“Crops from mountain regions are crucial to our food systems”

UNESCO World Heritage Sites are international tourist magnets. Far less known are the 811 UNESCO Chairs currently held by various universities worldwide. Together with the University of Bern’s Institute of Geography and its partner in Kenya, CDE leads the UNESCO Chair on Natural and Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Mountain Development. Theresa Tribaldos, CDE researcher and member of the UNESCO Chair team, discusses the significance of International Mountain Day, working together with the UNESCO World Heritage Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, and why lessons from the Netherlands could be valuable for mountain regions.

“Learning from each other can generate important momentum towards sustainable development”: Theresa Tribaldos. Photo: Susanne Wymann

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Theresa Tribaldos, among other activities, you conduct research within the UNESCO Chair “Natural and Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Mountain Development”. What is your personal connection to mountains?

I’m a passionate mountaineer – I like to hike, climb, and ski. The icy landscapes of our glaciers, as well as the forces of nature, show us just how small we are, ultimately. I think this does us some good. But, of course, I also enjoy looking out from a mountaintop and leaving everyday life behind on a challenging mountain tour.

The theme of this year’s International Mountain Day is “mountain biodiversity”. What does this mean for the Chair?

This year’s theme is central for us. After all, one of our main focuses is on food systems; they are significantly influenced by biodiversity and are an important part of any culture. Given the highly diverse topography and climate zones in mountains, people there have cultivated an especially wide range of crop species and varieties. This is evident in a number of crops that contribute substantially to our diet, such as potatoes, quinoa, maize, and tomatoes: they were originally heavily cultivated and adapted in mountain regions like the Central Andes and the Mexican Highlands. In addition, it’s really important in general to remind ourselves of what we can gain from caring for the diversity in mountain areas. International Mountain Day makes an important contribution here.


“The explicit linking of North and South is a specialty of our Chair”


According to UNESCO, their Chairs often serve as think tanks and bridgebuilders between science, civil society, local communities, and policymakers. Where does the emphasis of the “Bernese” Chair lie within this programme?

In addition to content-level contributions, the explicit linking of North and South is a specialty of our Chair. Each UNESCO Chair is typically tied to one person, but in our case, we hold a co-Chair together with our partners in Kenya. So, for us the emphasis is on cooperative learning in exchange with partners in different world regions, as well as building and cultivating a corresponding international network.

Besides the UNESCO Chair, there are a number of other international networks dedicated to sustainable development in mountain regions. For example, the “Mountain Research Initiative”, whose coordination office is also located at CDE. Why is the UNESCO Chair also needed?

We differ in orientation: The Mountain Research Initiative, or MRI, is a global network for mountain research in general, with a strong history in the natural sciences. By contrast, our Chair specifically highlights the combination of culture and nature. Our approach is strongly based on the idea that you can’t separate one from the other – particularly when it comes to sustainable development. Culture grows out of social communities that are shaped by and embedded in their natural environment.


“The fact that we and the MRI work under the same roof provides a great opportunity”


The fact that our Chair and the MRI work under the same roof provides a great opportunity for collaboration. Our plan, in cooperation with the MRI and other CDE researchers dealing with mountain issues, is to strengthen the mountain focus at CDE and increasingly bring together our different competencies.

The “Bernese” UNESCO Chair isn’t anchored solely at the university. It is officially co-hosted by the World Nature Forum in Naters, in other words, at the UNESCO World Heritage Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch. How strongly does this relationship impact your activities?

Content-wise we are independent, but our cooperation is close and fruitful. We try to take advantage of synergies, for example by means of joint workshops. These usually take place at the management centre of the World Heritage in Naters. In the near future, we will also present our research results to the public there. In addition, there’s the fact that the World Nature Forum is highly networked in the Bern–Valais region. They provide a very important link to various local actors who we want to work with even more in our projects and activities going forward.


“Impact isn’t determined by size – it can start small”


Your research programme is very broad – both in terms of content and geographically. It ranges from the question of what Swiss Alpine Club and other mountain huts can contribute to sustainable development in mountain regions all the way to the creation of an energy-independent nature reserve in Chile. Isn’t that a bit broad to make an impact?

The question is how one defines impact. If we’re able to nudge things towards sustainability in one small area, that, too, makes me happy. For example, the project in Chile was completed two years ago, but the local actors there are actively continuing the work on their own – whether in projects providing education and neighbourhood assistance or supporting and maintaining the Coyhaique nature reserve. Even if this was just a small project: we can use it as a positive example and build on the experience in other regions – adapted to local conditions, of course. Impact isn’t determined by size – it can also start small.


“One of our key focuses is the meaning of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for mountain areas”


UNESCO recently renewed the Chair for another four-year period. What is planned for the coming years?

One key focus is the question: What do the UN Sustainable Development Goals mean for mountain areas? Here we want to develop a method for defining, together with local actors, what sustainable development means in their environment, and how corresponding indicators can be created. In a pilot project at the Jungfrau-Aletsch World Heritage Site, we plan to work together with mountain hut keepers to determine what the huts can contribute to sustainable regional development in mountain regions and whether regional products make them more attractive for tourists. (Find out more in the video further below.)


“We can learn a lot from old, traditional irrigation systems”


Your to-do list for the coming years also includes a project on the last remaining traditional irrigation systems. Those in Austria, Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland are jointly applying for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage designation. What is the role of the UNESCO Chair in this?

We will be doing the accompanying research. We’re especially interested in what we can learn from these sometimes centuries-old and very sustainable irrigation systems in regards to climate change and shared use of water. So, one question is: What can we learn from the governance of these systems in order to better adapt to climate change and increasing drought? Besides, in the case of the Wässermatten systems in the Oberaargau region, we know that they weren’t just used for irrigation, but mainly also supplied nutrients to the pastures. Questions of how to manage soils, how to conserve and enhance them, are also very important – not least because they store carbon.

In addition, traditional irrigation systems are often linked with special forms of common-pool resource management. Here we’re interested in how such systems are maintained and how use rights are designed. At the same time, it’s fascinating to see how others – like the Dutch or Belgians – handle these challenges. This can give us important ideas for future sustainable development.

UNESCO Chair on Natural and Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Mountain Development

The UNESCO Chair on Natural and Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Mountain Development was launched in 2016. It is co-led by CDE and the Institute of Geography, both at the University of Bern, together with their Kenyan partner organization CETRAD, and it is co-hosted by the World Nature Forum and the management centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch in Naters. The focus in Kenya is on the Mount Kenya National Park/Natural Forest UNESCO World Heritage Site.