Weak commons management, strong identity The case of Val d’Anniviers (Canton Valais)

Frangois-Xavier Viallon

Introduction: geographical and current socio-economic components

The mountainous Val d’Anniviers is a side valley located on the southern bank of the river Rhone in the French-speaking part of the Valais canton, in Switzerland. Peaks over 3000 meters mark the valley’s borders in the east and west. The southern peak, Dent blanche (4357 meters), separates Anniviers from Zermatt and Italy. Two deep gorges separate Anniviers from the Rhone valley in the north. The only access to Anniviers was via mule tracks until the 1850s. The terrain is rough and steep. Flat land is almost non-existent and most slopes exceed 30 degrees. The climate is dry and sunny (Reynard 1995). Below the forest line, around 1900 meters, are meadows and pasture, called mayens, with scattered huts formerly used for hay storage. These mayens are subject to land betterment programmes, and are still used as meadows; others have been turned into pasture, and others were abandoned and returned to brush or forest. Forest also grows at the bottom of the Alpine pastures around 2200 meters. A comparison of land use changes between 1983 and 2017 shows a substantial increase in both forests (+12%) and artificial areas (+61%) (FSO 2019a). The artificial areas consist of six villages and a dozen hamlets, each historically dependent on a village. These six villages are host to the valley’s six bourgeoisies. Vissoie is the central borough of the valley, located at a height of 1204 meters. It is crossed by the road connecting Anniviers’ villages to the Rhone valley. The five other main villages are Saint-Jean (1395 m), Ayer (1476 m), Grimentz (1564 m), Saint-Luc (1655 m), and Chandolin (1920 m). From a planning perspective, the valley counts 3.83 km2 of building zone, of which 2.90 km2 are dedicated to housing. These areas were above all intended for the construction of secondary homes. Currently, between 0.72 km2 (25%) and 1.14 km2 (39%) of housing areas are undeveloped (FPO 2018). In addition to historical wood and stone constructions in the village centres, the main construction is the individual chalet, today mostly used as a secondary home.

Municipality of Anniviers - land cover. Map compilation and design by Sarah Baumgartner, University ofBern. Geodata source

Figure 8.1 Municipality of Anniviers - land cover. Map compilation and design by Sarah Baumgartner, University ofBern. Geodata source: Cantonal Agricultural Office, 2020; Cantonal Land Register 2020; Bourgeoisie d'Ayer 1994. Land cover data: Swiss TLM3D land cove. Hillshade: Relief PK 100, reproduced with permission ofswisstopo (BA20043).

The resident population of the entire valley in 2018 was 2732, an increase of 44% since 1988, and of 22% since 1900 (OCSP 2018). Ayer, Grimentz, Saint-Luc, and Vissoie are among the most populated villages with over 400 residents each, and Saint-Jean and Chandolin have approximately 250 and 120 inhabitants each. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the increasing attractiveness of wine production, and employment offered by the aluminium foundry and mill in the Rhone valley, encouraged emigration to the foot of the valley. The nearby city and district capital Sierre was a common destination. The valley’s population decreased until the 1970s, when it reached a historical low of 1440 inhabitants. From then onwards, tourism development was the primary source of growth, both in terms of population and employment (Chauvie & Gabbud 2005). Today, the valley of Anniviers forms a single

Landed property of the bourgeoisies of Anniviers. Map compilation and design by Sarah Baumgartner, University of Bern. Geodata source

Figure 8.2 Landed property of the bourgeoisies of Anniviers. Map compilation and design by Sarah Baumgartner, University of Bern. Geodata source: Cantonal Agricultural Office, 2020; Cantonal Land Register 2020; Bourgeoisie d’Ayer 1994. Hillshade: relief PK 100, reproduced with permission of swisstopo (BA20043).

municipality defined as touristic , with an average of 418,000 overnight stays per year in the past decade (Municipal Tourism Office 2020). Two-thirds of stays are during the winter for the skiing season, and one third during the summer for hiking, running, biking, and other outdoor activities. The importance of tourism is reflected in municipal spending, where about a fifth of the budget is dedicated to tourism (Interview 28). In terms of employment, the tourism, construction, and agriculture sectors are over-represented compared to the average cantonal and national economic structure. Among the valley’s 1133 full-time equivalent jobs, 75% are in the tertiary sector, 20% in the secondary sector, and 5% in the primary sector (FSO 2017). Restoration, accommodation, and ski-lift operation account for a quarter of local employment. The construction sector hosts almost a fifth of local employment and was particularly active in the construction of secondary homes. In 2016, however, the Federal Act on Second Homes introduced a limit to the construction of secondary homes in municipalities where secondary homes exceed 20% of the overall number of homes. With 76% of homes defined as secondary, the municipality of Anniviers is subject to these restrictions (FPO 2020).

