Maya Graf in her favourite location. The mixed beech forest belongs to her family business. | Photo: Kostas Maros

Foun­da­ti­ons high­light alternatives

Acting now for the sake of the next generation

Through her invol­vement with envi­ron­men­tal foun­da­ti­ons, the Green member of the Coun­cil of States from the canton of Basel-Land­schaft has an infor­med view of the latest deve­lo­p­ments. She is a member of the foun­da­tion board of Pro Specie Rara, the Greina Foun­da­tion and Biovi­sion. 

The Philanthropist: What oppor­tu­ni­ties are available to foun­da­ti­ons and what role do they play in the envi­ron­men­tal sector?

Maya Graf: Foun­da­ti­ons play a major role in Swiss society. They adopt important issues and support chari­ta­ble initia­ti­ves and projects, parti­cu­larly in the envi­ron­men­tal sector. They are part of Swiss culture and the sheer number of foun­da­ti­ons demons­tra­tes how many people are priva­tely invol­ved in support­ing their own chosen causes. 

Where does that come from?

MG: Firstly, a lot of people in Switz­er­land have a lot of money and want to put it towards a good cause. Secondly, we have a citi­zen legis­la­ture and strong parti­ci­pa­tion in orga­nised social acti­vi­ties. When you compare our set-up with other count­ries, it’s quite unique. 

And where does poli­tics come into play?

MG: For me, poli­tics is ever­y­thing that moulds, orga­ni­ses and advan­ces society: it sets the frame­work for successful coexis­tence. Today and tomor­row. In a narrower sense, the demo­cra­ti­cally elec­ted poli­ti­ci­ans are respon­si­ble for rules and the way they are enforced: always on behalf of the popu­la­tion. By exten­sion, foun­da­ti­ons share this obli­ga­tion to society and aim to act in its inte­rests. Foun­da­ti­ons and clubs play an important role in Switz­er­land. I don’t think there’s another coun­try with as many clubs as ours. We acquire our prac­ti­cal, demo­cra­tic under­stan­ding through every club we attend. Every young person learns how to vote and how the demo­cra­tic process works at the gene­ral meeting of their gymnastics club. With foun­da­ti­ons, it’s different.

How so?

MG: To a certain degree, they are self-regu­la­ting, with some legal regu­la­tion through the super­vi­sory autho­rity to ensure they are comply­ing with their stated purpose. The foun­da­tion board elects new board members itself. There is no gene­ral meeting to propose moti­ons, make nomi­na­ti­ons or exer­cise finan­cial control.

You disap­prove?

MG: Foun­da­ti­ons find them­sel­ves in a special posi­tion because their only obli­ga­tion is to their chari­ta­ble cause. But their remit is also special. Their phil­an­thro­pic acti­vi­ties are desi­gned to serve the inte­rests of society. But all the decis­i­ons are made by one person or one group of people. We have to ask oursel­ves how we can make foun­da­ti­ons a little more demo­cra­tic. How can they increase trans­pa­rency? Many of them are not very clear about their port­fo­lio. And they don’t have to publish their annual reports, for exam­ple. Ques­ti­ons are going to be asked in future. There’s a lot of money tied up in foundations.

One hundred billion francs and rising.

MG: Exactly. That’s why they play an important role – and always have done. Depen­ding on their mission, they may also support poli­ti­cal inte­rests. Or at Pro Specie Rara, for exam­ple, we are commit­ted to preser­ving tradi­tio­nal crops and breeds of farm animals in order to save that gene­tic and histo­ri­cal diver­sity for future gene­ra­ti­ons. Our food system needs freely acces­si­ble, diverse seed stock. This task is enorm­ously important for our society and for the future. It’s not some­thing we want the state to take charge of.

Coun­cil of States member Ruedi Noser’s motion ques­ti­ons the invol­vement of tax-exempt orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in poli­tics. Where do you stand on that?

MG: We need to show how important chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are when it comes to moving Switz­er­land and its sustainable deve­lo­p­ment forwards. We have a rich and powerful busi­ness sector. It can access substan­tial funds in a refe­ren­dum campaign. There needs to be a balance. These chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­ti­ons want to serve the inte­rests of society and its future and are also making money available. Where’s the problem? It’s asto­nis­hing and not very demo­cra­tic to try to prevent this now. 

