Zita Cobb thinks whoever divided the year into four seasons miscounted.

“On Fogo Island we have seven different, distinct seasons.”

In addition to the standard four, she said, Islanders divide the year into ice, berry and trap berth seasons, all defined by the rhythms of nature.

It’s an example of what Cobb described as an “unmediated entanglement with the natural world”, an entanglement that Dobb says separates those in rural communities from city dwellers.

“As my father used to say, nature knows everything, and if we pay attention, we learn something.”

If we lose rural communities, she said, we risk losing a way of knowing.

Cobb was the keynote speaker at the Shift Conference, two days of talks and workshops organized by Dalhousie’s School of Planning March Friday and Saturday.

A History of Divisions

Zita Cobb
Zita Cobb

Cobb was born on Fogo Island in the 1960s. Even as late as her own childhood, she said, her community had no contact with the other 10 communities on the Island.

The communities were divided not only be religious differences, but also the same sense of history that kept them grounded in their communities.

“All the history is a strength…until it becomes baggage.”

Cobb is trying to find a way to make sure that history remains an asset. She’s president and founder of Shorefast Foundation, a charitable organization that focuses on art, sustainable tourism, and community-based microfinance as the means of community revitalization on Fogo Island.

Despite having made her fortune in business, Cobb grew up suspicious of it.

As a child she watched the factory trawlers capturing cod close to the island’s shores – a industrial scale fishery, she said, that Islanders understood even then was unsustainable – and “understood, even as a 10 year old, that this was a kind of sinister system that people were caught up in.”

It was an attitude common on the island, she said, where the historical divide between the merchant and fishing classes had left most people with the opinion that “if you were in business you were essentially evil.”

After the collapse of the inshore cod fishery, then-premier of Newfoundland Joey Smallwood instituted a resettlement program with the ominous tagline “develop or perish.”

Outports lost large proportions of their population. Fogo Island was once home to 5,500 people; it now has roughly 2,300 residents.

Cobb isn’t suggesting trying to return to a time before the collapse of the fishery – even though fish stocks are gradually rising – as if that were even possible. “We’re not going back to that.”

But she is suggesting that we need a more thoughtful way to develop, one that acknowledges that love and attachment that people have for their communities.

We need to be work with globalization, in other words, but it has to be a globalization “made up of intensely local places that are connected around human needs and human values as opposed to the unlimited numbers of human wants.”

The Importance of Design

Globalization doesn’t just uproot communities, she said. It’s also the reason we’re suffering from a soul-destroying sameness.

“Specificity has value,” Cobb said.

It’s this specificity that has recently brought global attention to Fogo. In addition to creating the infrastructure for luxury tourism, Cobb’s foundation uses residency programs to bring people from different disciplines to the island.

“We started with artists because artists have a way of knowing that comes from first principles.”

Because “you can’t participate in the global economy unless you have some element of professional design in what you do,” Cobb said, it’s been important to bring international insights on architecture and design to the community, so long as that design “allows itself to be a servant of place, of culture.”

As part of this, the foundation has overseen the building four artists studios — buildings so spectacularly marketable that Apple opted to pluck a photo of one from the public domain and use it to advertise the iPhone 5 — and one luxury inn on the island, the latter built with materials sourced either locally or at minimum from countries that have labour and environmental laws.

The Children of Fogo Island by Colin Low, National Film Board of Canada

Overcoming the Rural/Urban Divide

Cobb wasn’t suggesting that people should never leave their small communities. Nor was she saying that rural communities are intrinsically better than urban ones.

“It’s about language. I think we need to be really careful as anyone who opens their mouth, that of course we need our cities, of course we need rural communities. Where did this idea come from that we don’t need them?”

In fact, she said, when experience in the wider world is brought back to these communities, it can help the community understand “how they fit into the whole.”

Not only that, but programs such as residencies — by giving people who come to the community from outside a problem to solve — encourage the exchange of knowledge.

The National Film Board

In the 1960s, the National Film Board went to Fogo Island as part of the Challenge for Change Program. Under the direction of Colin Lowe, the program gave people cameras to take home and record discussions about what was important to them.

By playing them back to the community, the program allowed communities with a natural suspicion of one another to participate in a collective conversation about how to make things better.

“This is the power of art, it tricks your brain and goes straight to your heart,” said Cobb.

Out of the project came the Fogo Island Cooperative Society, thanks to which the island still has a fishery today.

In 2010, the NFB returned to Fogo. Among other projects, the NFB, in partnership with the Shorefast Foundation, opened the island’s first cinema, making it perhaps one of the only places the country in which the NFB has actually expanded.

Preserving ways of knowing through an ongoing dedication to art, said Cobb, is part of what it means to be whole-heartedly committed to the “painful” process of community development, a process she said is characterized by “controversy and agony” but without which these communities won’t survive.

“If you’re looking for something that’s easier, then you should get a job on Bay Street.”

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  1. There is a new documentary film on this Fogo project called: “Strange & Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island”
    North American Premiere at Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art, March 21 & 22, 2015. For info see the production company website sitemedia.ca

  2. Took in Cobb’s keynote on Saturday too. She’s a great speaker and an inspiring individual. It’s worth noting that Fogo’s biggest stroke of luck (basically winning the lottery) was having a multi-millionaire as one of its own (when she left JDS she had stock options of $60+ million). The luck didn’t stop there though, Fogo’s millionaire, rather than squirreling away in Bermuda or some other tropical island, actually wanted to come home and use her wealth to change her community. That combination is probably not something that most of rural Canada can hope for. Certainly there are lessons in Fogo’s experience that are relevant for other communities, but Cobb as an individual looms large in the story.

    1. Agreed. Reminds me of what Elvis Costello wrote about John Lennon: “Was it a millionaire who said ‘Imagine no possessions’?”

  3. Fogo Island film nerd here! Not taking anything away from Low & Co but FTR: Low didn’t give people cameras – he and a small (& excellent) NFB crew worked with Memorial University’s Extension Service and the island Improvement Committee to make the films and create the Fogo Process. It was a pilot project for Challenge for Change. The films and the meetings that came out of them helped to revive and reframe a co-op project that Extension and the islanders had already pitched to the province, looking for support; the province had turned them down but reconsidered after the film project and the attention around it.