"Mountain Aid" eases burdens of alpine life

Life in the mountains is seen as picturesque, but farmers need help to make ends meet

Alpine life may be the tradition that symbolises Switzerland around the world, but in today's reality, many mountain communities are struggling.

This content was published on September 8, 2001 minutes

The charity, Swiss Mountain Aid, aims to prevent an exodus from rural communities of the Alps by bolstering regional companies that produce such typically Swiss products as cheese.

"Mountain people love the work they do. But it's hard, and they need help to survive," says Adolf Ogi, the former Swiss president and, since May, president of Swiss Mountain Aid.

"It's in everybody's interests that they can carry on living and working in their region," he told swissinfo.

Swiss Mountain Aid was born in 1942 - the same year as Ogi - to help mountain communities cope with the fact that their men had been mobilised for the Second World War. Today it is the liberalisation of the markets and the need to drive prices lower that is threatening the alpine farmer.

Improving local agriculture

Working independently of publicly funded projects, Mountain Aid's goal is to help mountain communities maintain a decent standard of living and to help build infrastructures which can improve local agriculture.

For that reason, Swiss Mountain Aid chose to hold its annual press conference in the lush mountain pastures high above the ski resort of Charmey, deep in the Gruyère region of canton Fribourg. Here it highlighted one of its success stories: a cooperative of alpine cheese producers, which had benefited from its financial support.

"Our main aim was to take matters into our own hands and save these producers of regional specialities who are in difficulty," says André Remy, mayor of Charmey and president of the cooperative, to which 30 local cheese producers -- making Gruyère, Vacherin and Sérac -- belong.

Remy says the cooperative will allow the producers a greater degree of autonomy, to set their own prices and free them from the grip of the buyers they currently deal with.

A little push

"All we needed was a little push to get started," he says. That impulsion was provided by SFr200,000, a fifth of its budget, from Swiss Mountain Aid.

"Without the help we've received things would be extremely hard," says German Piller, one of the farmers belonging to the cooperative, having demonstrated his art in his 1,600 metre-high chalet.

Piller has passed on the secrets of his trade to his son, Beat, and thanks to the cooperative, Beat is likely to continue making his Gruyère and Vacherin and pass it on to his own children.

But the situation for other mountain farmers is more precarious. The government's policy of liberalising the agricultural sector, and not guaranteeing a price for products has had a devastating effect on certain parts of the mountain economy.

Free market problems

"The free market simply cannot be applied to alpine agriculture. The costs are simply too high. Some kind of protection is necessary," says Willy Streckeisen, a Swiss Mountain Aid expert who helped assess the economic merits of the Fribourg cooperative.

"These farmers are the very substance of the mountain regions. By remaining here, they give these regions purpose, and that helps tourism to develop," he told swissinfo.

Swiss Mountain Aid, which gets no money from the federal government and relies on donations from the public, received over 1,200 requests for assistance last year and handed out some SFr29 million, the vast majority of it in German-speaking Switzerland.

"Switzerland is a country of minorities, and the mountain people are a minority," Adolf Ogi, himself a native of the Bernese Oberland, says. "I would like the other minorities in Switzerland to remember this minority when they need help.

by Roy Probert

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