Friday, July 11, 2008

Living as one with nature: Grosses Walsertal

Grosses Walsertal in Vorarlberg (Austria) is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The alpine valley with their six communities (Blons, Fontanella, Raggal-Marul, Sonntag-Buchboden, St. Gerold adn Thüringerberg) is a mosaic of open land, forests and traditional settlements, a prime example of a living cultural landscape where a system of highly adapted mountain farming, pasture and extensive forestry has been developed. Grosses Walsertal was certificated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in November 2000. Biosphere reserves are sites recognized under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme which innovate and demonstrate approaches to conservation and sustainable development.
UNESCO recognised that the key to this finely balanced relationship is dairy farming, which the valley’s inhabitants – the Walser – have practised here ever since they emigrated from Switzerland in the 13th century. “Living here as a farmer is living in a circle, working in a circle”, says Kurt Stark, who manages a traditional dairy in the pretty village of Sontagg and comes from a long line of dairy farmers. “And as long as we keep rearing our cattle and making cheese, we will always have our beautiful meadows”.
In the high pastures, scientists have identified more than 80 different species of wildflower, herbs and grasses. This diversity in turn supports the local culture. “There is marvelous depth of flavour and a richness in the milk produced by cows grazing up in the high meadows in the summer”, says Elizabeth Burtscher, who has lived in the region for more than 50 years. “And you can taste this in the special character of the butter, yoghurt cheese that we produce here in the valley. It’s like the difference between making a soup with a potato and some salt, and making it with 20 different types of herbs and vegetables”. Burtscher is one of a growing number of women in the valley who with the support of UNESCO have been reviving another traditional practice: herbalism. Burtscher runs Berg Tee, which sells wonderful herbal tea blends, and offers tours to visitors interested in collecting herbs and wildflowers for their own blends. And the Alchemilla Project is a cooperative of herbalists who make a variety of cosmetic and therapeutic products, including balms, oils and tinctures, as well as foods and drinks.“The biosphere reserve has helped us retain our natural and cultural heritage here in the valley by supporting the small dairies so the farmers can continue to graze their cattle and manage the landscape, which in turn means we still have these wonderful meadows full of our beautiful wildflowers and herbs”.
250 kilometres of sign-posted hiking paths and special educational paths allow visitors to discover Grosses Walsertal, its Alps and mountain peaks, steep gorges, many roaring streams, waterfalls and the clear waters of the Seewald lake.