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Cyberspace on alpine pastures, cultural festivals and exchange marts - Education projects and cultural centres promote cohesion

Mar 20, 2007 / Swantje Strieder
The state is stepping back and social structures are weakening: Citizens must take their affairs into their own hands and organise themselves to bring about decisions locally.
ICT Centrum Polo Poschiavo
Image caption:
Computer courses are a matter of course in Poschiavo Cassiano Luminati
Although around 60% of the population in the Alps live in urban areas, the image of the Alps is still shaped by the longing for an unspoilt mountain environment. And yet over the past few decades most Alpine regions have undergone enormous demographic, socio-economic and cultural change. These drastic changes are due in part to factors to be found everywhere today, factors such as modernisation, globalisation, greater mobility and communication through information technologies such as mobile phones and the internet.

o The population of the Alps has risen from 10.8 to 14.3 million people between 1950 and 2000. The growth rate of 32% is higher than the general population trend for Alpine countries as a whole (26 %). This is an indication of just how attractive the Alps actually are as a location.

o However, in spite of the general population growth, in almost half of all Alpine communities the number of inhabitants has decreased between 1950 and 1980. Regions that are particularly affected include Piedmont/I, Friuli/I, Sud Dauphiné/F and the Haute Provence/F as well as some areas of the Grisons/CH and the provinces of Styria and Lower Austria, where population figures have fallen in as many as 80% of all communities. Between 1981 and 2000 the population moved away in almost one third of the most remote communities. In some cases this migration has been on such a scale that entire villages have become deserted and in many valleys it is no longer possible to talk of a "local community".

o Conversely most towns and cities, large valleys and tourist centres have registered a considerable population growth. Social structures have changed dramatically as a result. This has resulted in both positive social and political dynamics, but also in conflicts, as in many suburban municipalities where locals and immigrants often hold differing views in matters of regional and environmental policies. In many ski resorts there have been political and social disputes between the long-established population, which lives off tourism, and the newly established residents and owners of second homes about the ways in which tourism should continue to expand.

Most Alpine states have alternated in the policies they adopt. First they subsidised mountain regions; then they focused on decentralisation to give greater scope to the communities and regions at risk, in some cases backing out of some of their sovereign duties. Switzerland, Italy and France passed legislation tailored specifically to mountain communities; Austria implemented special programmes aimed at mountain farmers and promoting general regional development. Overall these measures have had a positive influence on the governance capacity of local populations, who have been made to think about their development and act accordingly.

And yet the Alps as a whole are still characterised by stark contrasts. Structural weakness and exodus, with the dissolution of social ties on the one hand and, on the other, a highly attractive environment, i.e. overuse and overloading, which also pose a threat to social cohesion. That is why CIPRA is calling for the establishment of cross-regional and cross-sectoral platforms, projects and partnerships designed to give new impetus to the solidarity and governance capacity of the population. CIPRA also notes a predominance of men in Alpine policy. In many areas the social role of women is insufficiently recognised. CIPRA is calling for a form of Alpine development in which women are more strongly represented in the economy, in culture and in politics, and especially at decision-making levels.

In its study the team of experts commissioned by CIPRA focused on three main issues:

o Besides economic aspects and the landscape, what is it that prompts people to move to the Alps or to continue living there?
o How do the changes in the social fabric affect sustainable development?
o How can the governance capacity of individuals and the community be consolidated?

Attractiveness and governance capacity are two entirely separate phenomena
In the experts' opinion the attractiveness of a location does not depend first and foremost on governance capacity; rather, it is determined mainly by job prospects and business opportunities, accessibility and environmental quality. So the attractiveness of the Alps for businesses, individuals and families is rarely linked to social dynamics, something which most people are unaware of or barely take into consideration.
By contrast governance capacity is greatly influenced by social cohesion, social capital and the community interests of the population. Often social cohesion and community interests have been undermined by the Alps' economic development and the competition between players and communities.

Two important points need to be taken into account in this connection:
o Remote and sparsely populated areas must remain accessible and connected to the outside world through modern communication technologies and be prepared to develop the social capital of the people living in those areas.
o In attractive regions there must be an intensive social exchange between new citizens and old-established residents, and between opponents and advocates of tourism. Inhabitants must not let themselves withdraw into their own social groups.

Newcomers and commuters living together
The experts commissioned by CIPRA regard the urbanisation of the Alps as the first social challenge. The growth of towns and cities and the influx of people in tourist resorts and villages within a radius of an hour's drive from the Alps' main cities (Munich, Turin, Milan, Vienna, etc.) have resulted in deep social changes in the areas concerned. Among locals the arrival of new families can often be a source of pride, along the lines of "That's how nice it is here", and lead to greater diversity and openness to the outside. But this does not necessarily result in close ties with the old-established families. So the challenge is to ensure that the inhabitants of Alpine towns and communities discuss their ideas and projects with one another, and that they address the preservation and development of their social, cultural, natural and economic environment.
However new arrivals also mean greater competition in the housing market. In any cases children from old-established families encounter difficulties in finding a home. The experts suggest that municipalities keep a much closer eye on property speculation of the sort that is widespread in certain regions of the Alps (France for example) and make affordable building plots and mortgages available to young families.

Measures to counter the brain drain
Experts note that it is young skilled labour above all that is leaving migration areas, the classic symptoms of brain drain. In the Swiss Cantons of Valais and Uri it is as high as 70%in some age groups. Grisons loses around CHF 13 m a year through the exodus of young men and women, which means that public services such as kindergartens, schools and doctor's surgeries can no longer be maintained. Ironically, many people living in the Alps would like to stay in their place of birth, if only the prospects were reasonable.

