Local to Global–a Swiss-Italian valley brought to IUCN's Congress

01 January 2012 | Article

The IUCN Congress allows the voices of people working at the coal face of conservation and natural resource management to be heard on an international stage where global leaders join forces with people defending local interests.

Ticino is Switzerland’s only all Italian-speaking canton and is separated from the rest of the country by mountains, lakes and borders with Italy. The region itself is geographically split between the north and south, creating distinct cultures and dialects among its communes.

Vegetation is lush, thanks to microclimates, abundant water and dense forests. In the northern valleys, numerous rivers flow down to Lake Maggiore, carving through massive blocks of granite. Tourists flock here during warm months to enjoy scenic landscapes, quirky villages and sports.

But life has always been harsh for people in these isolated parts. For generations, the locals worked the land despite harsh mountain conditions and crossed the steep forests in search of livelihood, building homes with stone that is endemic to the region. Today, outside peak seasons, few inhabitants remain.

Gabriele Dazio is a Hardwood Forestry Fund forester from Fusio, a mountain village at the tail end of the remote valley of Lavizzara. His worry is that depopulation poses the biggest threat to nature in his community.

“One could argue that, when there aren’t many residents, nature is the least threatened. However, in our region, if people like farmers and foresters were to stop working and taking care of the lands, no one else would pay attention and the legacy left by our ancestors would fall into ruins,” he says.

So what action would he like IUCN to take? “To save peripheral regions like ours, it is fundamental that someone should succeed in giving extremely strong signals to the population still living there. It is important to create opportunities to make these regions more attractive to young people and families.”

Such concerns as those voiced by Gabriele Dazio will be discussed at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September where global leaders join people representing local interests to find ways to address a range of challenges. Our expert Graeme Worboys, Vice Chair of IUCN’s Mountain Protected Areas and Connectivity Conservation Network addresses Gabriele’s questions.

Would it be possible to provide concrete help to mountain regions and their inhabitants through a taskforce that contributes to the management of the territory?

Yes and these have been implemented elsewhere. My experience is based on local groups taking the initiative to achieve such inputs, including membership of a taskforce. Outside expertise then contributes insights, experience and options for an improved future to be considered by the taskforce.

So who can provide advice?

For mountains, there are many possible sources of input. I would first recommend reading the immense amount of published work found on the web. The WCPA Mountain Protected Area network provides access to important information for protected areas and corridors and includes experts who reside in Italy and Europe and work nationally and internationally. The network also has expertise in large-scale ‘connectivity conservation corridors’.

For mountain landscapes, the work of organizations like ICIMOD, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Mountain Partnership are good sources of inspiration.

It is fundamental to change mentalities so that people start to willingly value our mountain regions: can you propose any strategy in particular?

Mountains are essential for many reasons and perseverance in communicating their importance is key. People around the world and organizations like IUCN highlight the importance of mountains as “water towers”. These high catchment areas and the water they generate help sustain millions of people around the world. UNESCO’s Global Environment Report No 4 reflects on the value of this mountain water for people as does the work of IUCN. Mobilizing people and governments to help protect and restore damaged mountain catchments is a very useful way of introducing people to the value of mountains.

Mountains are also important for species conservation, particularly in a climate-change world where species move up and along mountains’ natural corridors to escape higher temperatures. Mountains also have cultural and sometimes spiritual significance, and these stories need to be told. At a time of burgeoning global populations, they also provide opportunities for people to escape from cities and relax.

The future of our regions depends on activities that young people are able to engage in. Is it possible to increase those already existing and create new ones?

Yes, and your (future) local taskforce could help with this work. I am heavily involved in connectivity conservation and the establishment of large-scale corridors, which aim to minimize the negative effects of climate change. Most of this work is driven locally by communities and organizations or NGOs who share a vision. They are often supported by funds for catchment and habitat restoration work, pest animal control and sustainable tourism, all of which can help create local employment.

The connection between mountain zones and urban centres can be improved, would it be possible to deal with this problem, mainly by creating quicker access between such regions?

You need to consider this issue carefully. If your objective is to sustain jobs through tourism, then more revenue may be generated by people staying longer than large numbers visiting for short periods. For many people, the value of a destination that is a little harder to get to, but has fewer people as a consequence, may be quite high. Your investments may be better if they guaranteed safe and reliable access rather than shorter journey time, with your marketing pitched at the degree of exclusivity of your destination. Opportunities for visitors to undertake a range of activities at the destination may also be a better target for investment.