Forest management: from the “omnipresence of wood” to forest transition

The changing role of forests

In the past, forest management was, like agriculture, a central aspect of life for the local population. The old by-laws since the end of the fifteenth century, as well as the minutes of the assembly meetings since the end of eighteenth century, show a recurring need to delimit protected forests (so-called ‘ faura”), protected for economic reasons and for their protective function against natural hazards. On the other hand, regulations governing wood and non-wood forest uses in specific or more generic terms constituted a strategy to avoid abuse and bring order to the concessions. This is mirrored by the growing exclusivism exercised by the original families in the use of collective goods during the modern age (Bertogliati 2014: 33 ff). The existence of a “wood crisis” in the pre-industrial era has been partly called into question by German language historiography, since the complaints of forestry experts and central authorities very often concealed precise programmes aimed at limiting local autonomy, cancelling collective use rights and excluding certain population circles (Radkau 2014: 13 ff)., A true “era of forestry regulations” arose throughout Europe between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Radkau & Schafer 1987: 101) which is also reflected in the alpine area. The establishment of forest constraints can be read as a further reflection of the “communalisation” process and development of the institutional structure of upland communities.

To an even greater extent than in the agricultural sector, the regulatory system in force for the forestry sector today differs considerably from that practiced in the past. Since the end of the nineteenth century, control over forest cuts and silvicultural issues has gradually been transferred from local communities to the central (cantonal and federal) authorities that have their own local administrative offices in the region. It is no longer just the local wardens or “rangers” who control and possibly sanction forest crimes, but new emerging actors. Public officials (foresters and forest inspectors) operate on the basis of federal and cantonal forest laws, which are often in opposition to the agricultural needs of the population, albeit at the same time promoting important land protection works.

The direct economic revenue from forest management has today decreased significantly compared to the past, due to the epochal changes that have taken place since the Second World War and, in recent decades, to the transition to a modern forest management focused on a more holistic perspective and on a near-to-nature silviculture, considering the importance of ecosystem services and other forest functions. The collective forests in the “coffers” of the corporations became an important expense item in the 1980s mostly due to the increase in average labour and forestry operations costs, as well as the fall in wood prices (Bertogliati 2015: 277). NS, younger than the other respondents, but a trained lumberjack and previously head of the local forestry company, focused on this aspect in particular when he stated that:

The economic function of forests has been somewhat forgotten. Until a few years ago, firewood was still very required, everyone cut wood or often came to the corporation to request it. Now there is hardly anyone left [...]. And the recreational function of forests increased in recent years, bike trail paths were created and even in the management of the hiking paths we have never backed down. To promote local firewood such as patriziato, we have [also] created a wood chip plant, [...] and in that sense a district network has been created that heats several public buildings and private houses. [...] This is an example of collaboration between the municipality and the PG-OCL. And this plant is powered almost entirely with timber from the cuts of collective forests owned by the PG-OCL or in any case in the municipal territory of Blenio.18

NB also highlights the latest trends. The price of spruce timber only dropped by more than 25% in the period 2015—2019. Raw wood prices have decreased since 1950 and labour costs in forestry have increased dramatically (Niederer & Bill 2015):

In the past, the PG-OCL from an economic point of view focused mostly on forests ... on timber ... Now from the forest ... nothing is obtained, practically! Machine and labour costs have increased, most of the logging is done with helicopters, fast and comfortable so we say, but expensive. And timber prices are low. Maybe 60 francs per cubic meter, and it must be good.19

Nowadays, forests in the Swiss Alps are mostly managed for their protective function against natural hazards. This function was recognised for centuries by the alpine populations, but became the focus of forestry concerns only in the past 150 years. This was a paradigm shift that started in the nineteenth century and introduced the prohibition of clearing in Switzerland, development of the principles of near-to-nature silviculture, and recognition of the social (protective or recreational) functions of forests (Bertogliati 2014: 186 fi). Thanks to subsidies and other kinds of support from the cantonal and federal authorities, the importance attributed to the different functions of forests in the Swiss mountains means that forestry activities can still be carried out, albeit at a much lower intensity than in the past. Since 2008, public subsidies for these operations in Switzerland, with few exceptions, are afforded in the framework of programmatic agreements between the cantons and the Confederation, which provide financial support for specific performance and quality indicators. In this profoundly changed context, the proactive role of the corporations in Ticino has now waned, as NS reiterates:

