Bringing Communities Back From the Brink, the Fogo Island Way

An inspired social enterprise takes a fierce do-it-yourself approach that taps local strengths in novel ways

The Fogo Island Inn

Fogo Island squats like a rock east of the island of Newfoundland, 25 kilometres (16 miles) long and 14 kilometres (9 miles) wide. Its tundra-like barrens, bogs, and wind-swept forests of balsam fir and black spruce make for a moody home for 2,300 souls who live in 11 small outport communities.

Fogo Island’s history has always been tied to cod, seal, and other fisheries. As a result, its people, drawn over the millennia from England and Ireland, have learned to be resilient. The island’s communities know how to adapt to changes without losing their essential, defining qualities. But in 1968, there were questions about how far that resilience could be tested without snapping. The inland cod fishery was showing signs of stress, at the same time as massive factory-freezer trawlers were harvesting and processing catch at sea, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. All around Newfoundland, outports were under pressure to resettle into larger areas where services could be offered more efficiently. For those communities that did dissolve, it was a gruesome process; the people, it has been said, “moved without leaving and never arrived.”

Would Fogo Island’s communities suffer a similar fate? As part of the centennial celebrations, Canada’s National Film Board launched an inspired project driven by the idea that film could be tools of social change. Fogo Islanders were given cameras and invited to tell their own stories. In 1967, 27 films about life on Fogo Island were produced. Fogo Islanders spoke of the inability to organize among themselves, of the resentment felt towards government bureaucrats deciding their future with no consultation, and of concern for the future. It was a cathartic community experience. Seeing and hearing their fellow islanders speaking from the heart, the people of Fogo Island finally realized they were all experiencing the same problems and fears.

The film project itself was considered such a success that it became known as The Fogo Process and replicated around the world. Back on Fogo Island, the first indications of change came that year, in 1968, with the creation of the Fogo Island Co-op. The Co-op is a community-based enterprise that became the backbone of the island’s economy. It took over processing facilities abandoned by private enterprise, built more boats and fish processing plants, and sought new markets. In another sign of the communities coming together, in 1973 Fogo Island’s high school was the first in Newfoundland to be integrated.

Then in 1992, Canada’s federal government imposed a moratorium on the catching of northern cod, putting an end to a global industry that had endured for close to five centuries. When the cod fishery was closed, the population on Fogo Island collapsed to 2,000. Those who remained found it hard to shake the old feelings of defeat and depletion. But then, some green shoots appeared. The first, tentative efforts of social entrepreneurship started to change the narrative. These efforts were driven by private initiative and developed with a uniquely Fogo Island sensibility.

Looking like an X-shaped spaceship alit on a lunar landscape, the Fogo Island Inn is both otherworldly and profoundly Fogo. It is located on the northeast corner of the island near the village of Joe Batt’s Arm, and sits a perilous 100 metres from the high-tide of the North Atlantic. Its east and west ends are supported by steel columns anchored directly into the rock; they mimic the wooden piles that support the homes hugging the coastline.

Opened in 2013, the 29-room inn has raised the profile of the island as an international tourist destination. The Inn clearly is an important engine of economic growth for Fogo Island, yet it is only one part of a much larger enterprise. The Inn is a social business operated by a business trust whose beneficiary is the Shorefast Foundation. Shorefast is a registered Canadian charity with the mandate to promote cultural and economic resiliency for Fogo Island. All operating surpluses from Shorefast’s initiatives are reinvested in the neighbouring communities.

These initiatives help to build the economic resilience of Fogo Island and to keep alive local traditions, skills, and knowledge. They cover a wide area of island life:

  • The Workshop on Fogo Island, an online store selling locally-crafted furniture, furnishings, and textile products;
  • Fogo Island Arts, a residency-based art venue for artists, designers, and thinkers from around the world;
  • a micro-lending fund for small businesses on Fogo Island and neighbouring Change Islands;
  • heritage building preservation initiatives; and
  • sustainable fishing research that cares for the health of the ocean.

Shorefast — including the Fogo Island Inn — was set up by siblings Zita and Anthony Cobb. Zita personally pitched in more than $6 million, and the provincial and federal governments contributed another $10 million.

