Crusader vows to continue tourism fight
The prominent environmentalist and animal rights activist, Franz Weber, is attempting to save another endangered species – Switzerland's tourist industry.
Best known for campaigns to stop the Canadian seal hunt and to save wild horses in Australia, Weber has also been active in efforts to preserve Swiss tourism heritage.
The train journey to Montreux, where Weber lives and works, passes beneath the Lavaux vineyards, built on steep, terraced slopes above the shores of Lake Geneva.
Thanks in large part to Weber’s persistent campaigning, the idyllic wine growing area has been saved from development, which encouraged the Swiss government last month to apply to Unesco to have it listed it as a world heritage site.
Weber has left his mark on many parts of the country, fighting to save pristine mountain landscapes threatened by over development and to preserve old hotels built during tourism’s golden age in the 19th and early 20th century.
“At that time hotels were built in harmony with nature,” the 78-year-old campaigner says during an interview with swissinfo at the turn-of-the-century villa he has converted into his foundation headquarters.
It is clear that Weber feels most at home in the Belle Époque, the era when grand hotels were erected across Switzerland as well as the stately buildings in the leafy lakeshore neighbourhood where his office and home are located.
Next door is the house where Paul Kruger, Boer leader and last president of the Transvaal Republic in today’s South Africa, died in 1904.
One of Weber’s greatest achievements was the successful campaign more than 20 years ago to prevent the demolition of the grand hotel Giessbach on Lake Brienz.
The event is considered a turning point, when conservators were finally able to convince planners and the tourist industry to stop tearing down art nouveau and palatial-like hotels to replace them with pseudo chalet-style concrete structures.
“I wouldn’t have been an environmentalist 100 years ago,” Weber says. “Switzerland was a wonderful place then. I only started campaigning when I saw that the country was being destroyed. The bottom line is money and nothing else, just to benefit a few crooks.”
Weber has often been described as a thorn in the side of the federal and various regional authorities, feared for his unrelenting and self-righteous approach and ability to win over the hearts and minds of Swiss voters.
At present his foundation is running about half a dozen campaigns in Switzerland alone.
He has collected enough signatures to force a nationwide vote aimed at ending all flights by Swiss air force fighter jets over tourist regions, such as Lake Brienz.
“I’m concerned about the well-being of the entire Swiss population,” he says, raising his voice and banging the table, before continuing.
“The FA/18 was built by the Americans in order to bomb other countries. What do we want with American fighter jets? It is the noisiest airplane in the world and does nothing but scare away tourists.”
He says he expects the government will stop at nothing to shoot down his initiative, to defend its decision in the early 1990s to make the multi-billion dollar purchase.
Weber accuses local politicians of supporting the military airfields only because they are working in collusion with the air force, having been able to “line their own pockets”.
His attack on the authorities in the village of Iseltwald – also on Lake Brienz – for giving the go-ahead for the construction of six apartment blocks is in the same vein.
Weber has taken up this fight as well, describing Iseltwald as a “pearl on the lake”, whose idyllic setting attracts tourists. At least one of Iseltwald’s two old hotels, which closed their doors years ago, will have to make way for the new development.
“It is as if we were to tear down the Matterhorn. It’s madness and it’s only for short-term gain.”
“I’ve always argued that we should put a figure on the immaterial value of the landscape. If that was done, we would find that it is worth billions to the tourist industry in the long-term, not just a few million for speculators in the short.
“If everything is built over, what do we have to show?” asks the indefatigable crusader, who says he works seven days a week and has not taken a holiday in years.
“Switzerland is letting itself be sold out,” he says, summing up.
Weber shrugs off suggestions that as he nears 80, after having devoted half his life to environmental concerns, animal rights and heritage protection, he is ready for retirement.
“I’ll keep fighting, as long as I’m still young,” he smiles.
As the interview ends, the septuagenarian demonstrably bounds up the stairs two-at-a-time to get back to work.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Montreux
Before he became an environmental and animal rights activist, the 78-year-old Franz Weber was a freelance journalist based in Paris.
He has joined forces with Brigitte Bardot to protest at the Canadian seal hunt.
His foundation runs a wildlife reserve in Togo to protect elephants and a refuge in Australia for wild horses.
In Switzerland, two of his initiatives will soon come to a nationwide vote: to provide better protection for the country’s forests and to stop fighter jets from flying over tourist regions.
In compliance with the JTI standards