What do you expect to happen?

MG: We mustn’t behave defen­si­vely. The popu­la­tion is behind the foun­da­ti­ons and orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. Many people would rather engage with a cause directly through foun­da­ti­ons and NGOs than through poli­tics. Opera­tio­nal chari­ties often have sections that are active on the ground even in the most remote Swiss valleys and are able to get people on board. When it came to the Respon­si­ble Busi­ness Initia­tive, the regio­nal groups were very active for years and fought to the last. The narrow defeat in that refe­ren­dum was a bitter blow for all those volun­teers on the ground. Nevert­hel­ess, it’s good to see that our demo­cracy is alive. 

ʽThere needs to be sustainable rein­force­ment at local level’
Maya Graf, member of the Coun­cil of States from the canton of Basel-Landschaft

Photo: Kostas Maros

Now there are refe­ren­dums coming up on two initia­ti­ves deman­ding that we aban­don the use of synthe­tic pesti­ci­des. Biovi­sion has taken a clear stance.

MG: These two initia­ti­ves show the gene­ral public putting pres­sure on our poli­ti­ci­ans to finally do some­thing to tackle the pesti­cide problem and the impact it is having on humans, animals and the envi­ron­ment. It is equally important for our future, our climate and our natu­ral resour­ces to say yes to the CO2 Act on 13 June 2021. We need to intro­duce clear measu­res to imple­ment the Paris Climate Agree­ment as quickly as possi­ble. The climate crisis won’t wait – it is alre­ady here and presen­ting us, and above all future gene­ra­ti­ons, with huge chal­lenges. Here too, the key is for us to act toge­ther at all levels. 

How did your invol­vement with Biovi­sion come about?

MG: Twenty years ago, when I first arri­ved in parlia­ment, I also became presi­dent of the Swiss GMO-Free Alli­ance (SAG). Back then, the ques­tion of how to control gene­ti­cally modi­fied crops to ensure there were no risks for our agri­cul­tu­ral and food sectors was the predo­mi­nant issue. Gene tech­no­logy legis­la­tion was draf­ted and we deman­ded a mora­to­rium on commer­cial releases. The SAG succee­ded in buil­ding a successful alli­ance and obtai­ning the mora­to­rium on gene tech­no­logy – in part­ner­ship with all of the farmers’, consu­mers’ and deve­lo­p­ment orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, envi­ron­men­tal asso­cia­ti­ons and the anti-GMO initia­tive. The mora­to­rium remains in place to this day. At a Euro­pean GMO-free confe­rence in 2008, I met Hans Rudolf Herren, the well-known ento­mo­lo­gist, alter­na­tive Nobel Prize winner and foun­der of Biovi­sion. He explai­ned how he had just co-autho­red and comple­ted the compre­hen­sive World Agri­cul­ture Report (IAASTD) for the UN and the World Bank and was clearly deligh­ted that the first count­ries had alre­ady signed up to the project. Four hundred scien­tists, prima­rily from southern-hemi­sphere count­ries, under­took a survey of world agri­cul­ture and suggested measu­res for agro-ecolo­gi­cal change.

What were the results?

MG: The report came to the conclu­sion that indus­trial farming only leads to a dead end. It is anything but fair to the 500 million or more small-scale farmers that exist around the world. Yet they are the ones who are produ­cing 70 percent of all foods. In the north, indus­trial farming produ­ces surplu­ses and destroys the land and the envi­ron­ment. The report calls for an ecolo­gi­cal deve­lo­p­ment in farming and large-scale local inno­va­tion. What is needed is more trai­ning, more tech­no­logy for farming fami­lies, empower­ment of female farmers, freely available, envi­ron­men­tally compa­ti­ble seed stocks, mixed culti­va­tion and the inte­gra­tion of tradi­tio­nal know­ledge. There needs to be sustainable rein­force­ment at local level. Through Biovi­sion, which he foun­ded 30 years ago, Hans Rudolf Herren has alre­ady successfully adopted this agro-ecolo­gi­cal approach. I wanted to intro­duce exactly the same approach to our own food and agri­cul­ture poli­cies here in Switz­er­land. Through parlia­men­tary propo­sals, I mana­ged to ensure that Switz­er­land has incor­po­ra­ted these approa­ches into its agri­cul­tu­ral poli­cies. And now I’m conti­nuing to work on these goals as a board member of Biovision.

