International Year of the Mountain - CONSERVATION PAYS OFF FOR FARMERS IN SWISS ALPSEntlebuch (Switzerland) - The Alpine region of Entlebuch in the canton of Lucerne officially became Switzerland's second UNESCO biosphere reserve, at an inauguration ceremony on Saturday 25 May in the presence of Swiss President, Kaspar Villiger.
The site joins 139 other UNESCO Man and Biosphere reserves in mountain areas, out of a total of 408 in 94 countries. With the year 2002 designated UN International Year of the Mountain, the Entlebuch initiative helps focus attention on the critical role that mountains play for life on this planet. Mountain glaciers and snow provide freshwater for over half the world's population. But global warming and unsustainable human impacts are already threatening their fragile balance.
Despite initial scepticism in Entlebuch, a high level of involvement of local farmers and residents in the project since it was first proposed has produced a unique mix of economic development, ecological and cultural conservation initiatives. Engelbert Ruoss, scientific directorand pioneer of the Entlebuch biosphere reserve project, explained that the region, with its 17,000 inhabitants, is one of the poorest in Switzerland. Mostly dependent on dairy farming, the area has seen its young people drift away to the towns in search of work. Now, some young Entlebuch farmers, like cheesemaker Fredy Studer-Vogel and sausage-maker Elizabeth Thalmann, have seen the commercial potential of being part of a biosphere reserve. By introducing safeguards on origin and production, the Entlebuch biosphere reserve can provide a seal of approval for a range of quality local products, giving the local economy a much-needed, but sustainable, boost.
Although the Alpine slopes are used for grazing, Entlebuch also has rare examples of unspoiled habitat, boasting some 27 percent of all boglands in Switzerland, and in a survey last year, one small area alone revealed over 300 species of fungus. With an abundance of wood, especially after the "Lothar" storm of December 1999, the biosphere reserve project is also promoting energy-efficient woodchip burning to heat schools and homes in the valley. Meanwhile, the school of agriculture in Sch?pfheim is experimenting with natural high-yield mixtures of meadow grass for cattle grazing. The biosphere reserve is also giving a new lease of life to a dying cottage industry - charcoal burning - that has all but disappeared from Switzerland.
The active involvement of local people in the biosphere reserve proposal from the outset has been the hallmark of the Entlebuch initiative. "In the beginning it was difficult to convince people," remembers Heine Hofstette, a retired forest engineer and president of the regional planning committee. "We held meetings open to everyone, for two days. About 5,000 people came."And recognizing that local people were often more concerned about prosperity than sustainability, Ruoss saw the importance of addressing their needs.
In Autumn 2000, 94 percent of local people backed the initiative. Now every resident contributes SFr 4 (about US $2.70) a year to the project, which has also attracted funding from the Swiss government, the canton of Lucerne and private-sector sponsors.
"Our main task now," says Ruoss, "is to see if the participatory methods used in Entlebuch can beapplied elsewhere." He has already been approached for advice by other regions in Switzerland and Germany, but feels it could be equally appropriate for Nepal or the Andes.
For Peter Bridgewater, Secretary of UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB), Entlebuch is an "excellent example of a new generation of biosphere reserve that combines biodiversity conservation with human uses. The first reserves of the 1970's were started for scientific research," he added, at the inauguration ceremony. "But now they are about people."
UNESCO, through its Man and Biosphere Programme and World Heritage sites, its International Hydrological Programme and International Geological Correlation Programme, has been involved in mountain issues for many years. It ismarking the International Year of the Mountain by collaborating with the government of Kyrgyzstan and other UN agencies to organize a Global Mountain Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan from October 29 to November 1 (see http://www.unesco.org/mab/IYM.htm). Theissues to be discussed include conflicts and peace, tourism, poverty, communication and energy, education and other aspects of sustainable development.
Meanwhile, the newly formed Mountain Research Initiative (MRI), based in Bern (Switzerland) sees the MAB network as a unique resource to study the impact of global warming (see www.mri.unibe.ch/). "Mountains are very sensitive to climate change," says Mel Reasoner MRI's project director, "so they are ideal places to study what is happening. They are like the caged canaries used in mines." And some 40 percent of MAB sites are in mountain areas. There are already alarming signs that global warming is upsetting the vital role mountain areas play as "water towers" for lowland areas, especially arid and semi-arid areas that have little alternative sources of fresh water.
"Mountain glaciers and snow store up precipitation in the winter months," explains Reasoner, "slowly releasing the water as runoff in streams and rivers during the summer." But recent research, from Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to the US Rocky Mountains, suggests, that in many parts of the world, glaciers are melting faster than they are being replenished. Some experts believe that if current rates of melting continue, Mount Kilimanjaro will have lost its famous glacial topping in 15 years. Some 80 percent of the glacier has already gone.