Without Subsidies, Swiss Mountains Would Not Look The Same

By Anne Nabakwe

The Perspective
Adelboden, Switzerland

Posted June 21, 2002

Are Switzerland’s farmers a pampered lot? Not if you know that without those subsidies generously extended by their federal government in Bern the magnificent Swiss mountain Alps would lose their touristic lure as fast as they would lose those mountain farmers who help keep them "alive".

That appeared to be the official Swiss position during a five day conference on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development in Mountain Regions (SARD). The meeting aimed at identifying constraints affecting mountain region populations and rural communities in a bid to identify solutions towards their empowerment. But a visit to various Swiss farming communities revealed a richness of high quality lifestyles in comparison with rural mountain populations of poor regions such as Africa.

Swiss government subsidies to farmers have enabled these rural populations access credit necessary to run various income generating activities on their farms. Cheese making was a major income earner for most Swiss farmers. A ready market through tourism and good mountain road network infrastructures have enabled Swiss farmers’ products reach consumers, a guarantee to steady income not enjoyed by their developing countries counterparts. That they cannot do without support was as a result of the “high costs of production” according to Swiss Federal official Pascal Couchepin. With support from the government, it’s not strange to find that Swiss farmers can even afford to put up high quality hotels high up on the Alps. Unbelievable for some, but true. As who could imagine that restaurants could be built on such high altitudes as the Alps, or that Swiss farmers and their wives could for a while take a break from their round the clock cheese income activity to belt out a musical parade show in such captivating tunes to welcome tourists or visitors to Switzerland, who cannot avoid the captivating charm of the scenic beauty that is Switzerland?

That the Swiss mountains have a harmonious relation with the farmers who inhabit them simply means that the Swiss farmers need the mountains for food, water and economic activity to generate income for their own sustenance and the mountains need Swiss farmers to help fight for their survival at international conferences as the harsh effects of human activity as symbolised by economic growth through industrialization threaten to increase the emissions of dangerous gases into the atmosphere that have impacted negatively on climate through global warming.

Experts attending an international conference in Adelboden, Switzerland have already raised concerns that unless the ecosystems of mountain regions were conserved through sound practices of human activity, mountain region environments as we know them today in various parts of the world faced threats associated with globalisation, climate change, freshwater loss and eventual loss of those who have nurtured their identity for years, such as the Swiss farmers, as mountains turn not into a resource but an uninhabitable environment for humans, as a result of the effects of climate change.

But how do governments in various parts of the world respond to these concerns?

An international conference on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development in mountain regions (SARD) opened in Adelboden, Switzerland from 16-20 June in an attempt to lay out a set of proposals to tackle the problem head on spurred on by the recognition that the year 2002 was designated by the UN as the International Year of mountains.

Recommendations were expected to be tabled at the 26 August to 4 September UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

But as the developing and industrialized countries participants attending the conference attempted to reach common ground on what constituted the greatest threats to mountain region and rural communities sustainable development concerns, it emerged that in fact there was need to reflect on whether there was any ‘’ commonality’’ of interests between the rich and poor countries when talking about how to empower the rural communities in various parts of the world.

This brings me back to the issue of Switzerland’s pampered farmers.

In his contribution to the debates the director general of the World Wide Fund, a nature conservation global NGO, Claude Martin who first raised attention to the "differences" and "commonalities" existing between the developed and developing countries as regards sustainable development concerns told participants that, "this critical issue must be answered otherwise we’ll end up believing that we (North and South) are talking the same language."

For instance, he continued, ‘’ while others (read: developing countries mountain region communities and rural farmers) live in subsistence economies, others (read: industrialized countries and their (Swiss) farmers live in cash (read: subsidies)’’,

He echoed the view of many Swiss and other Western countries officials when he indicated that "Without subsidies, Swiss mountains and by extension the quality of life of mountain people in Switzerland would not look the same".

With about 100,000 Swiss Francs of subsidies a year the Swiss farmers were kept busy through out the year in income generating activities such as cheese making for sale and home consumption, ski instructors during winter and making hay for livestock when the sun shines on the Alps. What a busy fulfilling life.

That Western countries farmers receive huge subsidies from their governments and exported their products to developing countries in the process killing off local African and other developing countries industries that lacked capacity to compete became a major point of contention between the North and South participants at the conference that clearly helped to show the “difference” between “them” and “us”.

As mountain region populations from poor countries languish up the mountaintops in sheer survival desperation their northern counterparts were being ‘’ pampered continuously’’ and could therefore afford to belt out their melodious harmony for tourists, visitors etc... in the comfort of hotels built on the high mountain Alps aware that their government would foot the bill through subsidies.

The WWF director who generated the debate on the existing difference and commonalities between North and South when it came to issues such as sustainable development matters provided what could be seen as a possible "compromise" on solutions to common problems affecting humankind.

Commonalities exist, he ventured, drawing example of the climate change as a result of global warming whose effects he said would affect both developed and developing countries mountain regions but were expected to affect poor countries the most.

But Perhaps the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho farmers in Southern Africa could aspire for huge subsidies if they had governments that could take firm decisions like their Western government counterparts without their governments having to worry about what the WTO would say. And maybe only then would we in Africa know that "commonalities" as suggested by Claude Martin really do exist, commonalities where the poor too can make policy decisions without the fear of the big powers sanctions.

After all, the US farmers like their Swiss counterparts enjoy similar largesse from their governments without having to worry what the WTO, World Bank, IMF and donors would say.

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