Cantonal forestry law is [now] more important, because the corporation regulations in some respects are no longer widely used or applied [...] Mostly because they include articles related to past management or use rights. In the past, however, each family had its own house mark that was carved into wood that was sent to auction or requested by the assembly.20

This is simply a reflection of the dramatic changes that have occurred in recent decades. The system of rules to which users must now refer is now more complex on several levels. A corporation regulation today often contains rules which in daily life no longer have such a strong effect on members.

On the southern slopes of the Swiss Alps, the special conditions from the administrative, institutional, infrastructural, climatic and topographical points of view impose greater constraints than in the regions on the northern side. Some corporations have their own forestry companies and therefore have a more direct interest in promoting forest management. The case of PG-OCL can be considered intermediate, since it does not have its own forestry team, but together with the other corporations of the Blenio Valley in 2017 reconstituted the Valley Community by acquiring a forestry company which is presently very active. This also allows it to maintain a certain number of jobs and have an effect on the local economy.21

We quote NS again, an interviewee who is certainly competent in forestry, and whose concepts are also repeated by GC and NB:

With the forest company we could still manage our forests. And with the cantonal authorities the modus operandi is discussed and you never find yourself with a fait accompli, you evaluate the setting of the project or intervention together from the beginning. And during the work there are always meetings that allow you to discuss things and find solutions. There have never been any issues or differences about the forest. [...] Then the forestry company brought other companies and people to work here in the valley, for example for wood transport.22

The PG-OCL plays a central role in this new entity, the Valley Community, due to their territorial importance and above-average financial abilities, so much so that NB (former president of the PG-OCL) also presided over it. As NS points out:

Forests have always been of central importance for us. [...] Above all, the community of Olivone has always had a tradition of forestry, even if in some contexts today we should talk more about a leisure forest (for example on the Lukmanier area) than about an income forest [...]. And we invest part of the revenues derived from other sectors in the forest projects themselves, that’s to cover the remaining costs after deducting the sale of timber and the cantonal and federal subsidies. A large part of our revenue is invested in land maintenance. For example, we now have a forest project in the lower part of the Valle di Campo [...]. Costs are estimated at about 900,000 francs and we are the promoters. Its main goal is to recover ancient grazed larch woodlands. Here we collaborate with internship courses with apprentices [...]. We are also planning an avalanche warning project in the Lukmanier area, focused on protection for the road. Costs will exceed 10 million francs and we will do our part.23

The realisation of such projects is favoured both by the high rate of public subsidy and by the good relations maintained between the corporations and the cantonal forest service in the last two decades. However, the question arises of whether their own financial resources will be enough. The forest service certainly plays a valuable role as consultant for the project development and in the conservation of the cultural landscape. It is a collaboration judged very positively by the respondents, as opposed to that with cantonal services in the agricultural sector, which is considered more distant and detached. It is also a fact, however, that forest management corporations also have less autonomy than in the past.

In Switzerland silvicultural interventions in protection forests, now widely recognised by the population, rest entirely on the high subsidy quotas by cantons and the Swiss Confederation (about 70—80%). The financial support of the central authorities allows guaranteed minimum care of the protective forests,24 and, at the same time, generates economic returns in the valleys and ensures other services offered by the forest ecosystem (e.g. recreation and conservation). In this sense, the role of the patriziati, as the heirs of ancient local communities, is still relevant in forest management and land-use planning. Where the corporations are weak or do not have the financial and organisational resources to play this role, the political municipalities or other actors must take over. In the valleys, a closer collaboration with the municipalities, following the recent trend towards the merging of municipalities into bigger and more complex administrative structures, is unavoidable. Corporations could divide costs and possibly delegate some administrative burdens, and in the meantime, municipalities could find interlocutors who know the area well, are anchored in the local communities and usually have more experience in the field.

