Celebrated Swiss ecologist turns 75

Franz Weber's style has made him more than a few enemies Keystone Archive

A Swiss pioneer of nature protection, Franz Weber, is celebrating his 75th birthday. But the veteran ecologist is showing no signs of slowing down.

This content was published on July 27, 2002 - 11:06

After four decades spent fighting on behalf of animals and nature, Weber is now at the forefront of a new campaign to save baby seals on Canada's eastern coast - a campaign which the Fondation Franz Weber is likely to pursue with its customary vigour.

Weber's age does not trouble him. "I am a young man who has strayed into old age," he says.

What does bother him is the destruction of the environment and lack of respect for animal rights. "When something beautiful dies somewhere, then something dies within us and the world as a whole is diminished," the Basel-born ecologist says.

Campaign veteran

A controversial figure, Weber has led numerous campaigns at home and abroad to protect areas of natural beauty and preserve wildlife. His determined, aggressive style has ensured many success stories - but also won him enemies.

Weber chalked up his first success in 1965 when he saved the village of Surlej in Switzerland's Engadine valley from property developers. He later successfully campaigned for the preservation of the Lavaux vineyards on Lake Geneva and against the construction of a motorway through the Simmental valley.

But it is outside Switzerland that Weber has made his biggest mark, successfully campaigning against the massacre and industrial exploitation of seals in Canada 20 years ago. Since then, the Fondation Franz Weber has pioneered the causes of wild horses in Australia and elephants in Africa.

There have also been notable failures, such as Weber's popular initiative against vivisection, which was rejected by the Swiss in 1985.

Lack of recognition

Weber believes his work has not received the recognition it deserves within Switzerland. "Apart from the sociologist, Jean Ziegler, and the writer, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the people in my country have always considered me a joke," he complains.

Swiss environmental organisations are divided in their assessment of the man who has been called "the messiah of ecology". "I wish him a happy birthday," says Kaspar Schuler of Greenpeace Switzerland. "But we are very far removed from Franz Weber and his activities."

Olivier van Bogaert of WWF recognises that Weber's methods are not to everyone's taste, but acknowledges his important contribution to nature protection. "We owe him the preservation of numerous sites," he says.

Philippe Roch of the federal office for the environment echoes this assessment. "Franz Weber has played an essential role," he says. "His actions on the ground have made a huge contribution to the awareness of environmental issues."

swissinfo/Frederic Burnand

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