Running out of mountain

The diverse foundation sector is committed to our environment

Whether part of an inter­na­tio­nal move­ment or focu­sing on long-stan­ding projects in Switz­er­land, foun­da­ti­ons drive sustaina­bi­lity and help promote envi­ron­men­tal awareness.

The ambi­tious goal is to plant one tril­lion trees world­wide. ‘If we succeed, it will help secure work for around 350 million people around the world – parti­cu­larly in deve­lo­ping count­ries,’ explains Mari­anne Jung, who, toge­ther with Pirmin Jung, set up the Plant-for-the-Planet Switz­er­land foun­da­tion in 2016. ‘The trees will help restore the soil’s ferti­lity, biodi­ver­sity will return and there will be a posi­tive impact on the local climate. They store large quan­ti­ties of CO2 and offer us a life­line of up to 15 years to achieve the 2‑degree goal,’ explains her foun­da­tion part­ner. The idea behind the foun­da­tion was origi­na­ted by German envi­ron­men­ta­list Felix Fink­bei­ner. As a 9‑year-old in 2007, he called on child­ren to plant a million trees. 

Accor­ding to the inter­na­tio­nal Plant-for-the-Planet move­ment, this goal was achie­ved in 2010. The follow-up Tril­lion Tree Campaign was laun­ched in 2011. In 2019, a study by the Crow­ther Lab at ETH Zurich also came to the conclu­sion that refo­re­sta­tion can be a powerful tool when it comes to saving the climate, but poin­ted out that time is pres­sing, as new forests will take deca­des to mature and achieve their full poten­tial as a source of natu­ral carbon storage.

Protec­tion forests are vital

Trees shape our land­scapes, cities, meadows and moun­ta­ins. They became the focus of envi­ron­men­tal debate in the 1980s in the wake of defo­re­sta­tion and forest dieback. ‘That was the trig­ger,’ states PR mana­ger Dunja L. Meyer, describ­ing the orig­ins of the Berg­wald­pro­jekt 1987 foun­da­tion. ‘Defo­re­sta­tion and forest dieback became a growing concern.’ A small group emer­ged. They were keen to take action rather than simply discus­sing the issues and went to work in the forest. The Berg­wald­pro­jekt (Moun­tain Forest Project) was born. Through its work, the foun­da­tion aims to show people the bene­fits of conser­va­tion. ‘It is proba­bly true to say that there is no such thing as totally selfless conser­va­tion,’ claims Dunja L. Meyer. The moun­tain forest has a whole range of func­tions that bene­fit people: it serves as a protec­tion forest for the moun­tain region and its flood control effects extend as far as the lowlands. It absorbs CO2 and provi­des wood as a cons­truc­tion mate­rial. And it is home to a diver­sity of plants and animals. 

Global warm­ing is driving certain animal species ever higher up the moun­ta­ins. But once they reach the peak, there’s nowhere left to go.

She adds, ‘Biodi­ver­sity is another way that nature bene­fits humans.’ People’s inte­rest in this area is growing. The Moun­tain Forest Project has noti­ced this too, as it depends on volun­teers. More and more people are curr­ently signing up because they want to do some­thing for the envi­ron­ment, Dunja L. Meyer confirms. Coro­na­vi­rus seems to have rein­forced this trend. A lot of people are stay­ing in Switz­er­land. And the project provi­des these volun­teers with a week of disco­very and lear­ning in the moun­tain forest envi­ron­ment. For schools in parti­cu­lar, such project weeks often offer key expe­ri­en­ces that cannot be repli­ca­ted in the class­room. ‘Stand on the slopes of a steep moun­tain forest, looking down at the village below, protec­ted by the trees, and you under­stand straight away that life in Switz­er­land would be impos­si­ble without protec­tion forests,’ she states. Howe­ver, the foun­da­tion does not survive on volun­t­ary work alone. To faci­li­tate these acti­vi­ties, the foun­da­tion relies on dona­ti­ons. A project week is, after all, asso­cia­ted with high costs: profes­sio­nal super­vi­sion, board and lodging, trans­port and equip­ment. They are ther­e­fore as depen­dent on large and small donors as they are on volun­t­ary workers.

