In its program for its six-month European Presidency, Italy has stated that it will contribute to the preparation of an action plan for EU strategy for the Alpine region. Considering the disheartening gaps still present in policy for the mountains, this news makes us hopeful.
In the collective imagination, the mountains often represent the periphery, located at the edge of the lowlands. But the marginality of these areas is as much social as geographical, as is clear from the detachment of politics and the resulting lack of action tools.
Are the mountain areas really so marginal to our countries? How important are the Alps within Europe? This range is an extraordinary environmental and cultural lung for the whole continent. The central position and physical conformation of these mountains has led to the development of incredible biological variety (of plants, animal breeds and ecosystems) and cultural diversity (of languages, different peoples and ethnic minorities). The intermingling of these elements has generated traditions and typical foods as well as vineyards, terraces and pastures: anthropized and semi-anthropized landscapes typical of the area, which risk falling into ruin as productive activities are abandoned.
This heritage is perhaps the main identity-forming aspect that welds together many different areas, making them a macro-region and rendering the Alpine arc a potentially strategic resource for Europe from many perspectives. Just one piece of data, for now: According to a 2009 report presented by the Secretariat of the Alpine Convention, an estimated 100 million tourists visit the mountains every year.
This enormous potential, however, is not yet matched by a political strategy. Industrial development has led to a gradual abandonment of these areas, with much of the population moving down into the lowlands, threatening the future of this resource. In many contexts, activities have been gradually interrupted, breaking ties with the local contexts, losing the transmission of knowledge and leading to the decline of services.
Development within the Alpine region has been patchy. The situation can be completely divergent on different sides of the same mountain. The altitude, the gradient of the slope, the exposure and the hydrogeological system are all factors that play a determining role in agriculture, pastures and settlements, and have a radical effect on a valley’s development. The diversity of Alpine environments and their international nature have significantly slowed a complex and delicate process of local development.
Significantly, the most direct intervention for mountain agriculture so far has been the compensation payment, which provides financial recognition to agricultural activities in generically “disadvantaged” areas. Though useful, this approach has proven to be insufficient to reverse the trends.
As Slow Food, we believe that it is time to rethink Europe’s mountains as an opportunity rather than a problem to be solved. The recent trend of repopulation by new generations might still be tenuous, but it is nonetheless significant. The people now starting new initiatives in the mountains are doing so with new sensibilities, bringing innovation and new needs (like broadband or other telecommunications services). Despite the depopulation of the Alpine area, 14 million people still live there, the equivalent of the all the inhabitants of Denmark and Sweden put together.
It is necessary to develop a vision that can look to future interventions, based on the complex local contexts of the Alps, so that policies can be about promotion rather than damage limitation. Agricultural activities in mountain areas have always shaped the landscape and the social systems, and therefore they must take on a key role in this vision of development for the region. Food production chains, if placed at the heart of a strategic plan, can be the most effective driving force for relaunching the region and promoting the local economies generated by care for the local area.