AS delegates from 40 European countries gathered in Poland to set the agenda for a brighter future for rural and island communities, the air was heavy with the tragedy of war in neighbouring Ukraine.

The four-day gathering of the European Rural Parliament attracted over 350 delegates, drawn together by a common purpose of sharing stories, ideas and solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing our rural and island communities. It was a poignant reminder of what can be achieved by keeping an open dialogue with our European friends and neighbours, especially during times of hardship.

Sofiya Burtak, one of 15 Ukrainian delegates who had made the journey to Poland, shared her story, painting a harrowing picture of the many livelihoods and businesses which have been devastated in the war with Russia, not to mention the thousands of lives that have been lost.

She spoke of 200 livestock farms which had been destroyed and almost three million hectares of arable land wiped out by missile attacks. She reminded us that Ukraine is often referred to as the ‘breadbasket of the world’, its 60.4 million hectares of farmland supplying food to almost half of the planet which, until the blockades were recently lifted, has caused huge global disruptions in food supply.

She told us that 300 rural communities across the country are under occupation and that more than 4,000 food businesses are no longer able to grow, harvest or market their produce, which will have a huge impact on future food security. She spoke of farmers abandoning their land, choosing to flee the country, anxious about their future – a very difficult decision for many who have deep personal connections to their land and its heritage, often dating back multiple generations.

Yet she also spoke of the resilience of many who had chosen to start again from scratch, determined to play their part in rebuilding Ukraine.

She spoke of a large dairy farmer and cheese producer in the east of the country whose cattle barn had been hit by a missile, his livestock and livelihood destroyed, but within just two days, the surrounding community had pulled together to help him back on his feet, determined to rebuild what was lost.

Sofiya also shared the story of Anna, a producer of herbs and teas, who under the occupation has relocated to a new region, where she had to rethink a new venture. A local farmer had offered her some of his land and with the support of a local charity, she has since built greenhouses and is successfully growing and selling cucumbers.

Ukraine’s Rural Women’s Network is supporting farmers like Anna who have been displaced, to connect them with local communities and partners, as well as offering guidance to help them understand different regions’ soils and climate, so they can hope to build productive, resilient businesses which will endure into the post-war future.

Conjuring up memories of the Women's Land Army in the Second World War, Sofiya explained that many Ukrainian women who have never farmed before, are now key to the future survival of the industry, taking sole responsibility for growing, harvesting and marketing their produce.

Hearing a first-hand account of the sheer bravery of those living in this war-torn country, desperately trying to build a better future, was incredibly moving and a pertinent reminder of our privilege to be in a position where we can choose to put pressing issues such as climate action at the top of our policy agenda, when there are countries who are also facing the same climate struggles but are entrenched in war.

On the second day of the Parliament, we learnt from an Armenian delegate of the dreadful news that close to 100 soldiers and civilians had been killed overnight, during an incursion by Azerbaijan troops across its border. Only the night before, one of my colleagues from North Uist had been chatting with Armen Tiraturyan from Armenia about the times his grandparents had lived through under the Soviet system as farmers, where they were instructed what to grow and in their case, it had been a specific type of beetroot. That very beetroot, Theona had recently come to discover growing here in Dingwall.

HeraldScotland:

Similar conversations were had over the course of the week, not all marred by conflict, but all a reminder of our interconnected world and the importance of coming together to share dialogue, ideas and solutions to some of the major challenges of our time.

With the focus of the week on building a stronger future for rural Europe, it was incredibly moving to hear the hopeful contributions of the different delegations, and the confidence they all share in the role young people have to play in building stronger rural communities.

Here in Scotland, this has been led by our own Scottish Rural Parliament, a coalition of organisations including the Rural Youth Project, which has been empowering young people to have a louder voice and role in the future of rural communities. With over 100 youth delegates in attendance in Poland, there is much hope for a vibrant rural movement led by Europe’s young people.

It struck me on my return to Scotland, how privileged I had been to have had the opportunity to exchange stories with delegates from countries, which I would otherwise rarely get the chance to meet: Romania, Hungary, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Ukraine, the list goes on. Countries within and out with the European Union, who shared similar aspirations for the future of their rural areas but in some cases, due to conflict or corruption, face barriers we could barely begin to imagine.

In Scotland, families and businesses have been under such immense pressure, coping with soaring fuel, food and energy bills, that it can be easy to be sucked into an echo chamber, consumed only by what is on our own doorstep. It is the rural and island areas which do and could contribute significantly to the challenges around food security, supply chains, energy, as well as the climate emergency and the European Rural Parliament was an important reminder that as countries, we are all interlinked by common goals. We cannot be ignorant to the troubles of others when our futures are so intricately intertwined, but by coming together to engage in meaningful discussions, common solutions can unfold.


Read more by Claire Taylor: Food prices are rising, farmers are struggling and we face a crisis