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Mountain policy in need of change

Couchepin told delegates that Switzerland has considerable experience in sustainable development

(Keystone Archive)

The Swiss economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, has opened an international conference on mountains with a call for greater sustainable development.

In an address to experts from the world's mountain regions gathered in Switzerland, Couchepin said that a balance needed to be found between preserving the environment and economic growth.

The five-day conference in Adelboden in the Bernese Oberland is preparing a strategy for the Alps, which will be presented to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, later this year.

The discussions are part of the United Nations' Year of Mountains and participants will have an opportunity to discuss the progress made in the ten years since the Rio Earth Summit.

Sustainable development

"In most of the world's mountainous regions, the pace of sustainable development is too slow," Couchepin told delegates on Sunday. "Efforts to conserve the environment and must accompany measures to increase revenues and economic growth," he continued.

Isabella Bustelli of the Swiss branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature said that sustainable development in the Alps is a fairly recent expression.

"Compared with other countries, the Swiss tend to be more aware of these issues but the problem is always one of putting ideas into practice. It takes time for people to come to terms with environmental issues," she said.

Swiss commitment

Switzerland has a vast experience in sustainable development in mountain regions, Couchepin said. The host country's commitment to the practice began with a substantial contribution to the text of chapter 13 of Agenda 21, the document adopted by the Rio Earth Summit.

It has also led to 120 projects, sponsored by the Swiss Development Agency, in mountain regions around the world.

In Switzerland, there is a centuries-old tradition of prudent management of Alpine meadows and forests where farmers and foresters have tried to use methods suited to the local conditions.

The Swiss forest management regime, adopted in the 19th century, for example, only allows the cutting of trees that can be replaced.

"The Alps are a very precious resource," explained Bustelli. "You need only think of water. The key question, then, is how to exploit these resources, while ensuring that we leave them intact for future generations. We cannot afford to think only of the short term."

The challenge for the Alps today is to strike a balance between opposing interests such as tourism, transit traffic, agriculture and animal husbandry.

Finding a way of balancing these conflicting interests is one of the objectives of the conference in Adelboden.

A strategy for Johannesburg

Sustainable agriculture and regional development in mountain areas are key aspects of chapters 13 and 14 of Agenda 21, a document adopted in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 during the United Nations' sponsored conference on the environment and development.

The conference in Adelboden is organised by the Federal Office for Agriculture together with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

It is laying the groundwork for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which is due to be held in Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4.

Though they are home to only one tenth of the world's population, mountains and highlands account for roughly one quarter of the earth's surface. They supply almost half of mankind's fresh water, and are a treasure store of biodiversity.

Fifty-three countries are regarded as "mountainous" - that is to say, mountains occupy more than half of their land area. Switzerland comes in the top 15, with mountains accounting for over three quarters of its territory.

swissinfo with agencies

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