The depopulation of Switzerland’s mountain regions shows little sign of abating, despite efforts in recent years to halt the exodus.
In a bid to reverse the trend, the government has drawn up a new regional strategy, with the onus on job creation.
The aim of the government’s regional policy is to narrow the economic gap among regions, especially between the cities, which tend to drive the economy, and mountain areas threatened by depopulation.
Until now, all mountain regions have benefited from loans and subsidies granted on generous terms to enable them to build infrastructure which would improve living conditions.
But this has not halted the exodus from the countryside.
Almost three-quarters of the country’s population now live in built-up urban areas, and more are joining them every year.
Over the past decade the number of hill farmers has decreased by 10,000, and even the number of hotels in outlying regions has fallen from 6,500 to 5,700.
To halt the rural exodus, the government introduced its so-called “regional policy” in the 1970s, based on a mixture of centralised planning and local-authority initiatives.
Up until now, the driving force of this policy has been the redistribution of resources on the basis of regional wealth and needs.
Flaws in the system
But Rudolf Schiess, who is responsible for regional policy at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), says the current strategy is not working and needs to be revised.
“Despite the efforts made in recent years, the exodus continues to gather pace. Qualified people are not able to find suitable jobs in outlying areas, resulting in a ‘brain drain’,” he told swissinfo.
“It is clear that the present measures to support the regional infrastructure have not been sufficient to reverse the trend.”
Observers say that mountain communities don't need indoor swimming pools, new schools or imposing public buildings. What they do need are jobs and prospects.
Seco has highlighted an initiative in Poschiavo, a small Italian-speaking valley with a population of around 5,000, as the way forward.
In 1996 the Lugano-based Swiss Pedagogical Institute for Vocational Training set up a centre for the study and development of distance learning, called the “Poschiavo Project”. Since 2000 the unit has extended its scope to neighbouring regions.
Danilo Nussio, one of the people involved from the start of the project, says it has opened the eyes of local people and made them aware of their potential.
The 300 people who have benefited so far from the courses have not only learned to use computers, but also to exploit the opportunities offered by the internet.
These range from the online sale of local products through to the development of communications courses, which have received several national awards.
Today, the centre promotes many initiatives and, according to Nussio, has “changed the geography of the region” for this Italian-speaking enclave in canton Graubünden.
Contacts with canton Ticino and the Italian province of Sondrio are now the norm.
“Before there was a limited amount of commerce and smuggling, but not a cross-border relationship at all levels,” he said.
At present, four highly qualified specialists are involved in the work of the centre, but what is even more important for Danilo Nussio is the general sense of confidence the project has engendered.
“Inter-regional projects with our Italian neighbours are increasing and activities have multiplied. We feel encouraged and are not simply waiting for manna to fall from heaven,” he said.
The federal authorities in Bern now want to give more emphasis to initiatives of this kind.
“In future, funding must be allocated to projects which create jobs and so solve real problems,” explained Seco’s Rudolf Schiess. “Infrastructure is not enough to ensure a future for peripheral regions.”
The issue of greater accountability has encountered little opposition, but there are some suspicions as far as the facts – or rather the figures – are concerned.
Ticino’s cantonal government, for example, insists that there must be clear guarantees that money will continue to flow its way.
It is feared in some quarters that the new regional policy will lead to cost cutting, but Schiess denies the charge.
“The aim is not to make savings but to increase the effectiveness of the measures,” he said.
swissinfo, Daniele Papacella
979 of the 3,000 or so Swiss communes are in built-up areas.
In 1950, this was true of only 155 of them.
Between 1950 and 2000, the number of people living in urban areas more than doubled, to 73% of the population.