Uncertainties remain regarding the economic fragility of corporations, however, which in Ticino only rarely benefit from tax revenues from their members; in the contexts of mountain and marginal areas they do not have significant financial and human resources to promote different projects simultaneously nor, often, to meet the remaining costs after deduction of public subsidies.

Forest cover increase, decline of traditional uses

The words “forest transition” mean a change in forest cover from a phase characterised by deforestation to reforestation, which is common in industrialised countries (Mather 1992). Generally seen negatively by local commoners and farmers, this process is unavoidable and reflects the socio-economic transformations that have taken place in the last 100—150 years; the sharp decline of the rural class (number of farms and employees in the primary sector), the dramatic decrease in small livestock (especially goats), the paradigm shift in forest management and abandonment of traditional agroforestry practices (e.g. wild hay on steep slopes and forest litter harvesting, free seasonal grazing in forest and cultivated fields).

It was during the first half of the twentieth century that we could see the abandonment of the tnadair, which were small plots in remote areas of the Blenio valley where wild hay was mown. Wild haymaking was (and still is in some areas) an emblematic, very risky and traditional practice in the Alps. The production of wild hay meadows in the mountains during the late summer provides far less hay than other meadows in lowlands (Caflisch 1950: 143). This practice, however, represented a very valuable form of integration for the local population, not only in the contexts of self-subsistence, but also in the valleys of the Swiss Alps, whose alpine production in the course of the modern age was increasingly oriented towards the export of cows and dairy products (Blatter 2009). In the Olivone area, the assignment of these surfaces was carried out by means of auctions which involved 100 plots over a total area of several square kilometers. The PG-OCL was always the owner, but its use was the prerogative of the so-called “internal commoners” of Olivone, who belonged to a sub-corporation which held its own assembly on the first Sunday of June, which had among its primary purposes the division and the auction of wild hay meadows (madair or sorti). There were already signs of decline in this traditional practice at the beginning of the twentieth century, as it was very demanding and risky, according to Guido Bolla who was secretary and member of the Municipality of Olivone at the time, as well as a local historian:

The denomination “sorti” suggests that in ancient times instead of the auction the allocation was determined by the drawing of lots. Today, however, the auction price is often very low: many lots are awarded at the price of 10 cents, just to keep the right ,..25

In addition to the madair there were three fulostra where there was an apparently even more ancient right, namely that of the first occupant. On 10 July, coincidentally the same date as the start of summering season, a commoner who wanted to ensure the right of wild haymaking had to reach these inaccessible and remote sectors and affix the symbol of their house, but not before shouting three times that they were taking possession. The fulostra was abandoned around 1950, however, and the lots of the madair were grouped into one area and distributed ever)' five years (Caflisch 1950: 143) until their final abandonment in the following years. It is important to consider such apparently marginal forest uses in order to understand the relationships between commoners and non-commoners, once very conflictual. Today the social and economic differences between these two categories are imperceptible due to the decline in traditional management, as NB suggests:

In the past, commoners had advantages. Especially for wood. And then for the “sorti” where wild hay was made. Commoners had an advantage over that. Today we can say that in practice there are no more differences. Who is going to collect wood today? Hardly anyone anymore! Nor make wild hay either.26

NS reiterates the same concept regarding the disparities between commoners and other residents:

Today there are no advantages but no disadvantages either. At least in the present, in the past there were certainly differences between neighbours and non-commoners. According to the documents I consulted, commoners were always favoured. To have a tree, a piece of land ... there were greater benefits, certainly! Very detailed tender specifications were drawn up for the sales of standing timbers. [...] On the mountains, many of which have been covered by bushes today, there were the famous “sorti” that once a year entered into competition. They were lots for wild haymaking, some in specific remote places ... and they paid certain amounts, in my opinion very high! For such remote places ,..27

In addition to the decline of traditional agroforestry uses, one of the main drivers of forest cover increase and the abandonment of agricultural land was represented by the decrease in goats and sheep. The decrease in small livestock in the Blenio Valley, with the increase in the number of large livestock units, is one of the most relevant agricultural dynamics of recent decades (Societa Agricola Bleniese 2015: 4). NB (bom in 1950), performed the function of goatherd as a boy during the summer on the Alpe di Gana, which was grazed only with small livestock:

