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Christian Kuechli

Christian Kuechli gives his perspective on sustainable forest policy
Christian Kuechli gives his perspective on sustainable forest policy

Is the South's future reflected in Switzerland's past?

Christian Kuechli is a Forest Engineer for the Swiss Forest Agency.

There are few places as beautiful as the Swiss Alps and few places as orderly or well run as Switzerland. And it's not just the Swiss who feel that! It's hard to imagine that this land of snow-capped peaks, tidy mountain valleys, and trains that run on time ever had an environmentally challenging day of any note, ever. But, not so long ago, Swiss streets ran with water and mud, the result of forest clear cutting to meet the high timber demand of colonial countries like France and Holland, fast industrialization and a breakdown in systems of resource tenure.

Only after the occurrence of disastrous floods in the 19th century did urban society in the lowlands commit itself to the preservation of our Alpine forests, as I, and my colleague Martin Stuber, reported in our review of Swiss forestry, which we presented to participants of the Interlaken Workshop on Decentralization in Forestry* earlier this year. Later, on a winding trail beneath a canopy of high larch trees, we told workshop participants about the destruction wrought by Bern's insatiable demand for fuel wood; of competition between local elites and central authorities; and of poverty and emigration when the very poor lost their meagre rights to use the forest. On this walk through the managed forest of Little Rugen, overlooking the quaint tourist town of Interlaken, it would have been difficult for our workshop participants to reconcile this sorry tale with the now pristine surroundings, if it had not been for our archival photos of Swiss streets awash, of Swiss rivers choked with logs, of mudslides, and people foraging for their subsistence from the forest. We could have been talking about any number of countries today, not Switzerland in the 18th and 19th centuries!

I evoked the memory of Karl Kasthofer, who as district forest officer in the Bernese Oberland in the late 1800s planted the larch in Little Rugen. It was also his impossible task to work with the district's competing stakeholders, to use a word now in vogue, to please all sides and still serve his bosses in Bern. He earned a great deal of respect as a pioneer of professional forestry, but had little success, as you might guess, in stemming the socio-economic tides that washed over the Swiss forests at the time. Kasthoffer's conclusion was: "Forest codes will do as little to save the Alpine forests as moral codes did to preserve good morals." He felt that improvement in the conditions of forestry would not be possible through the policing power of the forest service, but rather depended on creating better commitment, through ownership at the local level and economic freedom. His credo was: "The best motivation for efficient forestry is economic self-interest."

The Federal Forestry Law of 1876 created the technical conditions necessary for sustainable silviculture in Switzerland. And financial subsidies made it possible to create an efficient forest service and to undertake torrent control and afforestation in the catchment areas. But it was the arrival of the train service to Bern in 1858 and the subsequent replacement of wood fuel by cheaper coal that had the biggest impact on the forests of Switzerland by lessening demand. Now the proportion of tree cover is kept constant, by law, and the trees' main function is to protect towns below from falling snow and rocks. Not to mention their role in attracting tourists.

Switzerland of 150 years ago had a lot in common with many developing countries today. So, what can be learned from the country's experience? Well, we are reluctant to look for recipes or roadmaps that might guide the South as it tackles environmental challenges. The history of the North can hardly be projected as the future of the South since current conditions in the South are too different from historical conditions in the North. At the same time, it seems possible that an overview of developments in the Alps can suggest useful approaches to understanding current conditions and make a contribution to the debate about development. Patterns of conflict over forest resources in the Alps, for instance, are similar to existing conflicts in the South. It can be worthwhile to recognise such patterns of conflict, not as a way of seeking ready-made solutions, but as a stimulus in the search for political, legal and technical solutions appropriate to the local context.

We hope, though, that the tour of Little Rugen left the participants with a feeling of optimism, at the very least. Since Switzerland was able to overcome near insoluble social challenges and the interlinked disregard for the environment in the past, then the countries of the South might surely do the same. And those participants from the South eager for more guidance on decentralization as it relates to forestry, may remember some comments from Philippe Roch, Director of the Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape, who offered that, "[Switzerland's] lesson learned is...if you give too much power locally the balance might be too heavy on the local interests and the forest might be destroyed. On the other side, if you give too much weight to the central power, the local people are too far from the forest and you cannot manage it properly. So, you have to find the right balance between a strong clear central legislation and strong responsibility for the local people."

*The Switzerland-Indonesia Workshop on Decentralization in Forestry was organized by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Intercooperation, 27-30 April 2004

Date published: September 2004


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