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From timber construction to hay wraps - Besides natural resources people's skills and commitment are the Alps' real wealth

Mar 20, 2007 / Swantje Strieder
Deploring the exodus of the population and the proliferation of tourism, and doing nothing about it, is one approach; the other, far more constructive solution is to show how money can be earned, and secure jobs created, using the resources available locally.
Image caption:
Seit 1850 hat die Bergwaldfläche über 30 % zugenommen. Obwohl nachhaltige Holzwirtschaft praktizierter Umweltschutz ist, wird der heimische Wald noch zu wenig als hauseigener Rohstofflieferant genutzt. © CIPRA International
Rural regions in the Alps often enjoy only modest economic growth and, compared with cities and metropolitan areas, offer only a small variety of professions and therefore few job prospects. Over the last few decades globalisation and structural change in agriculture have resulted in the loss of many jobs, with some mountain regions becoming depopulated as a result.
On the one hand sprawling cities and tourist centres; on the other, abandoned mountain villages and mountain pastures left untended. While winter sports resorts, cities and industrial zones continue to expand, many mountain regions with delightful landscapes and an intact environment have become desolate, with traditional forms of culture such as rural crafts, alpine pasture farming and livestock husbandry disappearing as a result. CIPRA is convinced that this trend must somehow be countered. The landscape and cultural traditions represent the mainstay of sustainable economic activity; they must be preserved and developed.
The negative impact of transport and pollutants on the sensitive ecosystem is clearly noticeable in tourist centres and commuter belts. Regional development must therefore focus on job creation and diversification in harmony with the environment's delicate balance and local resources.

Economic development with a favourable long-term impact
Many people living in the Alps realise of course that this unique landscape is at risk. Protected zones have been set up in high-alpine regions where the flora and fauna are rare and glaciers are dwindling. Yet the protection of the cultural landscape also ought to take priority over purely economic investments in areas where man has intervened for centuries, areas such as alpine pasture management.
Many alpine huts and refuges, stables and haylofts have now been converted into holiday homes and secondary residences. According to the experts polled by CIPRA in its survey, preserving some of these old structural assets certainly makes sense. However they also remarked that the high level of building development in and around winter sports centres has yielded little in the way of value added to the merely seasonal utilisation rates; it has also disrupted the "traditional" alpine landscape and, as a result, impeded the establishment of "green tourism" in summer. Indeed, this excessive construction ultimately gets in its own way when it comes to setting up new tourist attractions beyond the scope of the ever shorter winter sports season, itself affected by climate change and global warming.

Climate protection through the use of regional timber
One of the more obvious changes to the landscape in the Alps has been the increase in forestation. Indeed the surface area covered by mountain forests has grown by more than 30% since 1850. Previously it had been thought that lush mountain forests were more of a hindrance to tourism. But recent studies show that visitors welcome these forests while locals bemoan the loss of the typical meadow and pasture landscape of their forefathers. Moreover, a healthy mountain forest is also a source of additional assets: one fifth of Alpine forests has a special protective function, helping to consolidate steep slopes and prevent avalanches and landslides.
Although a sustainable timber industry is an example of practical environmental protection, indigenous forests are still insufficiently utilised as a local source of raw materials. Timber is not just an ideal building material; it is also an important source of renewable energy with a neutral CO2 balance.

That's why the team of experts recommends using the unique landscape of the Alps and clean indigenous energy sources such as timber, wind, water and biomass as key regional resources and also recognising the social and regional identity of its population as a resource, too. If it were possible to establish sustainable chains of products and services that are typical of the Alps, then it would be far easier to achieve the delicate balance the environment requires. Transport routes for instance would be shorter and the jobs created would take account of the biodiversity of the Alps and be less susceptible to crisis in the face of the world market's growing globalisation and deregulation.
But unless they are backed by the relevant policies, these global trends, which serve to strengthen centres and weaken peripheral regions, simply cannot be halted, even by the best and most creative initiatives in the Alps. Future developments in the Alps therefore depend greatly on the type of legislation implemented in mountain regions and on the attendant European and national programmes and subsidy instruments. That's why CIPRA is calling for existing instruments and subsidies to be continually re-examined, re-assessed and optimised. It is the be all and end all of any sustainable regional development.