Zita Cobb is an eighth-generation Fogo Islander who likes to say that she has lived in two centuries. “Until the age 10, I lived in the eighteenth century,” she told a group of visitors when I was there several years ago. “Fogo Island of my youth was almost all cut off from mainland. No electricity or running water. When I was 10, the worst of the world came down on us with the industrialization of the fisheries. Everything we knew was useless overnight, apparently.”

Cobb left Fogo Island and became a highly successful executive with the fibre optics company JDS Uniphase. In 1992, the year of the northern cod moratorium, she received a letter from the town councilor informing her that the Cobb’s abandoned family home had become rundown and would need to be either fixed up or torn down. Over the next 10 years, Cobb wrapped up her corporate life and began forming her ideas to help revitalize Fogo Island. She moved back for good in 2002.

From the start, Cobb held firm to the idea that “place itself is not a commodity,” that the last thing Fogo Island needed was to be turned into Disneyland North. Many communities position community projects as economic engines, and many fail by going down that road. “The very thing that makes them authentic is trivialized by turning it into something that’s consumable quickly,” she said. “Then the very thing you’re trying to protect dies. It’s a very delicate dance.”

Cobb’s experience and success in the business world only partially prepared her for community development. For one, she respected the tension between drilling deeply to understand an issue and zooming out for a holistic view. But while she excelled in the corporate world, “it doesn’t prepare you for community economic development.” As she put it, you need to know “where the rocks are not to get out of the harbour. If you overly focus on the rocks, you won’t get out.”

And there are certainly many rocks in Fogo Island’s harbours. The divisions and defeatist attitudes that The Fogo Process uncovered in 1968 were hard to erase. Tellingly, the island’s 11 communities long struggled to amalgamate. Each community provided its own firefighting service; at one point, there were six firefighting trucks on the island but not enough people to staff them. As Cobb said, Fogo Island was one economic community but 11 cultural communities. In February 2011, islanders finally voted for their first amalgamated council.

“We want to be here 100 years from now and look more or less like people our ancestors would recognize. Every Fogo Islander can see something in that. Everything people feel about themselves will follow from action, so you better get out and you better dance.”

What Fogo Island has in spades is a wealth of skills, know-how, and craft that have been undervalued. The work of Cobb, Shorefast, and many community developers on Fogo Island is to tap into those unheralded riches. They used a framework known as Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), which is based on the work of American academics Jody Kretzmann and Jon McKnight. ABCD asks: What do we have? What do we miss? What can we do about it? It seeks to build the capacity of local people to drive their own development based on the existing strengths of the community. Development can come from outside a community so long as it is for the community.

You can see this ABCD playbook in action with the development of the Fogo Island Inn. “Once the architecture was figured out,” said Cobb, “we did the hardest part, which was the interior. One consultant said that we couldn’t possibly use furniture from Italy or somewhere else. They said, You people have been making stuff all the time. You just have to figure out how to make it. If you can build a boat, you can build anything.”

So in 2010, Cobb invited international designers to learn about Fogo Island and collaborate with local craftspeople. Initially, the plan was to design furniture for the Inn but it has since grown into the online Fogo Island Shop. The items for sale can best be called high design meets the Fogo vernacular. A punt chair echoes construction practices used in building local rowing punts, such as the curved timber gathered in the local woods and the planking of the interior. Other items such as the Sweetheart Puppy Table or the Get-Your-Feet-Up Chair could not come from anywhere but Fogo Island.

The furniture shop is a growing enterprise itself, as is Fogo Island Fish, a social enterprise that aims to reinvent the fish business to serve the community. The enterprise was established in 2015 by Anthony Cobb and wife Janice Thomson. Originally, they had no intention of getting into the fish business but these days, the economic realities for cod fishers are worse than they were back in the 1960s. As Anthony Cobb told a reporter years ago, “We could not reconcile the fact they were getting 20 to 50 cents per pound for their fish, while the retail price is $12 to $15 per pound.”

If Cobb and Thomson were to ignore the naysayers and try to reinvent the business of fish, it would be by taking two bold steps.

