Shoulder to shoulder with the natural environment

The concept of a green economy is a modern one. However, due to economic pressures, a sparing approach to scarce resources has always been part of everyday life in the Alpine region. In many cases, what appears to represent an ideal today amounts to the ‘green economy’ of yesteryear.

By Manuela Ziegler, 15.12.2015

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Haymaking around 1900, Engadin, Switzerland.
© CC Gemeinfrei

High up on the Alpine pastures, nature appears to have remained unspoiled. However, like many other natural beauties in the Alpine region, the Alpine pasture is, in fact, a cultural landscape formed by humans. The intactness of the Alpine pastures is down to sustainable management, an approach that our ancestors would not necessarily have designated as such. In many cases, adapting individual lifestyles to the scarcity of resources was simply essential for survival.

Natural forest, as if!
Since time immemorial forests were not just a habitat and living space but also part of the basic food supply. They acted pastures for cows and goats.

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© BAFU/Markus Bolliger

Overgrazing was not uncommon due to the attempt to increase yields. Soil erosion arose as a result. “The farmers affected by this were forced to restore a natural balance,” says Paul Messerli, a retired cultural geographer of the University of Bern. He also quotes the Grindelwald valley agreement (Taleinungsbrief) of 1404, which became world-renowned thanks to Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009. Based on this example, the American economist and political scientist showed how the community-based management of scarce common goods like water, pastureland, forests and air can succeed.

In search of balance
The valley agreement studied by Ostrom was an accord between Interlaken Monastery as the landowner and the farmers as land users. The two parties agreed that the number of cows to be allowed to graze on the Alpine pasture in summer should not exceed the number that could be sustained in winter by the fodder produced in the valley. “This strategy aims to strike a balance between the use of the Alpine pasture and valley, and highlights the fact that the reproduction of resources must be taken into consideration in production,” explains cultural geographer Messerli. For as long as our ancestors were unable to leave their locations to find and use new resources, the circular economy was vital for their survival.

Optimum use of terraces
Human interventions in nature did not always require the adoption of a new approach as in the case of the Grindelwald valley agreement. It has been shown that the field terraces near Guarda in the Unterengadin region have been used as productive land since 2000 BC.

Guarda
Guarda, Grisons, Switzerland.
© Schweizer Luftwaffe

“These are an example of how the transformation of nature and long-term land use do not automatically result in the destruction of nature,” says Werner Bätzing, also a retired cultural geographer from the University of Erlangen. The same applies to vineyard terraces as found in Valais, the Aosta Valley and Valtellina. “The steep slopes were stabilized so well and permanently.  At the same time a habitat formed for specialised animals and plants,” says Bätzig.

Suonen irrigation channels under pressure
Bätzing stresses, however, that the Alpine cultural landscapes were generally unstable and required constant ecological stabilisation measures in the course of their use. In his view the principle of balance is too static. Our environmental conditions are changeable. This is demonstrated by the suonen, the irrigation channels found on the slopes of the low-precipitation Rhone valley. This form of agricultural irrigation using mountain and glacier streams has been in operation for at least one thousand years.

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Suone in Valais, Switzerland.
© Pelerin CC BY-SA 3.0

But for how much longer? The globalised economy does not call a halt at the overexploitation of water resources. According to the predictions  of National Research Project NFP61 on the topic of sustainable water management, which is led by hydrologist Christian Leibundgut, global energy scarcity, climate change and continuous economic growth could lead to conflicts regarding the use of water in future. The aim of the research is to balance economic, social and ecological considerations in the context of water use.

Switzerland’s forests are changing
However, sustainable management is extremely complex in the context of global trade flows. This is demonstrated by the example of Swiss forests. For centuries they were the country’s most important energy source. They were threatened with collapse in the 19th century due to the demand for wood from a rapidly expanding population. “The pressure on the forests did not decline until the large-scale import of foreign energy sources. This also paved the way for sustainability,” says Martin Stuber, an environmental historian at the University of Bern. This trend proved to have a downside, however, as the income from wood production became increasingly precarious from from the 1960s.

“The forestry sector responded with better access to forest roads, more greater operational efficiency and more technical support,” says the environmental historian. Around one quarter of the Swiss forest is now FSC-certified. Forests also fulfil an important function through their social use as leisure forests and conflicts with economic objectives are not uncommon in urban areas, in particular. Even on a small scale, green management is a big project.

"Suonen" distribute the scarce water

The dry climate of the region of Valais was probably what forced its original inhabitants to irrigate their crops. The possibility of Roman influences are also discussed. The suonen (suoha in old high German, i.e. ditch) run along the northern and southern slopes of the Rhone valley and are supplied with water by the mountain and glacier streams. Most suonen are up to two kilometres in length while the longest is over 30 kilometres long. Their gradient was crucial to their functioning. The channels, which were traditionally built in wood, run through the soil but in some cases were cut into stone or walled. Their course is stabilised by laterally erected stone slabs. Building and maintaining the Suonen was a dangerous task. Many of them are still in operation today for sprinkler irrigation. They also assumed a secondary function as hiking paths.

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Last modification 15.12.2015

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