There is no such thing as ‘too many’ or ‘too few’

The moun­tain envi­ron­ment is also home to the Swiss Natio­nal Park. Here, the focus is on the conser­va­tion area as a whole. ‘We not only protect animals, plants and habi­tats but all of the natu­ral proces­ses, too – the ecosys­tem as a whole,’ points out Hans Lozza, head of commu­ni­ca­ti­ons at the Natio­nal Park. Follo­wing an avalan­che, certain species may disap­pear while others will find a new habi­tat. ‘We don’t make value judge­ments. There is no such thing as ‘too many’ or ‘too few’ of a species. The number of each simply reflects the current balance of power.’ This is the approach the park has taken ever since its foun­ding in 1914. ‘It was a time of econo­mic deve­lo­p­ment and a boom in tourism. Many resour­ces such as forests or wild animals were over­ex­ploi­ted and large parts of the moun­ta­ins were used as pasture,’ the head of commu­ni­ca­ti­ons states of the park’s early years. 

Inten­sive mining, defo­re­sta­tion, lime burning and grazing trans­for­med the area around Zernez. In Basel, a group of urban, middle-class indi­vi­du­als – predo­mi­nantly natu­ral scien­tists – reco­g­nised the need to act. They wanted to set aside a piece of nature ‘for all time’, preven­ting any human use and allo­wing it to deve­lop natu­rally. Some of the issues have chan­ged since those days. ‘But the pres­sure on natu­ral resour­ces is still high,’ states Hans Lozza. ‘New thre­ats have arisen. For exam­ple, exces­sive tourist use of the Alpine region. There is very little refuge for the animals – in summer or winter.’ The change in the land­scape and the conse­quen­ces for wild­life are also being moni­to­red by the Swiss Orni­tho­lo­gi­cal Insti­tute in Sempach. In Switz­er­land, people auto­ma­ti­cally asso­ciate Sempach with birds, but not because this is an excep­tio­nal region for ornithologists. 

‘It’s to do with the organisation’s history,’ explains Livio Rey. The foun­der, Alfred Schif­ferle, lived in Sempach. The Swiss Orni­tho­lo­gi­cal Insti­tute was set up in 1924 to rese­arch bird migra­tion in the Alpine region. Thirty years later, it was turned into a foun­da­tion. Its work remains highly rele­vant. Biolo­gist and media spokesper­son Livio Rey explains, ‘Species that used to be common have prac­ti­cally disap­peared as a result of more inten­sive farming.’

A major crisis

On the other hand, Livio Rey points out that ‘new’ species have appeared in resi­den­tial areas. Many garden species we see today are forest dwel­lers that have ‘immi­gra­ted’. He names the black­bird, the chaf­finch and the great tit as examp­les here. The vege­ta­tion found in an area such as a park is suffi­ci­ent for species such as these. Howe­ver, he is keen not to see this deve­lo­p­ment in too posi­tive a light. ‘Resi­den­tial areas may have expan­ded, but the number of birds has not increased at the same rate,’ he points out. Over-mani­cu­red gardens that are mowed too frequently or consist mainly of gravel are of no value at all to wild­life. And the owners often plant species that are not native to the region. Livio Rey sums up, ‘Resi­den­tial areas are expan­ding, but garden birds are not benefiting.’

The expan­sion of resi­den­tial sett­le­ments has inevi­ta­bly made them a focus of discus­sions on sustaina­bi­lity and the envi­ron­ment. The Sophie and Karl Binding foun­da­tion rede­fi­ned its envi­ron­men­tal funding acti­vi­ties to focus on biodi­ver­sity in resi­den­tial areas. ‘In 2018, the foun­da­tion board deci­ded to launch a major new project focu­sing on biodi­ver­sity,’ explains Jan Schu­del, regio­nal head of envi­ron­ment and social issues. And he reco­g­ni­ses an urgency here: one third of the plant and animal species in Switz­er­land are under threat. Dry meadows and pastu­res have been parti­cu­larly affec­ted. Accor­ding to the Fede­ral Office for the Envi­ron­ment, they have decreased in area by up to 95 per cent since 1900. ‘A cree­ping loss,’ comm­ents Jan Schudel.

‘It rarely makes head­lines, despite the fact that this is a major crisis.’ By focu­sing on biodi­ver­sity in resi­den­tial areas, the foun­da­tion aims to tackle the issue and raise aware­ness. ‘It’s about the diver­sity of nature on our door­s­teps, and also of the poli­cy­ma­kers,’ states Jan Schu­del. ‘Those are the people we want to reach. Our goal is to call atten­tion to the biodi­ver­sity that exists in built-up areas.’

