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Year of Mountains comes to a close

Journalists from around the world were invited to celebrate the Aletsch glacier in July.

(swissinfo.ch)

Switzerland's famed Aletsch Glacier region was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 2002 - a crowning achievement in what was the International Year of Mountains.

As a guardian of one of the world's great mountainous regions, Switzerland had much at stake during the year.

For many Swiss, it was an opportunity to promote the Swiss Alps as a place of tourism and recreation.

But the Year of Mountains was also a chance to get serious about protecting alpine environments, as well as the people who live within them.

During the summer, Swiss Tourism used Unesco's decision to include the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region on its world heritage list as a ready-made opportunity to promote the Alps.

More than 130 journalists from 28 countries were invited to the region in July. The media event generated more than 90 articles - a potential audience that tourism officials estimate in the hundreds of millions.

Environmental treasure

Many of the journalists portrayed the Alps as a place of serenity, beauty and environmental purity.

For tourism officials, the event was a clear success, and underlined how valuable the Alps are to Swiss tourism.

But for those concerned about the long-term future of that much-valued serenity and purity, 2002 was not just about clichés.

Some saw 2002 as a missed opportunity.

Last month, non-governmental organisations criticised the Swiss government for not doing enough to protect mountain communities and their environments.

Commitment

Madeleine Bolliger, a member of the Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations, was among several to question the commitment of the Swiss government to the Alps.

"Switzerland is a pioneer nation at the international level," Bolliger said. "But the problem is that when it comes to acting at a national level, our country loses credibility far too often.

"I think the mountains are a very good example because Switzerland pushed the topic at the international level - but it still has a lot to do at home and the Swiss government has yet to assume a leading role," she added.

Bolliger points to the fact that Switzerland is keen to tout its credentials internationally as a mountainous country, but has so far failed to ratify the protocols of a 1991 Alpine Convention signed with France, Italy and Austria.


But those in charge of coordinating sustainable development programmes in Switzerland's mountains - from initiatives to halt the melting of glaciers to schemes to protect the livelihood of isolated mountain communities - say the success or failure of Swiss efforts should not be judged solely by ticking off a list of completed projects.

Passing on the legacy

Pierre-Alain Rumley, director of the Federal Office for Spatial Development - the Swiss government's coordination platform for national policies of sustainable development - says it will be up to future generations to take stock of the past 12 months.

"It's difficult to say how successful it has been. Take for example the Year of Nature back in 1970. You didn't have many projects at the time, but there were a lot of activities in the years which followed."

"In the same way, it was important for us [in 2002] to make people more sensitive to the problems in the mountains, and the next stage will be the action."

As 2002 draws to a close, it remains to be seen whether the International Year of the Mountains will be remembered as a success.

What remains certain, however, is that debates about the future of regions such as the Swiss Alps will become ever more important.

swissinfo


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