A sell-out of traditions brought on by tourism
A strong cultural identity is commonly regarded as a key factor for social cohesion and governance capacity and as a cure-all against isolation, loneliness and anonymity of modern life. Such a strong identity is frequently attributed to Alpine regions and in particular to tourist regions where the marketing of folklore and local handicrafts demonstrates a measure of solidarity with one's roots.

However the authors warn about nostalgic concepts such as these and the sell-out of traditions through tourism, which could ultimately lead to a folkloristic pseudo-identity.
On the other hand there are positive examples of promoting home-grown traditions and culture which contribute towards social exchange and stimulate people to think about joint projects. It is no surprise for instance that the Rigodonaïres cultural festival in the French Alpes Sud-Isère is one of CIPRA's showcase projects (see below).

Encouraging social commitment
Often in Alpine communities the cohesion that bonds large families together has given way to the tenser situation of the nuclear family, which means that in remote areas in particular there is very little time left for social activities. What's more, the state is increasingly trimming back its services, a trend which affects young families, the unemployed and older people in particular. Kindergartens, schools and sports facilities can no longer be maintained; post offices, corner shops, doctor's surgeries and hospitals are forced to close; and shops and guesthouses open only during the tourist season. Initiatives aimed at encouraging social and economic exchange at the local level (such as the Tauschkreis Vorarlberg and the Kempodium in Kempten) or at the regional level can stop these gaps at least in part.

At a time when the state is stepping back and social structures are weakening, the team of experts believes that the greatest challenge to governance capacity in Alpine regions is continually restoring cohesion among residents, helping them to organise themselves, and motivating them to take a greater part in decisions, particularly with regard to the protection of the countryside and the environment, the services provided to the population, and access to the housing and labour markets.

Key recommendations:
o Communities in the Alps must allow for their social diversity by better integrating into the decision-making and representative bodies those groups which are underrepresented, i.e. women, foreigners and newly established residents.
o They should establish a common identity with which religious and cultural minorities can also identify, as for instance with the showcase project Raum für die Jugend [A Space for Youth] in the Slovene-Austrian border region.
o They should respond more effectively to local requirements in the case of planning projects, promote cross-sectoral and cross-regional co-operation, and at the same time look to the outside.
o Where the state is stepping back from maintaining infrastructure and public services, new initiatives must be promoted and resources pooled.

The experts mention a dozen or so showcase projects which fulfil the set criteria for governance capacity:

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

Polo Poschiavo, Puschlav
Valposchiavo, Bregaglia, Val Müstair, Valle Maggia, Valtellina, Valchiavenna are all tributary valleys in southern Switzerland and in Lombardy which today are by no means as remote as they once were. With the Polo Poschiavo internet distance learning project they have created a gateway to the world. Polo Poschiavo is a competence centre for cross-national vocational training featuring video conferences, language courses, vocational courses and computer courses.

Internet crash course after maternity leave
The fact that the project not only informs, educates and entertains its many users, but also provides opportunities for political information and co-determination is just one of the reasons it is so popular. Its users are often women who want to get back into professional life after their maternity leave, but also master craftsmen and women, retailers, farmers and senior citizens. Since 2002 the initiative has offered more than one hundred courses. The project is sponsored by the Canton of Grisons, the regions and municipalities, and the association of craftsmen and retailers. The annual budget is €200,000.

2. Sud Isère (France)

Rigodonaïres Festival
"Discovering our roots means understanding the present in order to shape the future." Such is the guiding principle of the Rigodonaïres Festival, which has been held every summer since 1998 by six communities in the French Alpes Sud-Isère. Rigodons are peasant dances dating back to the Baroque period which originate from the Dauphiné.

Traditional culture delights both locals and visitors
The aim of the festival is to stage a cultural journey through the mountain communities, each of which organises village festivities lasting one week, with traditional processions, mediaeval ballads, games and dances. The organisers' aim is to foster cultural identity and revive waning peasant traditions. The fact that the cultural festival also promotes green tourism is a positive side-effect. This itinerant festival also serves to boost and develop social resources at each venue where the cohesion of the local communities is very important and each year goes from strength to strength.

3. Vorarlberg (Austria)
Finalist of CIPRA's Future in the Alps competition, 2005

Vorarlberg talent exchange
It does not always have to be the traditional market place: The Vorarlberg talent exchange is an association for organised neighbourhood assistance in which services and goods are traded without printed currency and members are credited in "talents" (the name given to the complementary secondary currency).
The non-profit association aims to harness the special skills of people who do not have a permanent employment contract (young mothers, the unemployed, the disabled and senior citizens) and boost their self-esteem. The initiative creates social ties and helps the community to strengthen its cohesion. The talent system works on the same principle as the bonus air miles of airline companies, but on the basis of a social contract and an environmentally friendly approach.

Using talents to buy furniture
The system works as follows: a single mother joins the neighbourhood assistance and saves up lots of talents. She can then use them to order solid-wood furniture for her children from her carpenter, buy organic products from the farmer or book seminars at the education centre.
The association has been able to win over many communities, welfare services and companies to the talent system. Since its founding the neighbourhood scheme has exchanged 11 million talents or 110,000 hours of work among some 1,400 members. Some families already earn around 10% of their household budget using talents. 12% of the 560 member accounts are held by businesses and social & welfare services. The talent economy has also benefited companies by allowing them to find temporary staff quickly and easily in a very personal environment. The model for this people-friendly and environmentally compatible economy has now spread to seven regions. The perfect excuse for celebrating the 10th anniversary in a big way!