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The Italian mountains

G. Nicolini, F. Viola,
M. Zucca and C. Chemini

Gianni Nicolini, Michela Zucca
and Claudio Chemini are at the
Centre of Alpine Ecology
(Centro di Ecologia Alpina)
in Trento, Italy.

Franco Viola is in the Department
of Agroforestry Land and Systems
of the University of Padua, Legnaro, Italy.

Italy is a country in southern Europe with a territory that spans 1 300 km from the Alpine glaciers to the Mediterranean Sea, and includes two of the main islands of the Mediterranean, Sicily and Sardinia. A major characteristic of the Italian morphology is that 76.8 percent of the territory is covered by mountains (over 600 m, 35.2 percent) or hills (rises below 600 m, 41.6 percent), spread out among two main mountain ranges, the Alps to the north and the Apennines which run down the length of the peninsula for 1 200 km. Some 28 percent of the entire territory of the Alps is in northern Italy, including the highest mountain in Europe (Mont Blanc, 4 807 m). Sicily has the largest active volcano in Europe (Mount Etna, 3 323 m).

The districts that have been classified as "mountain districts" make up 54 percent of the national territory and count a resident population of over 10 million people, that is to say 18.5 percent of the total Italian population (ISTAT, 1999).


As a result of the inadequacy of incomes, the limited availability of services and a kind of inferiority complex with respect to the flat country and the cities, many mountain residents have been abandoning the mountains since the 1960s. Although there may be no objective measure of the hardships of mountain life, what is important is what people perceive as such. The terms of comparison are the images of urban society proposed incessantly by all the communication media. The exponents of a local culture, no matter how aware of their cultural roots and heritage and how attached to their behavioural patterns, cannot resist the pressures from outside indefinitely (Dolcetta, 1991).

Out-migration by women refusing a situation in which they were traditionally assigned the most onerous and thankless tasks (such as caring for the elderly and the livestock) has reached serious proportions. In more recent years, however, at least in some areas, the situation is beginning to change, partly because many of the dreams promised by urban life have been shattered. People are becoming aware of the degradation of the environment and their separation from nature. Women and youth are demanding a better quality of life, reduced isolation and the creation of new ways of living together as conditions for remaining in the mountains (Zucca, 2001).

A major problem, related to out-migration, is the increasing lack of supervision, control and protection of the mountains, for which local communities traditionally took responsibility. For this reason the mountains are now subject to increasing hydrogeological instability, which is in turn causing vulnerability in the valleys and in the flatlands, where most homes, infrastructures and industries are concentrated. It is not by chance therefore that the mountain territories have been the most in need of and the most affected by the establishment of protected areas at both the national and regional levels.

Changing state of biodiversity in the Italian mountains

Italy's mountain forests host a wealth of animal species, including some of the largest and most charismatic species of European mammals and birds, such as the brown bear, wolf, lynx, ibex, red deer, roe deer, chamois, wild boar and capercaillie. The fauna of the Italian mountains is characterized by a large component of endemic species. A significant example is the ground beetle community of the western Alps, in which 30 percent of the species are endemic (Vigna Taglianti, Audisio and De Felici, 1998).

The Alps, which are shared by six countries, host about 4 500 plant species, which is more than one-third of the flora recorded in Europe west of the Urals. Almost 400 plants are endemic to the Alps (Theurillat, 1995), with a high occurrence of these in the southern Alps. As for animals, the fauna of the Alps could reach 30 000 species.

Environmental and social events that have affected Italy's mountain biodiversity include, on a local scale, urbanization, local tourism development, agriculture and grazing intensification, out-migration, habitat fragmentation, introduction or persecution of species, water use and water pollution; and on a global scale, climate change, air pollution, increases in CO2 concentration and nitrogen deposition, and also economic, social and cultural processes outside the Alps and Apennines (markets, tourism fluxes, traffic, etc.). These outside forces are especially harmful because of the difficulty of activating a local response (Chapin and Körner, 1994).

National parks in Italy have an important role in protecting nature, especially for rare and endangered species such as the ibex


State of mountain forests

Italian woodlands are situated mainly in hilly and mountainous areas; 65 percent is found above 500 m. The woodlands of the Alps are for the most part high forests with a dominance of Norway spruce, larch and silver fir. There are also coppices with a dominance of hop hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia); coppices and high forests dominated by beech; high forests dominated by Scotch pine; and woods of black pine and chestnut. For some time these forests have been subject to forest management planning. The forests of the Apennines are varied, with woods and thickets of evergreen oak and other sclerophyll evergreens, Mediterranean pines, oaks (dominated by pubescent oak), hop hornbeam, Turkey oak and sometimes chestnut, as well as mesophile forests dominated by beech and occasionally silver fir and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus).

