A bright future ahead for the Leader programme

Among other attractions at the four-day OKRA agricultural fair held in Oripää, Finland, was the Leader tent, where various rural entrepreneurs had the opportunity to present themselves to the public. A wide range of products, from surveillance cameras to ground flax seed, were on sale from Leader beneficiaries.

– Inside the Leader tent at OKRA, visitors could smell, taste and try out some of the results of the Leader programme. This was our way of showcasing the large number of great projects underway in rural areas, explains Juha-Matti Markkola, Network Coordinator at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s Rural Network Unit.

Also present in the Leader tent, to provide more information about his association’s activities, was coordinaton and communication officer Stefanos Loukopoulos from Leader’s umbrella organisation ELARD (European LEADER Association for Rural Development). Mr. Loukopoulos said that like any other EU member state, Finland has its own high-quality foods.

– Local food appears to be a very strong trend in Finland at the moment. It is wonderful that locally produced food is appreciated here, too.

ELARD promotes the Leader programme

The objective of ELARD is to disseminate the philosophy of the Leader method in Europe, from local grassroots level to institutional level. According to Loukopoulos, the future looks bright for the Leader method in the next programming period 2013–2020. He believes that Leader will play a major role in the Europe 2020 strategy that is seeking smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

– Specific goals have been set for 2020. To achieve those goals we are working to augment the benefits derived from the Leader approach. We have some new ideas for the next programming period, such as local action groups operating in urban areas.

Local Action Groups have proven to be a highly effective rural development method. Supporting local action creates more resources for development work. In this respect, rural villages and urban districts are no different; local action should be promoted and supported in urban areas too.

Thousands of European Local Action Groups believe that the Leader approach is the key to finding innovative and socially and environmentally sustainable solutions for rural development. Threats identified by Loukopoulos include the euro crisis and the reserved attitude of the farming-intensive EU member states towards the Leader approach.

– In the next programming period, Leader will play a key role and has already won the Commission’s approval. Local Action Groups will receive more funding from various sources, such as the social and structural funds, Loukopoulos explains.

Leader programme results

Loukopoulos feels that Local Action Groups should be even more vocal about the results of their efforts, since this would strengthen the Groups’ position.

– By joining forces, LAGs can have a wider, nation-wide impact, which will help them to make a difference internationally.

The Leader approach was adopted in the EU in 1991. Finland became involved in the Leader programme in 1995. At the moment, there are 56 LAGs in Finland.

In the current programming period 2007–2013, LAGs working under the Leader programme have provided support to some 2,800 projects and more than 2,500 businesses, in their efforts to promote local business and communities. In addition, the programming period has seen the emergence of almost 700 new businesses, new jobs equalling some 950 man-years, and 860 village development, landscaping or environmental plans.

Text and photo: Viivi Lakkapää