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Swiss Alps: Exploding the "Heidi" myth

The popular image of living off the land may well be more fiction than fact

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland has turned its back on stereotypes for its UN Year of Mountains campaign. Instead it's focusing on sustainable development of the Alps.

The reasons behind this approach are numerous, and they include the dwindling population of Switzerland's alpine communities.

Two-thirds of the Swiss landmass is mountainous, but only a quarter of the Swiss population live permanently in the Alps. Instead 5.1 million Swiss cram themselves into towns and cities of the valley, ranging from Zurich to Geneva.

The exodus is threatening the very fabric of Swiss alpine communities, as the upwardly mobile find jobs elsewhere.

"The main problem is that we don't have an attractive workplace [in the Alps]," Thomas Egger, head of the Swiss Association for mountain regions told swissinfo. "People want to live in the city like in other countries and profit from the cultural aspects and the better job opportunities."

In a recent study he found that only 20 per cent of people from canton Uri who went to university returned to work in Uri after they graduated. Instead they went to cities like Zurich, Basel and Lucerne.


As a general rule alpine towns and villages have a higher unemployment rate. In February 2002 for example canton Valais had 3.3 per cent unemployment compared with the national average of 2.6 per cent.

However, Switzerland is not alone when it comes to its haemorrhaging alpine population. It is a global phenomenon and mountain regions tend to be some of the poorest areas in the world.

As such the United Nations designated 2002 the Year of Mountains in a bid to raise the profile of high altitude environments and their people.

Its focus is sustainable development, which will be the topic of the UN's September summit in Johannesburg.

Its challenge is to harness the alpine environment's natural resources without damaging the fragile ecological balance.

Sustainable development

Stefan Frey, head of Switzerland's Year of the Mountains project told swissinfo that sustainable development was the "only way to approach the future". He also drew attention to the importance of integrating development culturally, socially, environmentally and economically.

Switzerland is taking part in the UN's global campaign with a wide-ranging programme of events paid for by the Swiss Development Agency and the Federal Office of Spatial Development. The total cost is put at SFr1 million ($600,000).

Surprisingly the Swiss schedule is fairly free of traditional alpine images -there's not a Heidi, dairy cow or giant round cheese in sight.

Instead, the focus is on global awareness of the Swiss Alps within the UN framework of sustainable development.

The programme ranges from a series of films comparing life in various mountainous regions across the world to education forums on the environment's natural resources. For example, Switzerland provides six per cent of Europe's water.

One of the highlights - a project to build a traditional Himalayan footbridge in canton Valais - aims to build a lasting relationship with people from the highland kingdom of Bhutan.

Tourist staples

This does not mean however that the tourist staples of traditional Swiss images have been forgotten.

"The myth of Heidi is not dead, but it's not a reality, "Egger told swissinfo. "We want to live and work in these mountain regions so we must have some kind of industry. We must have tourism."

"Switzerland is tourism", he added pointing out that such myths and traditions can help sustain alpine communities by attracting visitors.

by Sally Mules

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