A bio-district is a rural area where different actors work together for the sustainable management of local resources, based on the principles and models of organic farming. Bio-districts entail social, environmental, economic, and ethical dimensions. They represent an innovative and sustainable integrated rural development approach for the transformation of community-based activities and food systems, with organic farmers playing a central role.
Definitions and clarifications
The term bio-district (literally, biological district, i.e., organic farming district) derives from its association to the Marshallian concept of industrial district , and it has been further developed by economic scholars. In Italy, the concept of district, although sometimes overlapping with the term cluster (applied to different economic sectors and branches), it is used mainly because of the historical local systems of production and it is also widely used for agri-food districts.
At the European level, bio-district can be used interchangeably with the term ‘Eco-region’: this is a term developed by the International Network of Eco-Regions (IN.N.E.R.) and aims at broadening the concept of organic, by referring to a more ecological approach, and, according to IN.N.E.R., it also aims at avoiding the risk of possible confusion with industrial districts.
A bio-district (eco-region) is then defined by IN.N.E.R. as:
a geographical zone where farmers, citizens, touristic operators, associations, and public actors establish an alliance for the sustainable management of local resources, based on the principles and model of organic farming, in order to improve the economic and socio-cultural development of their territory.
The definition of biodistrict in this case includes the bottom-up involvement of several actors, all operating in a specific territory, and the collaboration among all actors along the innovation processes and activities.
An important distinction must be made for Italy: bio-districts (bio-distretti) are usually non-profit associations, while organic districts (distretti biologici) are legally recognized territorial arrangements: the similar but different terms therefore identify which associations have been recognized under regional laws, which have at the moment only been confirmed in Liguria, Lazio and Toscana, with two bio-districts, Via Amerina e Forre and Val di Vara.
It is important to make two distinctions and clarifications:
- the distinction between an eco-region according to IN.N.E.R. and an ecoregion (ecological region), which is a term used by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN). Ecoregions, used in the context of WWF and FAO documents and reports, are defined as “relatively large units of land or water containing a distinct assemblage of natural communities sharing a large majority of species, dynamics, and environmental conditions”, and it is used by both organizations for the mapping of regions with attention for conservation.
- the distinction between eco-regions/bio-districts and ecodistricts at urban level. Ecodistricts in fact designate “urban development aiming to integrate the objectives of sustainable development and focusing on energy, the environment, and social life”.
Origins and diffusion
The first bio-district in Europe was developed in the Cilento region in Southern Italy in 2009. Since then, the number has grown incrementally, with IN.N.E.R. (which, as association, unites the majority of biodistricts in Italy and Europe) counting 41 of them in Italy (33 already developed and 8 in construction), and several others (although without specifying a definite number) in Europe.
From the first experience in Cilento, the biodistrict model has been developing and transforming from a mere instrument of organic agriculture promotion to a governance instrument for the strategy of sustainable local development. The territorial approach is the key characteristic uniting all the different biodistricts created over the years and it has been pivotal for the revitalization of the local food chains.
Majority of biodistricts are currently found in Italy, although the numbers are slowly increasing around Europe and in some extra-European countries (e.g., Indonesia).
Structure, governance, and objectives
Biodistricts are usually structured as not-for-profit associations, which aim at promoting organic agriculture and at bringing together the different actors at local level for the sustainable development of the territory. The association therefore unites as members local organic producers, consumers, citizens, local associations, and representatives from the administrations: since, usually, all these actors need coordination and management, the biodistrict is set up to provide a coordination structure so that interests can be shared and organized, and the discussions can involve the highest representation of the local territory as possible.
The biodistrict therefore provides a local governance structure and, therefore, if from one hand gathers the necessities from organic producers, citizens, and consumers, on the other hand tries to influence informally but solidly the local administrations’ decisions, towards a better and more sustainable local development.
Although the biodistricts are usually just associations, in some countries, like Italy, they have been recognized in specific regions through regional laws: this is the case for Tuscany, Lazio and Liguria, where biodistricts can request to be formally recognized at regional level and therefore have even more influential power over the institutional decisions, thanks to formal forums and meetings set by law. This also gives some biodistricts a more formal structure to access financing funds.
