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Mountains – lowlands linkages in ecosystem services transfers

A study on “Transnational perspective of global and regional ecosystem service flows from and to mountain regions” was recently published by Eurac Research – an Italian research centre and member of Euromontana. Many studies have already explored the concept and definition of ecosystem services; however, researchers pointed out a lack of policy change, due to a misunderstanding of transfers of these ecosystem services between different areas. The study aims at exploring transfers of ecosystem services in the Alps to better understand the services provided by mountain areas’ natural resources but also to help policymakers in their sustainable management.


Mountain areas: key suppliers of ecosystems services to lowland communities

Results from the study can be summarized in the above figure, which indicates the balance between service-supplying areas and service-demanding areas. It clearly shows that Alpine mountainous areas are great providers of fresh water, outdoor activities as well as of symbolic plants and animals. For these ecosystem services, the supply is much higher than the demand in mountain areas. However, since there is an important demand from surrounding lowland areas or even at the global level, transfers to these territories need to be operated. The latter can be realised through quite different mechanisms depending on the nature of the services in question. While water, for instance, can be transported by trucks or pipelines, communities of lowlands can benefit from mountain’s outdoor activities only if they travel up there. Moreover, the supply of natural heritage from the mountain areas, such as symbolic mountain species, can reinforce and meet the demand if the information is sufficiently disseminated.

Mountain areas are thus offering important ecosystem services, not only to mountain communities but also to inhabitants of the surrounding lowlands and the whole society. For example, the Lake Constance supplied by rainwater and meltwater from the Alps provides 125 million cubic meters per year, which represents a third of the consumption of bottled water worldwide.

The study also helps in understanding the profile of beneficiaries of mountains’ ecosystem services. When it comes to tourism for instance, researchers demonstrate that visitors of the Dolomites mostly come from Italy, Austria and Germany while Northern Alps in Austria are mostly visited by Europeans coming from non-Alpine countries. This information could be of importance for tourism policymakers and stakeholders in charge of sustainability in this sector. Indeed, the collected data can for instance help in designing prevention and information boards in relevant languages.


Reshaping ecosystem services transfers for a more sustainable management of natural resources

Overall, the study of Eurac Research indicates that rural and natural areas of mountain regions are key hotspots of ecosystem services with high demand coming from urban areas of the lowlands. Considering current urbanisation trends, these provider-supplier linkages are expected to increase in the future.

Thus, transfers might need to be reshaped in order to achieve sustainability, as explained by Uta Schirpke, one of the authors of the study: “for example, people need to move for outdoor recreation with a lot of negative impacts on the environment and traffic. Here, public transportation could be improved or also the offer of recreational areas in urban areas needs to be increased”.

Ecosystem services also bring crucial inputs to other sectors, such as the mountain agriculture. To maintain a high-quality farming in mountain areas, “it is of primary importance not to overexploit the natural resources of mountain areas, but to support a sustainable use. This can for example be done by valorising high quality products from mountain areas, which supports an income for the farmers or crafts industry and provides people in urban areas with genuine products while strengthening the relationship with the nature.”

Back in May 2019, the EUSALP macro-region organised a conference in Bolzano to explore the various territorial brands of the Alpine region. In addition to the European optional quality term “mountain product”, the role of regional brands in the promotion of mountain areas’ added value was made clear by local stakeholders. Branding becomes even more important to address in view of the growing number of non-European tourists in the European mountains interested in local products.


Some take-away messages for the policy-makers

The study of Eurac Research brings a major contribution to the understanding of ecosystem services’ transfers between different geographical areas. The diversity of ecosystem services and natural resources involved opens the way for change in different policy areas. Environment, forestry, agriculture as well as tourism and transports sectors, among others, could indeed play of major role in the sustainable management of mountains’ natural resources.

The remodelling of ecosystem services transfers as well as the sustainable management of mountain areas’ natural resources rely on policy makers. As recalled by Uta Schirpke, it is crucial “not only for the local population but also for many people outside the Alps, who depend on the services provided by mountain regions”.

To increase the visibility of the study, Eurac Research disseminated its results in the media and presented the study during various workshops and conferences. Despite the efforts of international actors such as the Alpine Convention and the CIPRA for instance, researchers regret that short-term economic interests sometimes prevail over long-term sustainability objectives. They acknowledge though major efforts and initiatives in the Alpine region, when it comes to the management of water and forests for instance.


5 July 2019

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