First, they wanted to destroy the existing business model for the industry. Typically, fish that is caught fresh can go through five to seven companies in the supply chain before reaching grocery stores or restaurants. Cobb and Thomson stripped down the supply chain to one: they work with 65 Fogo Island fishers and deliver their cod directly to restaurant customers in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and elsewhere. The catch is put on ice on the boats, and then filleted and frozen on Fogo Island before being shipped to markets. The fishers are paid double the market rate.

Second, Fogo Island Fish wanted to support traditional and sustainable fishing methods. All the fishers supplying cod are hand-liners who catch individual fish the traditional way, by jigging on a short monofilament line. Fogo Islanders have been hand-lining for generations, Cobb said, “until weapons of mass destruction (offshore trawlers) arrived.” Hand-lining is a much more labour-intensive and skilled method that yields a much higher quality catch. Cobb and Thomson are playing up this angle to restaurateurs and, as a result, “Fogo Island cod” has become a premium item on menus in Canadian cities.

The Shorefast enterprises are performing the important community-building tasks of creating employment, building capacity, and providing a new narrative. They are also proving the adage that economic actions drive social realities. Their attitude is, If we can make it on Fogo Island, we will. Whenever possible, they avoid importing what they can produce themselves. It can be as simple as sourcing hangers for the Fogo Island Inn. When the Inn’s managers decided that they needed to provide more than pegs in their rooms, they opted to design and manufacture their own hangers rather than source them from off the island. For awhile, the designer hangers could be purchased through the Fogo Island Shop for $65 each.

This is “import replacement” at its best. A community focused on import replacement seeks to produce goods and services locally that are currently imported, keeping money circulating in the region. Jane Jacobs, the urban economist who developed the concept, has said that import replacement is a better economic development strategy than expanding exports, because it leads to greater self-reliance, greater diversification, and more export industries over time.

To help visitors to the Fogo Island Inn understand the link between economic actions and social realities, Zita Cobb and her team made a novel connection between food nutrition and economic development. They devised what they call “economic nutrition labelling.” These labels show how visitors’ purchases impact the local and global economy by detailing how the money they spend is distributed.

Economic Nutrition Labelling

For those working to build sustainable communities, there are many fundamental and challenging questions for which there are no easy answers.

Can a community in decline take bold action and assume risk when it isn’t facing a dramatic crisis?

Are governments or financing agencies prepared to set winners and losers?

A great many community-based initiatives involve tourism and hospitality targeting one percent of the population; are they scalable?

How many of the social enterprise initiatives are actually working and sustainable versus mere feel-good projects?

How well can small communities integrate immigrants?

At what point do you throw in the towel on a small community? Are there some traditions we shouldn’t try to preserve?

Community development, however, is not an intellectual enterprise. Change happens on a tactical level. And tactically, many experts would agree, the formula for building sustainable communities starts with recognizing and unpacking the gifts within the communities themselves.

Perhaps the greatest gift within each community is the realization that its citizens desperately need one another, that they’re bound together. Author and “degrowth activist” Charles Eisenstein has written that community “is not a separate ingredient for happiness along with food, shelter, music, touch, intellectual stimulation, and other forms of physical and spiritual nourishment. Community arises from the meeting of these needs. There is no community possible among a group of people who do not need each other.”

There were times that Fogo Islanders, separated in their 11 outports, did not really have that sense of desperate connection with one another. Attitudes changed, and when they did, possibilities followed. Zita Cobb likes to quote one of her local mentors, a former mayor of Joe Batt’s Arm Freeman Combden. “Freeman used to say, ‘You have two ears. One should hear good things and the other one should be slightly deaf.’ The point is that there are so many reasons not to carry on. People need an overarching idea that they can see themselves in. Ours was simple: we want to be here 100 years from now and look more or less like people our ancestors would recognize. Every Fogo Islander can see something in that. Everything people feel about themselves will follow from action, so you better get out and you better dance.”

I write about new management ideas. And other stuff. Author of Where Is Here: Canada’s Maps and the Stories They Tell.

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