The key issues raised by the team of experts of Future in the Alps are the following: How can regional and local opportunities be utilised to the full to set up successful chains of products and services? How can existing networks be made more profitable and expanded? How can new ideas be publicised and co-operation ventures promoted? And how can the players involved benefit mutually from their respective expertise and experience? Recommendations:

o Regions should pursue long-term strategies which make full use of the potential available locally. With the transfer of interdisciplinary know-how and supraregional co-operation those involved should be able to develop models tailored to their region.
o Act locally; think globally! Alpine regions should look ahead and combine the requirements of the market outside the Alps with economic structures and social strategies within the Alps.
o Promote the development of high-quality, low-resource services such as green tourism or the management of natural hazards such as landslides and avalanches.
o Encourage the development of unique products and services that are specific to the Alps ("alpine USPs"); ensure that they are identified as regional brands using dedicated labels and that they are specifically marketed as such.
o The long-term success of model projects depends greatly on strong leaders who know the market and are capable of managing a complex project. The establishment of a Masters course for the development of the Alpine region could boost the competence of key players. This particular recommendation by the experts ties in with CIPRA's demand for "capacity building". To broaden the competence of managers and participants in the projects, CIPRA is supporting a wide range of measures aimed at further education and advanced training.

Using their databases, current publications, interviews and internet searches the experts have selected 29 examples of good practice from six Alpine countries ( which use sustainable economic activities and contribute in an exemplary way to the regional value added. Improved outline conditions are necessary so that these initiatives become the rule. CIPRA is calling on the EU, the Alpine states and the regions to embrace a sustainable regional policy worthy of the name. Three instances of exemplary model projects are featured here:

1. Vorarlberg (Austria)
Prize winner of CIPRA's Future in the Alps competition, 2005

Vorarlberger Holzbau-Kunst
The Qualitätsgemeinschaft Holzbau Vorarlberg is a classic regional value-added chain that links forest owners with carpenters and joiners. The project's core group is made of Vorarlberg's sawmill owners, subcontractors from industry and handicrafts as well as a select group of architects, planners and forestry and timber experts.
The co-operative, established six years ago, obtains its raw material from sustainable timber stands, specifically the silver fir forests of the Grosses Walsertal. The know-how of Vorarlberg's timber specialists is utilised and enhanced as part of the project. The main idea behind the Quality Community, which consists of no fewer than 82 members, is to promote timber construction at the highest level through joint marketing, further training and lobbying. Lobbying is necessary to convince private and municipal promoters that timber construction does not have to involve Scandinavian or even tropical timber, and that indigenous timber is also of a high standard.

Timber from the region for innovative architecture
The many examples of high-quality modern timber and glass building architecture and of successful rehabilitation projects in the Vorarlberg region speak for themselves. The co-operative has also raised its profile through two successful initiatives: firstly, by awarding the Vorarlberg Prize for Timber Architecture, which is held every two years and attracts many participants. And secondly, by the Holzbau Zukunft Project, which consists of an elaborate study and support programme for apprentices in the joinery and carpentry trades. On completing their apprenticeship the young carpenters and joiners then take to the road and travel to Sweden to look at the culture of timber construction there.
A key figure and creative mind behind the Quality Community is Managing Director Matthias Ammann in Feldkirch/A, who as a leading member of the Vorarlberg Chamber of Commerce maintains crucial contacts with policy makers, industry and environmental groups. The co-operative also includes 45 carpentry workshops, 38 forest owners, sawmills and wood processing businesses. The annual budget of just under €900,000 is financed in part by EU funds, but there are also local sponsors such as the Raiffeisen Bank, the power plants of Vorarlberg, and the Chamber of Commerce.