Then the goats, unfortunately, disappeared. The cheese was previously mixed, now it is made only with cow’s milk. Nowadays the goats of the Blenio Valley move almost all to the Alpe Stgegia [belonging to another corporation, the Patriziato di Dongio, beyond the artificial lake of Santa Maria, on the territory of Graubiinden].28

The role played in the past by small livestock, particularly goats, also comes back strongly in the speeches of the other respondents. GM:

The forest has become wild mainly because, starting from the protection plantations that they created, rightly ... which however triggered the conflict between agriculture and forestry because there was the small livestock that [browsed on juvenile plants]. And so we started to fence the forests with barbed wire and so on, and the number of farms and small livestock decreased, [...], then all the farmers were forced to specialise in producing more milk without wasting time doing anything else and the incentives then meant that now almost no more small livestock is raised on the farms. Farmers from the northern side of the alps also came with their cattle [...] to continue managing the steepest alps. In Olivone and Aquila on the mountain pastures that in the past were grazed by a thousand sheep, what happened? Ungulates infiltrated, deer, roe deer, etc., because there were none of these deer 60 years ago as there are today [and] now they begin to realise that in certain places they are not under control and they also do damage ... which must be compensated. [...] They are the downsides [...].29

These positions reflect the locally perceived impact of the shifting of agriculture and the epochal transformation of society over the past century. The fight against increasing forest cover and the consequences of abandoning agricultural areas require important investments and systematic measures, which are difficult to implement across large mountain areas. This prompts a certain pessimism in respondents, especially farmers such as GM:

It was a lost struggle from the start ... the most difficult areas were abandoned. Support from the authorities in this area is crucial [...]. In non- mechanised areas it may also be okay for the forest to come back, but not where there is the possibility of having suitable land and agricultural surfaces [...] ... well, here you should have greater consideration of the needs of mountain agriculture. As for the alp, it is clear that if there is no substantial public support to contain this dynamic, the upper limit of the forest is destined to rise progressively ... and therefore, we, as an alp cooperative, try to do what is written in the contract [lease of the alp], that is, trying to keep small trees and anything else under control, sending people there for a week or more to cut ... there is a person or two who do that every year, but even if you do this, you cannot fight the forest invasion, and therefore more ... [incisive] measures should be taken on this issue, [...] otherwise along with the current grazing system ... given the lack of goats that in the past were the first forest fighters ...30

In addition to the management of mountain pastures, also in agroforestry one can find in the past other examples of commixtures of private and collective uses. One example is the cultivation of chestnut and walnut orchards through the jus plan- tandi, an ancient use right still attested in the early twelfth century in the lowlands near Olivone (Figure 9.5), which consisted of the right exercised by individuals to plant fruit trees on collective land (Laurianti 2017: 269). The traso, or the collective easement of the free pasture in private cultivated funds from 1 November to 1 May, which was still practiced until the second post-war period, is another traditional agricultural use for which we have evidence (Bolla 1935: 9, 44, 80).


Today, with the increased labour costs and the advent of a global timber market, the revenues linked with forest management are of marginal importance for corporations. This trend began in the 1980s, although it has increased in the last decade. Current forest management is based mainly on the enhancement of ecosystem services offered by the forest, and in particular the protection against natural hazards which is clearly the predominant forest function in the alpine area. The conservation of biodiversity' and landscape were also found to be important in this case study, through special interventions or the creation of forest reserves. The current direction is influenced by the paradigm shift that took place at the end of the nineteenth century, with the transfer of control over forest management from local communities to central authorities, the recognition of the role of the forest in the balance of nature and the implementation of forest reforms. This dynamic is closely linked to the “forest transition” process, or, in other words, a reversal of forest cover change trends from a very long

The Olivone plain with the characteristic Sosto peak in the background in 1926. The steepest and almost vertical areas were used for wild hay harvesting. Source

