farms which was the by far largest part of almost all farms. In some villages this meant that the voting rights was taken from the local people and the municipalities was ruled in the interest of the corporations. Sometimes buyers arrived in a village with a lot of alcohol and persuaded the farmers to sell the forest generally considered to be more or less worthless. That kind of abuse has a name, ”baggböleri”. It is named after the village of Baggböle, where a forestry corporation stole timber in the 1850s but, due to its social and political superiority, escaped legal repercussions.  

As the local villages were destabilized through land reforms paving way for commodification community regeneration was done in new ways. In earlier days the whole village managed farming separately owned fields and commons together. In 1857 a mass rebellion took place from the South to the North and from the East to the West when baptist communties emerged, often in sharp conflict with authorities and the rest of the local community. This became a decisive tool in democratizing Sweden. Soon laws criminalizing preaching without being a priest in the state church and meetings without permission were abandoned. Cooperatives emerged, the first mass strike was organized by baptists in 1879 in Sundsvall at the coast in the same area as now new ideas arise again about the future of the country and the world. 

In the interior where there was no industry, only farmers and a few officials, salesmen and health workers. The new lust for self organization locally resulted in the emergence of the abolitionist movement. In half a year 1882 one hundred temperance halls were built in the villages all across the province of Jämtland were there was no industry. Cultural life as well as restaurants and entertainment establishments soon were in the hands of this movement and in 1888 the world gathering of International Order of Good Templars was taking place in the capital of Jämtland, Östersund. This province with many mountains and not many people soon became the cultural center of the temperance movement with national publishing houses and a driving force in a popular movement culture that changed the whole country. The popular movements turned people from victims into subjects by democratic organizing of self organized activities and popular education and cultural activities while struggling bot politically and economically.

This region also became central in the opposition against corporate capture of the forests as well as struggle against large landowners attempt to grab lands from Saami people and small farmers. In both cases baptists became key organizers of protests. Jonas Stadling from the small village Myssjö in Jämtland became the first muckraker in Sweden travelling on primitive roads or on ski across the interior of Northern Sweden. His finding was published in the daily Aftonbladet and the book Our Irish question putting the situation for Northern Sweden in a context of colonialism, inner colonialism. This perspective is still important for small farmers in Northern Sweden when they address today’s conflicts. Growing concern for emigration and the need to save the future for small farmers finally gave the result that a law was introduced stopping corporations from buying farms in 1906.

Myssjö baptists also was the source of many other struggles. One of the members was a photograph starting to document the Saami people. Another a painter. When the largest landowner in Northern Sweden wanted to expand his animal farm in the mountains he rented men with Remington rifles that started to shoot reindeers owned by Saami villages and threaten the small farmers to take over their land. Johan Tirén from Myssjö baptist community then made a painting of Saami people taking care of one of the reindeers shot by the landowners men with rifles. This painting was then shown in the parliament shaming the landowner who lost his seat and a small farmer took over his position. The painting is now hanging in the National Museum.

So a mobilization took place by people in local communities able to create their own culture together with other similar efforts all over the country able of also to change the balance of power and change politics.

Today this is a reference point for small farmers in the North when they continue to mobilize on all levels from the local to the national and global. Community regeneration is seen in the context of addressing both political and economical aspects seeing the struggle to oppose exploitation along lakes as equally important as fighting against the EU-Mercosur trade agreement. Exploitation of land near lakes is of interest to municipalities. The hope is that this will generate incomes from richer persons. Those often urban people then come and find the smell from the nearby farm unacceptable, urban norms gets introduced and farming becomes an obstacle. The Mercosur agreement is opposed because it will strengthen corporate power over food chains and will marginalize small farmers both in Europe and in the Mercosur countries.

These two ways of strengthening community regeneration from the perspective of food sovereignty are partly competing for interest. Especially the political questioning of power relations at all levels is not well seen by those in power. But both build strength from specific historical national and regional experiences. Especially sharp is the relationship with stakeholder initiatives with possibilities to apply for project money which both by the more economical and the more political strand among small farmers are seen as often dangerous attempt at coopting and misleading the movement into temporary action and NGO project administration instead of accumulating strength over time for more substantial changes.

Anglo-American roots loose weight while vernacular and peace issues becomes more central

Other types of local regeneration projects have at times been building on Angloamerican models exported to other countries. The founder of one of these initiatives came to Sweden after the movement had been going on for quite a while and stated that next time I do not want to see idealists running small projects anymore, I want to see entrepreneurs. One may share the wish that transition initiatives becomes more than a hobby. But also question that market relationships, commodification and entrepreneurship should be the central value for influencing society for a transition movement. Some may have full time occupation growing food for others while some make temporary efforts when needed and many also grow food for household purposes as well as consumers may be all part of a movement that find economic, political and other democratic ways to change society.

Today the transition movement in Sweden is becoming more multiissue oriented finding more vernacular domestic roots. Surprisingly the popular Omställningsnätverket (Transition network) part of the transition town movement perceived as rather unpolitical now supports a People for Peace national conference 10-11 January 2021. This meeting is strongly anti nuclear weapon and anti NATO, certainly political issues at the global level. They also bring with them some in Fridays for Future, a movement that has been very single or rather double issue focused on climate and ending species extinction but now starts to address other issues as protesting against EU agricultural policy.

In the cities we also see local initiatives that goes beyond the most immediate concerns. Also here is growing food a way to organize common activities bridging cultural barriers and giving food on the table much needed for some when unemployment and the corona pandmic has hit working class communities especially hard. But the same broader issues discussed in the villages turn up here as well, Who is actually in charge of the resources we have? Why should the forest belong to companies that transports the timber directly to the coast so the local industry and economy get no benefit out of it? Why could not the local population manage the local forest in the form of a cooperative? Why should so many buildings stay empty when services are closed for the working class communities in the city when they could be managed by a local cooperative to the benefit of the local population? City or countryside, food is at the center of community regeneration in Sweden.

Tord Björk

Friends of the Earth Sweden and Activists for Peace
Member of the International Council for World Social Forum on behalf of the Gandhian network Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam


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