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Sustainability in the Pyrénées

31 March 2013

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee declared Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park in the Pyrénées a world heritage site in 1997. Photo credit: spain.info

Maria Laguna Marin-Yaseli, PhD

Long before Spain joined the European Union (EU), a growing concern for the future of mountain regions had begun within Spanish society.

Mountain regions are rugged, hostile environments for human societies.  But in spite of the many challenges people face in these places, mountain towns in Spain have historically managed to adapt and sometimes even outpace surrounding cities.  However, in the face of a rapidly changing world, many European mountain regions have not been able to compete in the new global economy and have steadily lost population for the last decades, outpaced by the surrounding cities.

Back in the ‘50s, a slow but unstoppable migration flow began in these regions, a population drainage so called the “rural exodus.”  In 1981, Gilg coined the term “vicious circle of population decline” to explain a set of interlocked trends that characterized mountain regions: aging population, loss of competitiveness and entrepreneurship, increased male/female rates.

These are all common traits to mountain regions across Europe, but are especially pervasive in the Aragonese section of the Pyrénées.  For centuries, this part of the Iberian Peninsula had been a refuge for many different peoples and a source of raw materials and services.  In 1986, when Spain joined the European Economic Community, this territory was already experiencing a deepening socioeconomic crisis.  The European Commission, in order to reverse the trend, channeled more than 150 million euros through the European Common Agricultural Policy and the Regional Tourism and Industrial Policy.  Different economic mechanisms such as fiscal incentives and direct government investments tried, for several decades, to boost the local, depressed rural economy.

So what were the effects of the long institutional effort to help the Aragonese Pyrénées?  The answer is shocking: only municipalities in the area of influence of the ski resorts had benefited from the economic prosperity.  At this point, one wonders: What would have happened to this region in the absence of aid for its development?  But perhaps most important: Is this type of development a feature of sustainability?

The first question can be answered by comparing the “high mountains” area with other lower altitude (or mid-mountain) regions.  In this regard, it is worth noting that the situation regarding the population and the economy is better in the “high mountains” than in the lower altitude range.  But we know that this is not due to the aid itself, but to the thriving ski resorts.

The answer to the second question is, flatly, no.

Go Brundtland first coined the term sustainable development in 1988, just two years after Spain joined the EU.  This concept has been widely used and amended several times, but each new definition emphasizes in one way or another the confluence of three terms: Economy, Society, and Environment.

These three disciplines show that the current model of development is unsustainable in the Aragonese Pyrénées.  Ski resorts have undoubtedly revolutionized the economy of these small mountain villages, jumping from a subsistence economy to a market economy.  The question is, for how long?  An excessive focus on “white gold tourism” marginalized more traditional activities, now on the brink of extinction.  The old agricultural terraces have been abandoned, broken and occupied by vegetation.  The forest is no longer clean.  Livestock does not contribute to the improvement of pastures anymore.

In the face of climate change, with the 0°C isotherm – which keeps the snow in winter – already climbing uphill, will this model be sustainable in the long run?  Who will regenerate the soil and remove the towers and cables once the ski resorts are no longer in use?  Who will study the regional endemic flora and fauna, if these no longer exist?

Urbanites, of course, are all delighted.  Just three hours away for many of us, the snow-covered slopes can be reached and the stress taken away (unless, of course, there are the traffic jams and the queues to get the ticket or to access the lift that get you stuck on your way to the snow).  But did anyone speak with the people who live in these regions and ask them the price they had to pay for this embrace of mass tourism?

There is a debate going on in Aragon right now concerning the connection of the ski resorts of Astún, Candanchú and Formigal, through the Canal Roya Valley: a connection that would create the largest ski area in Spain and one of the largest in Europe.  This connection, in case it finally gets approved, would transform one of the few high mountain valleys that have not been modified yet.

For generations, students of the Colegio del Salvador, the Jesuit school in Zaragoza, have spent organized summer camps in the Canal Roya Valley, enjoying nature and human values.  The late Father Prieto SJ was in charge of organizing these summer camps, a time when schoolchildren experienced nature and learnt the meaning of sustainability.

We cannot stop what is already done.  The three ski resorts are already in place, but we can preserve the remaining valley.  We are called to exercise our responsibility and freedom as the dominant species.  It seems that the Economy and Society have spoken.  Let us now make the voice of the Environment heard.

María Laguna Marín-Yaseli, PhD, is a geography teacher at the Jesuit high school Colegio del Salvador in Zaragoza, Spain.

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