Most of the woodlands are privately owned (66 percent, as opposed to 25 percent belonging to communities and provinces, 7 percent belonging to the State and the regions and 2 percent owned by others). Woodland property in Italy today is characterized by a continual fragmentation, typical of the entire mountain area, which hinders systematic management and the establishment of economically profitable production units (Colletti and Venzi, 1999). Agglomeration into economically viable units is difficult in the mountain areas, where the ideal of property is deeply rooted (Bonsembiante, 1991). Forest management is also made difficult by the high costs of sylviculture, the slow, continuous depopulation and socio-economic changes affecting the mountain areas in general.

Currently there are notable increases of the forested areas in the mountains (as throughout Italy) [for example, +13 percent in Trentino, in the Alps (Forest Service of the Autonomous Province of Trento, 2000)], with a great loss of the area of mountain pasture and agriculture, and an increase in biomass per hectare (+25 percent in Trentino) because of a reduction in timber sales. At present, in the Italian forests about 1 m3 per hectare per annum is being harvested. During the past 30 years the importance of wood production has steadily dropped, settling at around 10 million cubic metres in 1998, while timber importation has grown from 12 million cubic metres in 1961 to 20 million cubic metres in 1998 (Colletti and Venzi, 1999). From 1980 to today the sale price of forest-felled timber has been reduced by more than half. The comprehensive tree density coefficient (woods plus developing vegetation) has increased from 27 to 32 percent in the past 25 years, and is higher than that of the European Union as a whole (Giordano, 2000). The change of the mountain landscape into forest is evidence of a series of socio-economic changes that are typical of this territory and that lead back to the local exodus.

Mountain agriculture

Livestock activity, grazing and agriculture in the mountains have all suffered a large decline even though in certain areas they have remained the main basis of the local rural economy. In the Alps only just over 4 percent of the local population is now involved in agriculture. The vegetation structure of mountain forests may reflect the long presence of domestic livestock (cattle, sheep, goats); this use has also declined dramatically during recent decades (Motta, 1997). The domesticated species have also suffered a depletion of genetic diversity, with the extinction of many breeds. In recent decades, effective wildlife management and a decrease in poaching have resulted in an increase in the density and range of ungulates; in some areas the density of wild ungulates now poses a threat to the regeneration of forests, especially the high altitude forests (Scrinzi, Floris and Pignatti, 1997).

Sustainable development initiatives for mountain areas

Italy, like other European countries, has directed its mountain policy according to the principles of sustainable development, taking reference from the international agreements that grew out of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) (the agreements of Helsinki, Lisbon, Kyoto, etc.) and the Convention on the Protection of the Alps. Italy enacted the Law for the Mountain in 1994. It is implemented at the local level through European Union projects and regional instruments such as Territorial Pacts and other local provisions.

Research in hydraulics, geology, economics and ecology is being carried out to control the degradation processes in mountain regions. In recent years there has been a great effort to link research institutes with local areas and with universities, as in the case of the Centre of Alpine Ecology (CEA) of Trento. Other institutes, such as the National Institute for Scientific and Technological Research on Mountains (INRM), have the role of coordinating mountain research at the national level.

The Italian Committee for the International Year of Mountains - 2002 is aware that the widest of synergies is required if sustainable development is to be achieved which values the environmental, social, economic and cultural heritage of the mountains. Numerous encounters have been planned. A meeting on the general state of the mountains, organized by the Italian Committee and the National Union of Mountain Municipalities, Communities and Institutions (UNCEM), was held in Turin in September 2001; it was targeted at both the media and local, regional and national-level decision-makers. The transcontinental conference "High Summit 2002" to be held in Turin from 6 to 10 May 2002, will create dialogue on mountain issues among the five continents by means of modern multimedia technology. "Celebrating Mountain Women", will make better known the realities in which mountain women live. More specific interventions are aimed at enhancing and exploiting the mountains of the Mediterranean or bringing solidarity to the people of the neediest mountain areas in the world ("SOS Montagne"). The great petition "Firma per le Montagne" ("Sign for the Mountains") and the "SkyRaid of the Alps", a team race (combining running, mountain biking and ski mountaineering) across the Alps from Courmayeur to Cortina, complete the list of main events that aim at putting the mountain at the centre of a changing Italy.