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Mountain experts unite for summit push

Site of the Adelboden mountains conference, high in the Bernese Oberland


Delegates from 55 countries are meeting in the Swiss Alps to build an agreement on how to preserve the world's mountain regions.

The five-day international conference in Adelboden is hoping to prepare a strategy - the Adelboden Declaration - that would be presented to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August.

"The most important challenge for mountain regions is that they are being hit by the negative trade-offs of globalisation perhaps more than other regions, simply because their production situation is much more difficult," said Claude Martin, director general of the World Wildlife Fund International.

"They are producing agricultural goods at the fringe and in a globalised market."

The conference is addressing issues such as improved communication, better management of natural resources, biodiversity and the increasingly controversial issue of water supply.

Shared experience

"One important aspect will be the sharing of experiences," said Jacques Paul Eckebil, assistant director general, of the sustainable development department of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

"It may not be totally possible to transplant them, but the historical perspective counts. Other countries can learn from the Swiss example that sustainability is a commitment to making things change over time."

The fragility of the mountain eco-system is a physical factor shared by all regions. Professor Bernard Lehmann from the institute of agro-economy of Zurich's federal institute of technology warned that increasing output alone is not the key.

"If the competitiveness is improved, we should ensure that it is not made at the cost of ecology and social welfare and that is the big challenge of this conference here," he told swissinfo.

Swiss model

In an opening address, the Swiss economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, called for a balance between preserving the environment and economic growth. Later he illustrated the sort of measures Switzerland has taken to help its mountain regions.

"Some years ago, we started to give direct payments to the farmers in the mountains and we gave them higher direct payments than to the farmers in the valleys," he said.

"We also developed a regional policy to create better infrastructures so the people could live more agreeably in the mountains.

"We [also] tried to increase the environmental laws so we could reach a balance between economics and landscape and altogether make a country which is built on agriculture, tourism, sustainability and economic rationality."

Common strategy

The hope is that by Thursday, delegates will have hammered out a common strategy.

"We are obviously in quite different situations but the problems are the same," said Manfred Boetsch, director of the Swiss federal office for agriculture.

"So we figured it would be a good opportunity to get all the interested parties together and come up with a declaration showing that we have the same objectives and that we have also the same solutions that we can fight together on an international level in these different international organisations for our mountain areas."

by Vincent Landon

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