In an Empty Building’s Place: Wilderness and Community

Posted by on Jan 14, 2016

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The abandoned building in Safiental (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

A Swiss NGO, Mountain Wilderness, has developed a solution to a problem found in many alpine regions: the abandoned buildings which result from outmigration of rural families. They designed sustainable, participatory techniques for removing the building materials and applied them to an empty farmhouse in a remote glacier valley as a demonstration project. And once the building was removed, plants could begin to establish themselves on the site, promoting habitat restoration.

photo by Mountain Wilderness Schweiz

Local volunteers stacking materials (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

For their first project site, Mountain Wilderness selected the commune of Safiental, located within the glacier-rich canton of Graubunden. The main village of this commune is located at an elevation of 1,350 m. Its current population of about 900 is roughly half the size of the population at the middle of the 19th century. Like many other high-elevation regions of Switzerland, Safiental has experienced significant outmigration, and it contains many empty buildings. The local residents selected one building for removal. It had been used as a stable during World War II, and provided a few gamekeepers with shelter in the years after the war, but had not been used for either purpose for some time.

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A volunteer, removing materials (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

Their first project faced many challenges. The staff of Mountain Wilderness had to obtain permission for the removal from the owner of the farm and from the local government. They needed to inspect the material carefully to decide the best way to deal with it, and then to arrange for appropriate recycling or waste disposal. Finally, they needed to identify a dozen or so local volunteers to carry out the work, and then to coordinate with the local community to schedule the event.

Moreover, to accomplish the tasks of bringing tools up and old materials down, Mountain Wilderness did not want to use helicopters; they oppose their use in mountain areas in general, since the noise disrupts the wildlife and the wilderness character of the region. A branch of the Swiss army lent horses for these activities—a more sustainable form of transportation, as well as a quieter one.

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Swiss Army personnel and horses removing materials from the site (source: Mountain Wilderness)

When the project was completed, the local residents were satisfied.  A local carpenter, Kay Decasper, selected some of the wood to make into artisanal furniture. The mayor of Safiental, Thomas Buchli, described it as a “strategy that is viable in the long run” since it would promote sustainable tourism in the commune.

Though this concern for participatory and sustainable methods added to the effort required for the project, it also increased public awareness of wilderness preservation. In this way, the project became a showpiece for the removal of abandoned buildings and for habitat restoration.

Mountain Wilderness at Safierberg

Mountain Wilderness staff and banner at Safierberg (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

Founded in the small town of Brig in southern Switzerland in 1995, Mountain Wilderness is an NGO that promotes the protection of high mountain landscapes. Their philosophy is centered on the word “respect.” It guides their strategy of enlisting mountain sports enthusiasts as a means for preservation of wilderness.  They aim to keep ski resorts from growing too large, and they promote car-pooling and ride-sharing to existing resorts as a way to reduce traffic on mountain roads and to keep parking lots as small as possible. They seek a total ban in the Alps on snowmobiles and heli-skiing, since they strongly value the silence of mountain wilderness. The organization also provides teaching materials to schools as a means of building appreciation of wilderness values.

This project was one of the 13 around the world that was nominated for the Mountain Protection Award. This award grants recognition of initiatives that address promotes concrete actions, including energy efficiency, conservation initiatives, waste management, community activities and water conservation. It is awarded by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, known by its French acronym UIAA. Founded in 1932, the UIAA represents about 3 million climbers and mountaineers through its 80 members organizations in 50 countries on 5 continents. It promotes mountain sports, and works to make them safe, environmentally responsible and accessible. To support these goals, it has development programs in culture and environmental protection and in the engagement of youth in mountain sports.

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Meadows and mountains in Safiental (source: Safiental.ch)

The meadows that are now returning to the open ground in Safiental offer an important example to other mountain regions. Outmigration is growing in mountain regions affected by climate change and glacier retreat. These processes are found not only in the Alps, but also in the Himalayas and the Andes. When the materials in abandoned buildings are reused, recycled and removed in appropriate ways, they do not only contribute to the restoration of habitat. They also engage the local residents in reshaping of their landscapes and communities.

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