Valley of Light shines as model of sustainability

Silvio Capeder stands in Vrin, awarded the Wakker Prize in 1998 for its efforts to conserve its old buildings and integrate new ones swissinfo.ch

Efforts at the village level to promote sustainable development in the Alps are bearing fruit, despite the government's reluctance to ratify the Alpine Convention.

This content was published on August 18, 2003 - 10:30

The communities in Val Lumnezia are among several Swiss villages committed to implementing the treaty designed to protect the Alps.

There are about a dozen villages and hamlets in canton Graubünden’s Val Lumnezia, or Valley of Light, one of many side valleys leading south from the Upper Rhine.

Besides plenty of sunshine, the valley has few natural resources. Nor does it have a thriving tourist industry to keep its communities afloat.

The 3,500 residents spread across the entire valley boast little political clout.

Yet the villagers in Val Lumnezia could be described as rather enlightened in the way they have beaten the odds to preserve their culture and protect the environment.

That is why the Swiss parliament vote earlier this year to postpone a decision on ratifying the Alpine Convention has had little effect on the people of the valley.

For years, the communities in Val Lumnezia have been members of the Alliance in the Alps, a loose association of villages and towns across the Alps, from France to Slovenia.

Each alliance member has committed itself to sustainable development by implementing the key elements of the Alpine Convention.

Survival

"We have been able to exchange ideas with other member communities so we can see what they are doing and they can see how we have survived and how we plan to continue in a sustainable way," explains Silvio Capeder.

Capeder heads the association, Pro Val Lumnezia, which has played a leading role in finding public and private money for innovative projects.

"The Alliance in the Alps provides us with a forum where we can get expert advice when we want to implement a project or better use our resources," Capeder adds.

In Val Lumnezia, sustainable development has been a lifeline, reversing a trend towards economic decline and depopulation that has plagued many similarly isolated alpine regions.

Over the past decade, the pro-active measures taken in Val Lumnezia have breathed life back into the valley's communities.

Solar power

On the one hand, its villages have won nationwide recognition for their conservation efforts, and on the other for looking to the future by embracing renewable energy, particularly solar power, which is rather appropriate for the Valley of Light.

"We have made a lot of investments over the past few years," says Capeder.

"We've provided community services for residents, even those who commute outside the valley to work, to give them incentives to remain.

"And many have built houses on land we've set aside for locals, where they can buy property at attractive prices."

Since its founding in 1990, Pro Val Lumnezia has succeeded in finding funding to prevent the closure of village shops and bakeries, and in one case, for setting up a butcher's.

Slaughterhouse

Up until five years ago, beef farmers had to pay to transport their cattle hundreds of kilometres to the slaughterhouse, which caused additional suffering to the cows.

Since then, they have been able to walk their herds to the butcher's in the village of Vrin where they have a direct say in the slaughter.

The building which houses the butcher's is one of several modern structures in Vrin designed by local architect Gian Caminada.

Caminada has respected tradition by constructing wooden buildings, made from logs harvested from forests surrounding the village, but in a modern, often cubist style.

The result is an uncompromising yet harmonious mixture of old and new. The resulting media attention has attracted tourists to the valley, albeit in small numbers.

Eco-tourism

Capeder would like to develop eco-tourism further and his association has played a leading role by restructuring the region's tourist offices and expanding the valley's network of hiking trails.

One of the new trails leads to an outdoor recreation and conservation area, Davos-Munts.

Formerly a swamp, it was dug deeper and transformed into an attractive swimming hole.

"We enlarged it a little, but we were careful not to disturb the natural setting. Everything was made to be as natural as possible," says Capeder.

There is a small camping space and beach volleyball area on the edge of the pond, as well as an off-limits moor, part of which is accessible along a boardwalk.

"People either living or holidaying in the Alps are looking to escape hectic urban lifestyles," says Capeder.

"So it's up to us to conserve the alpine environment and use its resources in a sustainable way. The focus is on sustainability."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Val Lumnezia

In brief

Val Lumnezia in canton Graubünden is one of a dozen Swiss towns and valleys belonging to the Alliance in the Alps.

The alliance serves as a forum for the exchange of ideas between communities across the Alps.

Members of the alliance have committed themselves to sustainable development and implementing the Alpine Convention.

Efforts undertaken in Val Lumnezia have helped stabilise the population, by preserving jobs, improving public services and making the valley more attractive for tourism.

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Key facts

Val Lumnezia is the largest side valley of the Surselva region in canton Graubünden, covering nearly 400 square kilometres.
Geographically, it is larger than many Swiss cantons, but has fewer than 4,000 year-round residents spread across a dozen villages and hamlets.
The majority of the population are Romansh speakers.
25 per cent of the workforce is employed in agriculture, compared to the Swiss average of four per cent.
About as many people commute to larger towns in Graubünden to work, and about half that figure are employed in tourism.

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