How can foun­da­ti­ons get invol­ved in poli­tics and society?

MG: The Greina Foun­da­tion provi­des a good exam­ple of what a foun­da­tion can achieve. It was set up in 1986 and has been very successful poli­ti­cally. It is dedi­ca­ted to the protec­tion of the Greina high plateau and the conser­va­tion of natu­ral land­scapes and Alpine rivers. The latter are inex­tri­ca­bly linked with energy policy and with the ques­tion of how much we want to invest in which rene­wa­ble ener­gies so as not to harm the envi­ron­ment. For exam­ple, it is vital that any expan­sion of hydro­elec­tric power does not come at the expense of the last remai­ning natu­ral water­cour­ses or land­scapes. We must not destroy these treasu­res. That’s why we need to high­light alter­na­ti­ves. This is exactly what the Greina Foun­da­tion does in promo­ting solar energy and energy-plus buil­dings. Its goals have made it an important foun­da­tion. It has helped to drive the energy revolution. 

How has it mana­ged that?

MG: Above all, through persis­tent lobby­ing, grass­roots networ­king and a lot of perso­nal commit­ment. Its CEO, Gallus Cadonau, has been a well-known figure in the Fede­ral Parlia­ment for many years. I had barely arri­ved as a new member of the Natio­nal Coun­cil when he asked me to join the foun­da­tion board. Gallus Cadonau has incre­di­ble exper­tise in this area and knows all the ins and outs of the complex energy laby­rinth. He illus­tra­tes what foun­da­ti­ons can do to make a credi­ble and sustainable impact on politics. 

Are envi­ron­men­tal foun­da­ti­ons curr­ently in vogue? Are they attrac­ting more dona­ti­ons? After all, the issue of climate change is everywhere.

MG: For Biovi­sion, I can answer that with an unequi­vo­cal yes. Hans Rudolf Herren set up Biovi­sion as a chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­tion. Back then, the focus was on agro-ecolo­gi­cal projects in East Africa. The charity became a foun­da­tion in 2004. In recent years, the foun­da­tion has added another string to its bow by exten­ding its focus to sustainable deve­lo­p­ment in Switz­er­land. It has taken the lead in the ‘Plat­form Agenda 2030’, helping to imple­ment the UN’s Sustainable Deve­lo­p­ment Goals (SDG). The foun­da­tion also supports a Food Parlia­ment initia­ted by young people to debate new ideas for sustainable food systems. Biovi­sion has also orga­nised the touring exhi­bi­tion ‘CLEVER – spie­lend intel­li­gent einkau­fen’, a walk-though exhi­bi­tion which high­lights the conse­quen­ces of our own consu­mer beha­viour, raising public aware­ness. The project appea­led to young visi­tors in parti­cu­lar. They are concer­ned by the incre­asingly visi­ble conse­quen­ces of climate change – our produc­tion methods and food consump­tion have a huge impact.

Are the roots of this move­ment prima­rily to be found in our cities, along with urban gardening, perma­cul­ture or urban villages?

MG: Today’s city includes vast subur­ban areas. When I think of Pro Specie Rara in parti­cu­lar, their seed­lings were snap­ped up in no time last year – partly, no doubt, because of COVID-19. Seed­ling and seed markets are expe­ri­en­cing unpre­ce­den­ted uptake. People want to garden and grow their own vege­ta­bles, whether in the city or in the coun­try­side. I’ve been parti­cu­larly plea­sed to see the growing demand for old native varie­ties because that will encou­rage biodi­ver­sity. People today are defi­ni­tely more aware. It’s noti­ceable that many young people and young fami­lies are show­ing an inte­rest. And the orga­nic move­ment has grown, too: we’re seeing more and more young farmers with a sustainable, inno­va­tive approach. The next gene­ra­tion is ready.

Photo: Kostas Maros

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

StiftungSchweiz is committed to enabling a modern philanthropy that unites and excites people and has maximum impact with minimal time and effort.

Follow StiftungSchweiz on