Figure 9.5 The Olivone plain with the characteristic Sosto peak in the background in 1926. The steepest and almost vertical areas were used for wild hay harvesting. Source: ETH- Bibliothek Zurich, Bildarchiv/Author: unknown/Ans_12466/Public Domain Mark.

phase of deforestation to a reforestation phase. The increased forest cover is very relevant and rapid in the alpine area today, and, in particular, in the study area. The loosening of traditional collective uses and the decrease in the number of farms and farmers have favoured the abandonment of several hectares of grassland and pasture areas, which is a strong increase in forest cover not only in the most inaccessible and remote territories, but also around the main settlements. In the context of collective management, the role played by the PG-OCL today is less proactive, since the constraints linked to cantonal and federal forest laws and the changed socio-economic context reduce its autonomy in a way. In this sense, the cantonal forestry sendee plays an important role both in terms of consultancy and by financing silvicultural and technical interventions, today largely supported by public funds. Not all costs are met, and much more support is needed, along with a local definition of what this support should look like.

9.4 The internal organisation: a complex (in origin) reality

A changing role, different perceptions

According to the cantonal law (LOP) governing the functioning of these corporations in the Canton of Ticino, “the patriciate is a corporation governed by public law, autonomous within the limits established by the Constitution and by the laws, which owns common goods to be preserved and used in a commoner spirit in favour of the community”. It is necessary to consider the expression “commoner spirit”31.

This concept has to do with both the connection of commoners to their roots, and with the awareness of playing a precious role for the entire community'. This programme, however, has to deal with society’s loss of awareness of this role. This is, at least, the personal opinion of GC (former secretary of the corporation):

Many people do not have a perception of what the patriziato is. Most, especially non-local people, although they' are interested in municipal issues, do not have a very clear idea what it represents today, what it was in the past and what it still doing today' and its importance for the municipality. [...] There are many who are commoners but who have no interest and, by not attending the assemblies, they are exactly' like the others.32

Until the early 1990s, when GC took on the role of secretary, assemblies were decidedly' more animated.

The interventions during the assembly meetings today are more quiet and thoughtful, while in the past I had some assemblies in which [...], having to write the minutes, I wrote “animated discussion followed” because at some point it is better not to write anymore [...] also because you could no longer keep up with this or that. Now everything has changed.33

In Article 37 the Swiss Federal Constitution defines citizenship rights and states that “no one should be favoured or disadvantaged because of their citizenship”. The only exception is “the provisions on political rights in corporations, as well as on the shares of participation in their patrimony, unless otherwise provided by cantonal legislation”. This sentence confirms two important points: on the one hand, it sanctions the constitutional guarantee of the existence of corporations; on the other, it provides for decision-making autonomy and competence on the part of the cantons in setting limits to the rights of these entities. The Canton of Ticino, in fact, presents a peculiar evolution at an institutional level in terms of corporations and their autonomy. The LOP (cantonal corporation law), in force since 1835, with important revisions in 1857, 1962 and 1992, regulates the principles and sets the margins for manoeuvre in the administration of these institutions under public law, as envisaged for political municipalities. This limits, in many ways, their autonomy with respect to other Swiss corporations.

Over the past two centuries, the very' existence of these institutions has been repeatedly questioned at a political level, which has favoured the development of solid legal bases that regulate their functioning today. There are, for example, rules that clearly define the criteria for acquiring commoner status, the principle of inalienability of corporation assets, as well as the role of surveillance and advice given by the cantonal authorities. These constraints have led to redefining the very relationship between corporation and other public bodies. The case of the Canton of Ticino, as part of the peculiar development of municipal dualism, is therefore very interesting.

We particularly addressed the issue of “naturalisations” with the respondents, that is, the acquisition of the status of commoner by residents. We have seen how in Olivone at the beginning of the twentieth century, the majority of the inhabitants were neither commoners nor natives (Bolla 1935: 33). Conflicts between commoners and non-commoners in this community were already documented in the nineteenth century. The search for a balance between these circles was, however, essential, in order to ensure a livelihood for all residents and the management of a very large territory, in an era marked, in the valleys of Ticino, by massive overseas migration. Exclusivity for a long time meant that foreigners had little room to manoeuvre, but if they were useful to the local economy, they could also enjoy a certain freedom (Head-Konig 2003: 108; Bertogliati 2015: 99—104). One might even wonder if corporation exclusivism has not provided, in some cases, an incentive for professional diversification and entrepreneurial initiative (Bolla 2000: 28).

