The Switzerland of Communities

Annual assembly of the Sponsorship for Mountain Communities

by Urs Graf

With their form of existence, the small communities in the high altitudes and so-called peripheral zones of Switzerland are preserving the diversity of Swiss traditions and culture. Yes, there are still people who feel homesick after a short time when they miss their familiar neighbourhood and fellow villagers. In the public consciousness, they have little presence. While until the 20th century Switzerland was regarded as a country of emigrants to all parts of the world, the reason for this was the widespread rural poverty where the hard-earned harvests could barely feed the many-headed families of the time. A literary testimony to this is the life story of Ulrich Bräker from the 18th century, “Der arme Mann im Tockenburg” [The poor man of Tockenburg].
  Today, migration is still a major problem for the survival of mountain communities. The difficult supply situation with long access routes and many threats from natural hazards is forcing them to increase protective measures and thus increased spendings. At the same time, their tax income is dwindling because young workers are migrating to the cities and urban centres, where they often have higher earning potential. And if they raise their families there, the villages of their origin are threatened with extinction. A vicious circle that cannot be broken without outside help.
  The founders and donors of the Swiss Sponsorship for Mountain Communities1 want these communities to be able to continue to exist as independently as possible in their difficult situation. Their school buildings, access roads, waterworks, mountain stables, municipal vehicles, i.e. the entire infrastructure and, finally, the alpine pastures and protective forests enable this population to continue living in their ancestral home. “This solidarity between mountain and valley supports the mountain population and strengthens cohesion in Switzerland,” says an information brochure2 of the relief organisation.
  It was founded in the 1930s when the medical couple Olga and Paul Cattani wanted to extend their support for a small Ticino village in Val Colla near Lugano to similarly needy communities in Switzerland. The non-profit organisation Swiss Sponsorship for Mountain Communities has been in existence since 1940. Its annual general meeting provides an opportunity to gain an insight into this lesser-known part of Switzerland.
  On 3 May 2024, around 400 members, sponsors and guests, attended this meeting in Zurich. All four national languages could be heard. Representatives from various cantonal governments and municipal councils were there to thank and greet the assembly.
  A yodelling choir from the canton of Valais enriched the event with its songs. And at the end, culinary specialities from Valais were served.
  The report by the mayor of the municipality of Bitsch in Upper Valais, whose mountain forest next to the neighbouring municipality of Riederalp was ravaged by a devastating fire in midsummer 2023, was most impressive.
  For around three weeks, the fire raged in the forest above these villages. The crisis team and the fire services worked in shifts around the clock. The coordination and cooperation of all those involved demonstrated a high level of professionalism – and solidarity. People stood together in times of need. In the end, 130 hectares of forest were destroyed, but not a single helper or resident was injured, and no property was burnt down.
  Dozens of fire brigades from all over the canton came to help fight the fire, as well as the police, the army and up to seven helicopters.
  Mayor Edgar Kuonen gave a moving account of how he was “caught unprepared by an avalanche” and how his family and the whole village supported him. He and his helpers had to make all the important decisions from a standing start, create space for the work teams, order evacuations and look after over 200 evacuated residents. Fortunately, due to the summer holidays, the entire school building was available. The teachers’ preparation room was used for the daily press reports.
  His entire report would be worth analysing, not only for the training of crisis teams. For young people who are looking for healthy role models, it could also serve as a documented example of courage, solidarity, and true solidarity in our schools.
  The contribution of the Swiss Sponsorship for Mountain Communities consisted of the fact that the manager, Barbla Graf, called the mayor just two days after the fire became public, offering support.
  The costs are now being borne jointly, partly by the municipalities, which did not send invoices for the service of their fire brigades, and partly by a large donation from the Swiss Sponsorship for Mountain Communities, which had immediately started raising funds.
  The spontaneous willingness to help was an incalculable non-material support for those affected. It gave and continues to give people everywhere the strength to persevere in the face of adversity. This “Cohésion nationale”, as a representative from the canton of Jura put it, is strengthened by the solidarity among the people in the different parts of the country. And this solidarity has always formed the core of humanitarian Switzerland – also in its international activities.
  Therein lies the profound truth in the lyrics of the Swiss chansonnier Mani Matter:
  “Dene wos guet geit, giengs besser, giengs dene besser, wos weniger guet geit …” (Those who are well off would be better off if those who are less well off were better off).  •

2 Bergwelten Hautnah, Band 18, 2024

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