Two giga­bytes of data

The Binding foun­da­tion has crea­ted an award with the aim of incre­asing aware­ness of the issue. The first ever Binding Prize for Biodi­ver­sity, worth CHF 100,000 to the winner, will be awarded by the foun­da­tion in 2021 (after this publi­ca­tion went to press). Inte­res­ted conten­ders had until 31 Janu­ary to submit their projects. Even the call for entries had a huge impact. ‘We were sent a total of two giga­bytes of data,’ states Jan Schu­del. ‘You can see huge commit­ment in these projects. School clas­ses took part, whole admi­nis­tra­tion depart­ments worked toge­ther. We recei­ved some powerful videos – it’s wonderful when you get to expe­ri­ence some­thing like that.’ Plant-for-the-Planet also wants to get people invol­ved. ‘One tril­lion trees is equi­va­lent to 150 trees per person on the planet,’ calcu­la­tes Mari­anne Jung. ‘Yes, that seems a lot at first. It’s a Hercu­lean task.’ Howe­ver, if busi­nesses decide to join in and, for exam­ple, plant their own forest so they can go carbon neutral, that is a lot of trees. Plant-for-the-Planet is not looking to plant all of these trees them­sel­ves. Pirmin Jung explains, ‘Along­side our own plan­ting acti­vi­ties, we want to coor­di­nate all of the other tree plan­ting projects in various count­ries and regi­ons and provide inte­res­ted private and insti­tu­tio­nal donors with easy access to these projects via the Plant-for-the-Planet app.’ The two foun­ders’ commit­ment to plan­ting trees is linked to their profes­sio­nal back­ground. As civil engi­neers, they rely on wood as a raw mate­rial. ‘There is a hidden bonus there. Each tree is plan­ted and at some point it beco­mes old. If we didn’t harvest it, it would fall and rot of its own accord over the course of time – and the CO2 stored in the wood would be released into the atmo­sphere again,’ he explains. ‘It’s clear to us that, on the one hand, we need to conserve the rain­fo­rests and jungles. Without compro­mise. But the rest of the forests should be actively and, above all, sustain­ably mana­ged to absorb as much CO2 as possi­ble and, in the long term, lock it in products and buil­dings.’ They believe in mixed forests, tail­o­red to the local situa­tion. Indi­vi­dual trunks should be harve­s­ted from these from time to time and young trees plan­ted in their place.

Birds are popu­lar with the public

For Livio Rey too, the foundation’s work was a voca­tio­nal calling. ‘I always wanted my work to centre on nature, raising aware­ness and impro­ving under­stan­ding.’ As an exam­ple, he explains that he feels it is important to show people that crows, for instance, are highly intel­li­gent and social crea­tures. He is keen to share his appre­cia­tion of these animals. It helps that birds are popu­lar with the public. People feel a connec­tion with them. During the first lock­down, the Orni­tho­lo­gi­cal Insti­tute recei­ved an extra­or­di­nary number of enqui­ries. ‘People noti­ced the birds more. They wanted to iden­tify the birds they had seen and asked us how to put up nest boxes or make their gardens wild­life-friendly.’ He appre­cia­tes there is an emotio­nal connec­tion there. But when it comes to envi­ron­men­tal matters, it is hard facts that count. And these are less posi­tive. ‘Rare species are beco­ming even rarer,’ Livio Rey points out. Deve­lo­p­ments in the wetlands and agri­cul­tu­ral areas in parti­cu­lar are exacer­ba­ting the situa­tion. Many endan­ge­red species live in these habi­tats. And, of course, climate change is a major concern. ‘Habi­tats could become very confi­ned for birds that live in the moun­ta­ins. But Switz­er­land has a huge respon­si­bi­lity towards moun­tain birds,’ states Livio Rey. If the tempe­ra­ture rises, birds that live in cooler tempe­ra­tures will be forced to move to higher ground. ‘But at some point, they’re going to run out of moun­tain,’ he states. There are some success stories to report, howe­ver. Where major efforts have been made, impro­ve­ments have been obser­ved. Livio Rey cites the exam­ple of the lapwing. ‘It was in danger of extinc­tion, but today things are looking better, thanks to conser­va­tion efforts.’ Many species, howe­ver, are not so easy to encou­rage, but the fact that people are reco­g­nis­ing the importance of sustaina­bi­lity, nature and the envi­ron­ment helps. ‘Birds are not uncon­nec­ted to the climate issue. They are just as affec­ted by climate change as humans are,’ he explains.

