The role of forests in preventing natural disasters in the mountains is taking centre stage at a meeting of Alpine countries underway in eastern Switzerland.
Experts from seven countries kicked off their meeting on Monday to review measures taken to strengthen and extend their alpine forests, and to try to prevent devastating mudslides and avalanches.
The three-day meeting in Maienfeld, in canton Graubünden, comes only a week after the dangers of living in the mountains were highlighted by the deaths of at least 11 people in a mudslide and flooding in canton Valais.
The past 18 months have seen a series of sudden and violent weather phenomena, which climatologists say are a symptom of global warming.
Last December, a storm destroyed some 13 million cubic metres of forest in Switzerland alone, and heavy snowfall and avalanches in the winter of 1999 left dozens of people dead in the Swiss, Austrian, and French Alps.
Healthy mountain forests can at least lessen the impact of such events, according to the experts, as well as having a beneficial effect on the regional climate. Besides acting as barriers against mudslides and avalanches, the forest breaks down carbon dioxide, generates oxygen and provides a source of renewable energy - wood.
For these reasons, the importance of protecting mountain forests has been enshrined in a protocol to the Alpine Convention, which came into force in April 1999. It is to discuss progress in applying this protocol that Switzerland, as current chair of the convention, has convened the three-day meeting in Maienfeld.
The other countries attending are Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Liechtenstein and Slovenia.
by Malcolm Shearmur