The biodistricts are usually structured with general assemblies and steering committees. The general assembly is formed by all members of the association: organic producers make up the majority of the assemblies, with citizens, consumers, other associations’ representatives, and administration’s representatives being the minority. In the case of organic producers, almost all of them are following the European standard certification, although in some biodistricts a Participatory Guarantee Scheme (PGS) certification is applied, therefore having a mix of standard and non-standard organic producers.
The number of members of the biodistricts could range from 30 to 350, depending on the maturity and size of the territory.
The steering committee usually has among 7 to 12 members, which are a mix of technical experts and local territory representatives.
The assemblies ratify the decisions taken by the steering committee, which define the objectives and activities of the biodistrict over the course of the next period (usually 6 to 12 months).
Among the objectives of biodistricts, there are the valorisation of the local territory, the promotion of food sovereignty and of social agriculture, the support of sustainable organic agriculture development and the promotion of mixed farming.
The activities held by biodistricts could be organization of seminars and workshops, planning of farmers’ markets, organization of meetings with local institutions for discussion on local legislative actions, activity plans for increase of organic food in local canteens, sharing of organic solutions for common agricultural production problems, etc.
Territorial vocations and production techniques in the territories of biodistricts are interlinked: food becomes cultural heritage and local identity mark, while at the same time the local economic and social actors become more responsible in the management of natural and environmental resources. Biodistricts adopt an integrated approach to sustainable development, with the purpose of improving the quality of life, the social inclusion and employment of the local population, the reduction of population decrease in rural areas, and the improvement of the local food systems (from farm to fork).
Bio-districts in Europe
In Europe, biodistricts have been developed in several countries, such as France, Austria, Portugal, and Slovenia: in each country, the experiences have been set-up with a similar goal to the biodistricts in Italy, but with governance structures which might fit better the local characteristics.
The most famous experience is in France, with the BioVallée project, an association in the Drôme Valley. BioVallée has the aim of promoting and developing a community culture for the safeguarding of the environment, the defence of the landscapes and territories, along with the promotion of solidarity, cooperation, and reciprocal respect values. The BioVallée, in line with the biodistrict’s concept objectives and activities, wants to be a governance instrument for the local territory, offering web tools, frameworks for sustainability assessments, a space for networking among members, meetings and seminars on sustainable development, and support for financing funds.
In Austria, the concept of biodistricts is gaining increasing importance. Bioregionen (in German) are proposed by actors in the organic movement as well as in regional development, and, in recent years, bioregionen are being developed with the aim of linking sustainable economic, social and environmental development of a region with organic farming. The ‘Bioregion Mühlviertel’, for example, represents a territorial approach for regional development based on a strong organic agriculture sector, and where citizens, organic producers, local municipalities and other local stakeholders are involved for the elaboration of long-term plans for sustainable development.
Bio-districts in Italy
In Italy, the majority of biodistricts is found in rural areas, although some of them (e.g., Trento and Bergamo) are considered peri-urban biodistricts. Their distribution at national level is not homogeneous: in fact, the majority of biodistricts can be found along the Alps and Appennini, while some others are found in areas with intense winemaking, i.e., Tuscany, Veneto, and Piedmont.
In Italy, the biodistrict model was first launched by a farmers’ organization, the Association for Organic Agriculture (AIAB in Italian), in 2009. Today, there are more than 35 biodistricts in Italy. Some of them have been set up thanks to the initiative of AIAB, while others have been set up thanks to the initiative of 1) local administrations; 2) local farmers; 3) citizens and associations.
In general, biodistricts in Italy are organized and set up as non-profit associations. In the regions of Liguria, Toscana and Lazio there are specific regional laws which define guidelines for the biodistricts to become recognized and institutionalized: based on the regional laws, they can apply for becoming biological districts (ditretti biologici in Italian), formally structuring the agreement and pact between the different members, which must necessarily include at least one representative of the local administrations. Val di Vara is the only biodistrict in Italy which has been set up directly through a regional law , with a decree of the Liguria’s regional parliament in 2013.
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