Words by KT Browne
Photography by Golli
Borgarfjörður eystri, a village home to nearly 100 residents and located in the far east of Iceland, is about as far from Reykjavík as one can possibly get without actually leaving the country. In the recent past, the village has seen their population grow smaller, their school lose students, and ultimately, their only grocery store close – a major blow to the community’s spirit. Borgarfjörður eystri’s impending fate seemed rather certain; as globalisation increases, so too does the movement of people from rural areas to urban centres. Such has been the case in a number of small villages across Iceland, as people steadily relocate to Reykjavík in search of accessible services, larger communities, and – perhaps most crucially – viable employment opportunities.
On the verge of becoming just another ghost town in Iceland – much like former villages Djúpavík and Ingolfsfjörður in the Westfjords – Borgarfjörður eystri was given a second chance. Fragile Villages (Brothættar byggðir) is a programme that was envisaged by the Regional Development Agency in 2012. With the goal of revitalising rural communities throughout Iceland suffering from sharp population decline, housing shortages, and ailing services, Fragile Villages offers the tools needed to jumpstart struggling communities, like Borgarfjörður eystri, on both practical and social levels.
“The primary goal of the programme is to stop depopulation in our most vulnerable communities,” explains Kristján Þ. Halldórsson, one of the programme’s managers and original founders. “But this is quite a tough goal and we certainly don’t know whether we will be able to do so.”
Funded by Alþingi – the Parliament of Iceland – Fragile Villages offers select villages in need grants of around ISK 5-7 million ($40,500-56,700/€36,300-50,800) per year to put towards a clearly defined goal. These goals often include job creation, road renovation, or jumpstarting services. Project managers, including local residents and representatives from the Regional Development Agency, are appointed to each community and tasked with leading regular discussions regarding possible plans for economic growth.
Beyond providing monetary support, Fragile Villages is also heavily focused on increasing local participation in communal development and ultimately empowering people to strategise new ways forward – in short, the programme focuses on shifting collective mindset and nurturing a sense of hope.
“We do more than just facilitate development through funding,” explains Eva Pandora Baldursdóttir, another one of the project’s managers. “We place a lot of emphasis on collaboration between the locals and the government and think of the project as a bottom-up endeavour rather than top-down. We don’t come into communities to offer tailor-made solutions but rather help the locals build their own successful futures. A village’s success is therefore largely based on the involvement of the locals.”
This means that residents must take the initiative to plan their goals meticulously; to do this, there needs to be a cohesive vision of success within each village – a community spirit, of sorts. Staying positive in the face of your home’s decline can be a challenge for residents involved in the programme, many of whom have found the term “Fragile Villages” rather hopeless and yet another reminder that their communities are, indeed, fragile.
Despite the possible negative connotation of the project’s title, the support the programme has provided has had a distinctly empowering effect on the residents of Borgarfjörður eystri, who see their participation in the project as an opportunity to solve practical issues by coming together and fostering communal spirit. “A lot of good has come about in Borgarfjörður,” admits Alda Marín (pictured above), a resident and one of the town’s project managers. “And a lot of that success has to do with the residents’ willpower and perspective. Disadvantages can also be opportunities. It really all depends on how you look at the cards you’ve been dealt.”
In the wake of the closure of Borgarfjörður eystri’s grocery store – the only grocery store within a 70km (43mi) radius – it became clear that something major needed to happen if the town had any chance of surviving. Putting any bruised pride aside, the residents of Borgarfjörður immediately saw their store’s closure and the Fragile Villages programme as a chance to unify toward a shared goal; and so, after their initial community meeting, they decided to crowdfund a new store.
For Óttar Kárason, one of Borgarfjörður’s project representatives and long-time resident of the town, fostering a positive attitude was critical to the success of the new store. “I can feel a shift in how people think about this community, and that’s really gotten things started,” he says. “There has always been a lot of social thinking in Borgarfjörður and the town’s spirit has always been very good, but now we’re prioritising the needs and wants of the society in bigger ways than we ever have and seeing clear results.”
With so much effort being made to not only strengthen community spirit but bolster the programme itself, it is often worth reminding oneself of the purpose of all this hard work. What’s the greater impact of the programme beyond newly paved roads and better grocery stores?
“There is so much value in preserving small communities across Iceland, not in the least because we want to have our country accessible to tourists, for example,” says Kristján. “To have a country with nearly all of its people living in Reykjavík does not paint a positive picture.”
For Eva, who relocated to the countryside from Reykjavík, the natural environment is extremely important for her family’s sense of well-being. “I wanted to bring up my family and children in a place where we can be more in touch with nature and learn to really appreciate the natural environment,” she says. The rich potential of major industries such as fishing and aquaculture is also another major reason for protecting Iceland’s rural communities.
Though it seems that Icelanders themselves truly recognise the value in having population diversity across its rural areas, it remains to be seen whether the government shares in this belief. “In the past, there was a tendency to look away from struggling villages, but I think that’s changing now,” says Kristján. “As time passes, we’re seeing more and more positive signs that Parliament and the ministries of Iceland are starting to notice – and appreciate – what their people want and need.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.