By: Jean-Pierre Brien, Projects Director, Europe
Life in a rural island community is a unique and rewarding experience. The proximity to nature and close communal bonds with your neighbours is unimaginable for most people who call big city centers home, after experiencing it first-hand I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
However, the fact that this lifestyle often means you’re at arm’s length from the essential materials, resources, and services – that people can take for granted in larger centers – can be a challenge on the islands. But fortified with strong relationships with your neighbours, as well as good paying jobs from local employers, they’re like a good bowline in these situations: they hold the community tightly together when faced with choppy waters.
At Uist Asco, we’ve long embraced our role in and responsibility to the livelihood of the residents in the Outer Hebrides. What’s encouraging is that more governments and organizations have begun to recognize the important roles they play. As the eighth U.N. Sustainable Development Goal puts it: “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” need to be part and parcel for rural employers.
From our perspective, here’s how good community stewards can carry on the belief that decent work and economic growth are two things everyone deserves.
Maintaining a Delicate Balance
Living close to the land, there’s an understanding among islanders about how delicate local ecosystems can be. Frankly, when the natural world is just a walk down the road or down to the shoreline, you have constant reminders of how your daily life and work can impact ecosystems (and vice versa). It’s a constant reminder for us to think sustainably and live greener lives.
Look at some of the traditional ways of living. Crofters have learned to make do with shifts in growing conditions, turning to the sea for food when scarcity in rain or increases in heatwaves threaten their crops. Employers on island communities have taken this lesson to heart as well.
For example, we take care to carefully harvest Scottish seaweed and preserve the resource for generations to come. We’ll teach anyone who wants to harvest seaweed for Uist Asco. They’ll learn about sustainable harvesting practices used to collect Ascophyllum nodosum from along the coast in a way that is less intrusive to seaweed beds and encourages robust regrowth in future seasons.
We’re also focused on our global impact because the way businesses run their operations has an influence on climate change. Since the U.K. aims to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, every business has a part to play. In fact, our Uist Asco team is always looking for new ways to reduce our eco-footprint. We even use a Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) compliant method instead of fossil fuels to dry seaweed products, reducing our emissions to help reduce the impact of climate change on our island community.
Being a Good Neighbour
Remote regions have historically felt the struggle from disparities in financial investment and infrastructure. It’s those resources which help people to develop prosperity and stability for themselves and their families. Though not outside of reach for rural island communities, there’s a need for more organizations and governments to get involved, make investments, and be a good neighbour willing to assist those around them.
What does it mean for organizations to act like a good neighbour? We see it as two primary tactics:
- Taking care of shared spaces and resources
- Providing people with a helping hand when they need it
The first of the two often translates into infrastructure. Roads, bridges, ports, sewage systems, communication networks, and other resources are all shared by members of the community, and everyone has a stake in them. We’ve been proactive about contributing to the upkeep of shoreline access points. When repairing the fisherman’s wharf in Lochmaddy, we took initiative to fix the section where the fill had washed out beneath the ramp, leaving it better than we found it.
Providing for people so they can have better work is equally important. Since our Harvesters are not employees, they have the freedom to work when they want. However, that does not mean that we don’t provide them with support and resources to yield the best results from the harvest. We offer:
- Training for those who have never harvested before
- Financing programs to get harvesters boats and new motors
- Offering nets, ropes, and sickles to efficiently collect seaweed
Organizations that mirror these practices can help to narrow the gap between urban communities with lots of investment dollars and rural communities that do not get the same level of investment. By providing the tools and assistance to help people make a go of supporting themselves in the future, these companies are making sustainable contributions to their communities.
Keeping a Younger Generation on the Island
Island communities tend to struggle with depopulation, and the Outer Hebrides has been no stranger to this trend. In the past, it’s been a sad but understandable reality. As younger people look for greater financial opportunities, they often see moving away from their hometown as the only answer, as difficult as it is to say goodbye to family and friends. However, we’re seeing this does not need to be the norm.
Though I wasn’t around for it in the ‘90s, the Virtual Hebrides website may have been ahead of the curve for calling attention to the fact that Hebrideans could make a livelihood on the islands. It showed the diverse ways in which companies were able to provide good jobs and local opportunities. For remote workers, that’s exciting, but what about those with more traditional skillsets? We have the answer.
When Raghnall Maclain founded Uist Asco, he did it with an understanding that selling the nutrient-rich seaweed from our coastal waters could improve the quality of life for working-aged people—Acadian Seaplants has carried the torch forward in several ways. One, anyone willing to harvest the local seaweed with the support of Uist Asco would receive a fair price for the seaweed they collected, helping them to support their family or supplement their income. Two, the harvested seaweed required hard-working, resourceful people to process it, providing reliable work to islanders with excellent benefits.
We’re seeing commitment from the local government council and the Scottish Government’s community development agency. For those who are looking to stay or even return to the region, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CnES) are piloting a 12-month post that is dedicated to providing support to people who want to make life in the archipelago possible. The inaugural role is held by Kareen MacRury, a North Uist native. Kareen’s position is one of three settlement officer posts, which are being established across the Highlands and Islands to assist people moving to the region, provide relocation advice and gather information about any challenges they encounter along the way, and to inform them about future actions.
Speaking of settlement, we have plans to invest in building housing through communal development in the Outer Hebrides for workers and young families. Working together with other local organizations, we can make it easier for more people to stay on the island – and even attract future workers to the beautiful Hebrides.
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History of Seaweed Collection and its Processing in North and South Uist