By Sian Stacey
You may well have heard of the Summit to Sea project, read the articles and spotted the signs – ‘Conservation Yes, Rewilding No’ – along the road between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth. The project has had a challenging and difficult history. But over the last 12 months, through some small steps and some larger leaps of faith, things have started to develop more positively. This has involved a lot of listening, reflecting and learning. After the departure of Rewilding Britain from the partnership in October 2019 the project has been re-setting and is in the middle of a new and exciting development phase. We are now concentrating entirely on co-designing a future, asking what the land and sea will look like in a Mid Wales where nature and people thrive.
One of the key criticisms that the project evaluators made of the first phase was the ‘lack of appreciation of the wider context of farming and land use in the area’. They also noted, however, that the controversy had the effect of galvanizing the farming community and bringing people together, as well as creating a much deeper understanding of the challenges that face farmers in particular.
Since June 2020 the project has been hosted by RSPB Cymru whilst a locally based partnership is developed, depending on the outcomes of the design stage. The project is currently exploring how to support healthy and biodiverse ecosystems that deliver economic, ecological and social benefits, through a connected land and sea, appropriate to the local place and culture. It’s about developing collaborative management for wildlife, across ownership boundaries. This will need a shared, agreed, and inspiring approach.
Co-designing a project
We’re working with the local community and key stakeholder groups and organizations to co-design this locally appropriate project. What do we mean by co-design? We’re not using this term to describe ‘engagement’. We are going beyond traditional consultation by building and deepening equal collaboration between people affected by, or attempting to, resolve a challenge. One of the main principles of co-design is that people are ‘experts’ of their own experience, and so central to the design process. We’ve been ensuring involvement in the project is accessible for all, and reaches the broad communities of this rural and semi urban area.
Although Covid-19 restrictions have forced the project to adapt, it has still been possible to continue Following a large number of one to one conversations with people, organizations and businesses in the area, the project held several online workshops in 2020. These have been well attended with more than 70 people coming together across these to imagine what the future of land and sea use could look like in the area. Building on the excellent examples of some local people’s assemblies, these workshops have been supported by a number of local volunteers as facilitators to help make sure that the small group discussions in breakout rooms ran smoothly, and everyone had a chance to contribute and share. The notes of these workshops have been shared on the projects website and we’ve created a Google Drive for anyone involved in the project to find and contribute to documents.
At the moment, the key areas of focus which have been identified during these workshops are:
- A nature-rich and sustainable production system
- Connectivity between wildlife rich habitats for greater collective benefit
- Re-connecting people to nature
- Re-connecting the economy to nature
Within the themes we’ve begun to hear specific ideas for how they might be delivered. We’ll now be focusing on exploring a whole range of ideas, inviting more ideas, and discussing these in detail over the coming months.
As the project moves into a more detailed stage, where these themes which have been identified from workshops and conversations lead to the potential interventions, we hope to build a wider design team drawn partly from the recent workshops. We’ll be recruiting ‘community facilitators’ who will hold their own conversations within their communities.
One of the biggest challenges and opportunities is that such a high proportion of the population of this part of Wales are dependent on natural resources for their income. For example, we have a high number of farmers and fishers, but also landscape photographers, outdoor pursuits providers, mountain bike centres, bee-keepers and tourism providers. This demonstrates the importance of getting the management of natural resources right, to ensure the same opportunities for future generations to live and work in the area.
Nothing can really replace a paned and piece of bara brith face to face, but we’re hoping that while we’re still unable to do this, we make the most of the situation and use other methods. Sometimes this can work in our favour, when people are able to join an online workshop without needing to drive half an hour, or while making dinner. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be more accessible and inclusive for many. An important principle for people working on a co-design project, is to go to where people are instead of expecting them to come to you. Until we can safely meet in local cafes, markets and village halls there’s nowhere closer than on a screen in everyone’s home!
What excites me most about this project is that we’re giving it the time and space needed to build a conversation between varied groups of people. Through building this conversation and listening to each other’s experiences, concerns and hopes we hope to build mutual trust and the possibility of working together to achieve impact at scale for nature. It is only through working across boundaries, real or imagined, that we’ll be able to tackle the threats our future generations face, but I strongly believe it’s possible to paint a positive picture of our futures together.
For more information about Summit to Sea, visit the project’s website on www.summit2sea.wales
Sian Stacey is the Project Development Officer for the Summit to Sea project and lives in Aberystwyth. She has previously worked for Menter a Busnes in the Cywain team, working with food and drink producers, and before this was the Warden/Island Manager on Bardsey Island for three years. Sian is now Chair of the Bardsey Island Trust and is also involved in the People’s Practice in Aberystwyth.
Main image: Ben Porter. Other images: Sian Stacey.