Today, forest dieback is called climate change

Climate change is also impac­ting on the moun­tain forest. ‘Today, forest dieback is called climate change,’ states Dunja L. Meyer. It is caus­ing the moun­tain forest serious problems. When it comes to tole­ra­ting dry spells and heat, not all trees are equal. The major chall­enge is to make the moun­tain forest, and the protec­tion forests in parti­cu­lar, fit for a future that is unpre­dic­ta­ble. Rese­ar­chers are looking for trees that can tole­rate aridity and heat well. Accor­ding to the latest findings, ‘The spruce, which was commonly used for refo­re­sta­tion purpo­ses in the past, is unfort­u­na­tely not very resistant to aridity, as it has shal­low roots.’ It helps that more and more people are respon­ding to the issue. An ever incre­asing number of orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are focu­sing on the envi­ron­ment. This is posi­tive. Work is also steadily incre­asing, she points out, and, rather than view­ing other orga­ni­sa­ti­ons as rivals, she sees them as fellow campai­gners for a common cause. Mari­anne Jung has a simi­lar point of view. ‘All acti­vi­ties that help prevent the planet from heating up by more than two degrees are posi­tive. We don’t see anyone as rivals – we’re all in it toge­ther. The acti­vi­ties of the climate move­ment are raising aware­ness and that is helping us directly.’ Through their work, Plant-for-the-Planet also aims to reach young child­ren and teen­agers on the subject of climate change. Up until now, the inter­na­tio­nal move­ment has trai­ned 90,000 teen­agers and child­ren in 75 count­ries as ambassa­dors for climate justice. They learn what climate crisis and climate justice are, how plan­ting trees can improve biodi­ver­sity, soil ferti­lity and the local climate, and what proac­tive steps they can take themselves.

Not just the rainforest

In order to be as effec­tive as possi­ble in their new, envi­ron­men­tal role, the Sophie and Karl Binding foun­da­tion consul­ted with expert prac­ti­tio­ners in the field, with orga­ni­sa­ti­ons such as the Swiss Biodi­ver­sity Forum and Pro Natura. This enab­led the foun­da­tion to deve­lop a funding area focu­sing on biodi­ver­sity and the impro­ve­ment of high-quality land­scapes. In imple­men­ting projects, conside­ra­tion of the other two funding areas (social and cultu­ral issues) also plays a role. ‘We make every effort to ensure that there are no inter­nal incon­sis­ten­cies,’ states Jan Schu­del, citing as an exam­ple the occa­sion when concern for the climate meant that a dry stone wall repair had to be carried out without deploy­ing a heli­c­op­ter. They work with other foun­da­ti­ons and orga­ni­sa­ti­ons on many of their projects. It can be diffi­cult to be a game chan­ger on your own. Resour­ces need to be used sensi­bly. And need to make an impact. Inclu­ding with the gene­ral public. This is where it is hoped the new prize will play a key role. The Forest Prize, which the foun­da­tion awarded for 30 years until 2016, succee­ded here. The aim now is to do the same for biodi­ver­sity, because atten­tion is urgen­tly needed. ‘For some species on the red list that are at risk of extinc­tion, the trends are drama­tic,’ states Jan Schu­del, adding, ‘but we have seen a signi­fi­cant down­turn in more common species too.’ Swiss society is not fully aware of the local problems that exist. Commu­ni­ca­tion is ther­e­fore vital. There is a gulf between scien­ti­fic findings and public percep­tion. ‘It’s not just the rain­fo­rest that is under threat,’ he explains. ‘We have species here, too, that are close to extinc­tion or endangered.’

An excep­tio­nally long-term project

In outlining its main respon­si­bi­li­ties, the Natio­nal Park reco­g­ni­ses the importance of commu­ni­ca­tion. Publi­city is one of these respon­si­bi­li­ties, along­side conser­va­tion and rese­arch. The head of commu­ni­ca­ti­ons points out, ‘All three respon­si­bi­li­ties are important. Conser­va­tion provi­des the frame­work for this long-term expe­ri­ment. Rese­arch reve­als how nature deve­lops over long peri­ods of time without human inter­ven­tion. And the publi­city work enables people to access wild nature and encou­ra­ges support for this excep­tio­nally long-term project.’ Clear safe­guards are in place, and these enable tourism. People have to follow set pathways, no camping is allo­wed and access is on foot only. ‘We enforce these protec­tive measu­res, with fines if neces­sary,’ states Hans Lozza. Making visi­tors stick to the paths ensu­res that there is far less disrup­tion for plants and animals than in areas where people are free to roam at will. Parks offer an oppor­tu­nity to open people’s eyes. ‘We can turn them into fans of unspoilt nature,’ states Hans Lozza. Good publi­city is important to the park, as it is beco­ming more diffi­cult to find major donors for unspec­ta­cu­lar ‘back­ground’ work. One chall­enge curr­ently in the offing is further deve­lo­p­ment of the UNESCO Bios­fera Engi­a­dina Val Müst­air. The Swiss Natio­nal Park acts as a core zone of this biosphere reserve. Hans Lozza: ‘The aim is to create a model region, where people take a sustainable approach to natu­ral resources.’

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