Contemporary socio-economic challenges in Anniviers include support of the valley’s touristic attractiveness, the preservation of employment, in particular in the construction sector, the perpetuation of agricultural activities, and the maintenance of the landscape ecosystem (Interviews 11, 13, 16). These last two challenges are directly linked to commoners’ organisations, as these hold ancestral rights to the majority of the valley’s Alpine pastures and forests. Cantonal legislation distinguishes between two types of commoners’ organisations. The first are consortages, private associations formerly composed of peasants, today professionally mixed, holding rights to pastures and water courses. Consortages are private-law corporations defined by the cantonal addendum to the Swiss Civil Code. According to the addendum and the Civil Code, consortages pursue non-commercial goals. They consist of an assembly of right-holders called consorts or allodiateurs. The latter tenn presumably refers to the alleu, a type of tenure free from seignior)' (Blaufarb 2016: 95). Rightholders are entitled to alienate and manage rights to a designated resource, as well as related infrastructure and/or land. The second type of commoners’ organisations are bourgeoisies. Bourgeoisies are public law corporations defined by the cantonal law on communes and the cantonal law on bourgeoisies. In the past, they held political, administrative, and judicial competencies and defined core elements of social and economic life in the community. Nowadays, they grant membership to commoners, manage their property, and support works of public interest.

Old and new homes in Grimentz. 2018. The author

Figure 8.3 Old and new homes in Grimentz. 2018. The author.

Table 8.1 Types of property rights on commons and modalities of transfer and possession

Modalities of transfer and


Property rights on

Transferable and cumulative (Consortages)

Inheritable and non-cumulative (Bourgeoisies)


Grass of pasture, water from irrigation channels, trees, vine

Grass of pasture, water from irrigation channels, trees, vine


Constructions on pasture, community bams

Constructions in forest, constructions on pasture, cellars


Land of community bams

Forest, vineyard

Consortages and bourgeoisies have different ownership rules regarding resources (see Table 8.1). Commoners in consortages may hold one or several property' rights to a resource. They may acquire and sell their rights individually. The assembly of commoners generally holds a pre-emption right on transactions. In contrast, commoners in bourgeoisies hold property rights to a resource only through membership of the bourgeoisie; they do not have an individual property title. They may inherit membership from their parents, or obtain it through acquisition, or through marriage. Decisions about the alienation of rights to the resource are decided by the assembly of commoners using the one-person, one-vote rule. Depending on the type of resource, and the type of organisation considered, property rights held by commoners may include rights to a resource, to infrastructure, and/or to land. Property rights associated with pastures and irrigation channels only involve the resource and its infrastructure; it excludes rights over the land (for irrigation channels, see Schweizer 2013), which is public domain, or the property of another landowner. One may compare such property rights to an easement on land (Schweizer 2014). This situation has arisen from the preservation of immemorial rights by the Civil Code. The situation differs for property' rights to forests, community' barns, and vineyards. The owners of these resources own both the infrastructure and the land, except where specified otherwise. Table 8.1 summarises the different types of property rights to commons in Valais, as well as the modalities of their transfer and possession.

The case of Anniviers shows how the political power and economic relevance of commoners’ organisations evolved over centuries, and adapted to the emergence and development of the nation-state. Major changes in relative prices, structural transformations in agricultural production, and substantial losses of political competencies have raised questions about the raison d’etre of local commoners’ organisations. Commoners’ organisations adapted to these changes, and preserved their existence by redefining their purposes and developing new functions. Bourgeoisies have developed new tasks, such as the preservation of heritage, in particular maintaining historical buildings; they also perpetuated traditions, including commoners’ assemblies, religious feasts, and communal work. Bourgeoisies also act as a bond between commoners and their origins, in particular for those who live outside the valley, and contribute to defining the identity of commoners in a globalised world (Section 8.2). The case of common forests shows how bourgeoisies have adapted to an unfavourable economic context and decreasing public subsidies by merging their forest organisations into larger ones, and increasing revenue through market-based activities. In addition, they created an association of forest landowners on a cantonal level, which provides expertise and acts as an intermediary in the policy implementation process (Section 8.3). Consortages holding rights to pastures have maintained agricultural activity by transferring pasture management and use to single farmers. Despite the transformation of use, assemblies of right-holders persist. Their main function is the rental of the pasture, and the maintenance of infrastructure. Recently, new competition has emerged with nature protection and tourism policies, which threaten agricultural use (Section 8.4). The last section discusses the resilience of commoners’ organisations in Anniviers. We describe the current limits of these organisations in adapting to policy and market changes.

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