Cultural sustainability in the archipelago

Katriina Siivonen,
Adjunct Professor, University Lecturer,
Finland Futures Research Centre,
University of Turku,

Southwest Finland has a wide and idyllic archipelago, which covers 10,000 km2 of water and includes over 22,000 islands. There are large and fertile islands in the inner archipelago, and, mostly in the outer archipelago, very small and barren islands, which cover 75 % of the area. The population on the islands is c. 17,600.

The living conditions in the Southwest Finland archipelago have changed in the course of the modernisation process. The former sources of livelihood, mainly agriculture and fishing, are no longer as profitable for the inhabitants. As a result, during the 20th century, the population fell steadily. Nevertheless, since the 1970s, the size of the population has remained relatively stable. The most extensive branch of industry is currently the services. Although living conditions have been changing rapidly, many old cultural traits are still practiced in some form.

In the everyday archipelago culture, nature is the element which ties people most strongly to their own archipelago area. All in all, identification with the archipelago is based on practices related to nature and the community. As in culture always, these operate as tacit knowledge, which are sometimes difficult to grasp and describe in words. However, in some contexts tacit knowledge is elevated to conscious symbols. They are at the same time the beautiful and violent nature of the archipelago, the shores of islands forming borders, the freedom to work and define one’s own way of life inside these borders, and the skills and knowledge learned on the islands, which are able to conquer the administrational and literal knowledge defined outside of them. Culture and identities are always in constant motion, also in the archipelago. Moreover, a very prevalent element in these identities is the will of the archipelago people to define changes themselves within the shores of the islands. Only nature is an acceptable and strong definer of actions and identities.

To a degree, actions in local development work, and for instance in development of tourism, emphasize essential traits taken from everyday life identities in the archipelago. These are, for instance, the value of the former way of life, and the archipelago skills and knowledge that were part of it. They have deep meaning for local people, although they do not wish to limit the development of the archipelago only to protect and preserve a past way of life. In some respects, the aims of the development projects can be consciously opposed to the local archipelago identities. This is the case, for instance, when the goal is to create new forms of cooperation in the area. Then, for many people, these activities begin to overstep important island boundaries where a will exist to define life forms inside of these boundaries without the impact of the outside authorities. However, novel practices and relations in cooperation are established, if people working with the development processes are aware of these traits of the archipelago culture.

In the regional development, the best results will be reached if the local culture is not only used as an instrument in development work but also as a basic understanding of local ways of act in the environment and among people. Knowledge and understanding of important traits in local culture should primarily be a part of the mode of activities of the development work. Then the essential power of culture will be used in development processes.

To better reach ecological sustainability, the relationship between humanity and nature needs to be uniformly redefined. We need cultural change to reach ecological sustainability, and thus we need changing and creative culture. The direction of cultural change everywhere, especially in our technologized world, is not necessarily towards a more ecologically sustainable world. There are tendencies towards the overuse of natural resources, even in areas where human beings have a strong commitment to nature. What we must do is guide this change, and apply the understanding that nature exerts power over human systems to all aspects of our future development.

In particular, if the sustainability of culture is seen only as the protection of the continuity of cultural heritage, there is a risk of stagnation of a living culture and ultimately the development of something that, whilst once ensuring sustainability, simply ceases to do so. Cultural change is necessary to ensure both cultural and ecological sustainability.

Therefore, it can also be argued that culture should not be seen as a dimension of sustainability, but rather as a platform for all dimensions of sustainability. This platform is a process that involves the development of all human activities; economic activities, social structures, human-nature relationships, and the instrumental use of cultural heritage are all defined and redefined through this process.


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