Architecture tourism is booming
The results speak volumes: 60 public buildings have been built using timber construction, eight of them entirely with indigenous silver fir timber. Demand for local construction timber has since doubled, and an increase in felling activities of 60,000 m³ a year means additional receipts of €6.6 m for forestry and sawmill owners and new jobs created at 32 companies. Despite the crisis in the building trade and the increase in mechanisation the number of persons employed in the timber trade has risen from 700 to 900 since 1997. Another side-effect has been the boom in tourism: some 40,000 to 50,000 architecture tourists have travelled to Vorarlberg to see its modern timber designs. And window and ceramic stove manufacturers are now also interested in a co-operation.

2. Valais (Switzerland)
Finalist of CIPRA's Future in the Alps competition, 2005

Valplantes Bio Alp Tea
Valplantes is a farming co-operative for organic herb teas and medicinal plants which was established in 1987 in the French-speaking part of the Swiss Canton of Valais. Some 150 families living in Sembrancher and the surrounding mountain communities grow, gather, dry and process organic medicinal herbs in keeping with the rules and quality standards of BioSuisse, the Swiss organisation for ecological farming. In doing so the families of farmers not only earn an important additional income; they also help to keep alive mountain communities threatened by exodus.
The diversity of herbs ranges from edelweiss, sage and mint to pimpinella, ribwort and thyme. With their Bio Alp Tea the growers, who are advised by the RAC research centre in Conthey Châteauneuf and the Ecole d'Ingénieurs (engineering university) of the Canton of Valais, have successfully brought to market the world's first organic ice tea.

Sage and thyme help to secure jobs
The project has had a positive effect on the environment and the economy by preserving traditional jobs in agriculture through organic cultivation, protecting the Alps's unique meadow flora, and attracting green tourism as a secondary effect. Five jobs have been created at the co-operative itself. At the annual meetings large and small-scale producers have equal voting rights. The energy balance is also noteworthy. As no machinery can be used on the steep slopes, all the harvesting is done by hand. And the fact that the herbs are dried naturally means substantial savings of energy and transport costs.
The Valplantes Bio Tea Co-operative is also an asset item for the regional value added. Each year more than 100 tonnes of organic herbs are produced, harvested and marketed to large Swiss food chains. The Co-operative boasts an annual turnover of up to €1.3 m. It means that older family members and also women farmers unable to work off their farms because they have small children have an opportunity to earn a living - and preserve traditional know-how.

3. Allgäu (Germany)

Elsewhere, hay is nothing other than sun-dried grass, i.e. valuable fodder mown by hand or by machine. But in the Allgäu community of Pfronten Heu-Vital is a sustainable tourism concept that involves mountain meadow hay as a valuable raw material for health and wellness.
The hay comes exclusively from protected mountain meadows which are mown only once a year and are neither used as grazing pastures nor fertilized. The most valuable aspect is the fact that each square metre yields up to 70 different medicinal herbs. In Pfronten this raw material is used to produce, among others, non-pricking hay wraps (herb hay filled in linen pouches and then steam-heated to 50 °C), hay massages, hay pillows, hay fleece, hay oils and cosmetics, hay schnapps and liqueur.

Hay - good for health, consumers and a source of income
This means that, as a local raw material, hay has proved to be an attractive and entirely ecological source of income for many mountain farmers, as an alternative to the otherwise conventional subsidised uses. It helps to preserve the landscape and an entire value added chain to do with tourism benefits from it as a result, from the Gasthaus to holidays on the farm, and even four-star hotels. The project is run by the Pfronten Municipality, the marketing company BWT Kurmittel GmbH, the hotel and restaurant association and various other Pfronten initiatives, and has helped to publicise the town of Pfronten beyond the region itself.