Currently, in the PG-OCL, there is limited interest in the possibility - thanks to the revision of the LOP in 1992 - of acquiring the status of commoner under certain conditions and upon approval of the assembly.34 This is partly due to a lack of knowledge or interest in the activities of the corporations and, partly to a reticence on the part of the older non-commoners to refer to the judgement of the assembly. Today the differences between commoners and non-commoners in terms of privileges and use rights are now practically imperceptible, as FZ reports:

In the present time there is very' little difference, but once it was terrible [...]. In my opinion, they are rather matters of pride ... they asked me several times, depending on the presidents [of the PG-OCL] ... to make the request [for admission] ... but then there had been cases of people whose application was rejected, therefore thinking of suffering the same fate I always believed that it was better not to forward it. [...] Some people were even a little irritated by the fact that I had never applied to become one! “Why don’t you want to ...? And they told me that more than once!

The same is confirmed by GM:

Like everything now ... the deep blood of commoners that was once there is no longer there, is much more diluted [...]. As he says [FZ|, is it a matter of pride, or a question of closeness or distance from a corporation, or not? Fie married a commoner from Dongio [and] could have asked to become a commoner from there [...]. I married a commoner from Olivone and if I wanted, I could be part of it, but I would have to give up the other side [GM is a commoner of Ghirone and Buttino].35

Gender issues are also, at least in part, a contradictory theme. In 1919, in Ticino, female household heads had obtained, by decree of the Cantonal parliament, not only the possibility of representation in corporation assemblies, but also the ability to be elected in their administrations. From 1962 the new LOP extended the right to vote to all commoners of age, including both men and women, since previously it was exercised only by family heads.36 The only woman interviewed, however, did not identify major changes in the position of women in the specific case of the PG-OCL, as she argues:

Women in general do not care, perhaps because there is still a mentality' - and I think it will not change, I don’t know — that the corporation is rather a business for men. [...] In many assemblies I was the only woman present! [...] If I can give my opinion, this mentality derives from the time when only the family head took part in the meetings and he was the owner of the use rights.37

The developments described in the field of civil rights and citizenship in corporations, rather than being initiatives from the bottom, were imposed by' changes in the legal framework at the cantonal level. The debates in relation to the privileges of corporations and census were particularly heated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Starting in the 1960s, they' were reopened and expanded, even calling into question the role of the corporations themselves, while at the same time promoting important and positive changes for these bodies. The corporations and, since its foundation in 1942, the Ticino Patrician Alliance (ALPA), played an active role in these debates and, especially in the last few decades, the debates were animated by the awareness of the participants having to adapt themselves to the changed social and economic political conditions. This process has led today to the full recognition of the role of the corporations by the cantonal authorities, in a social, political and institutional context very different from that in which the Swiss municipal dualism originated. In recent times, apart from a few skirmishes, there has been no pressure on the corporations in Ticino. Conversely, the canton has created privileged financing channels for these entities, fed largely by cantonal funds, in order to promote investment for works and infrastructure of public interest, as well as collaboration with municipalities. We have also seen how the inclusion of new actors such as conservation associations and tourism promotion bodies has led to the creation of platforms for the exchange of skills and for the development of projects in which corporations play an active role. Corporations, municipalities and cantonal sendees are therefore joined by new stakeholders, and a larger network is thus created, which, despite inevitable conflicts, leads to the management and use of collective resources that is in step with the times. In recent years, thanks to the joint action of the Ticino Patrician Alliance (cantonal federation of corporations) and the cantonal authorities, efforts have been made to promote the initiative of patricians and collaboration with political municipalities, creating and strengthening the available financial means, recognising the role carried out by these entities as “local antennae” and land managers.

Despite these advances, the population of the Canton of Ticino knows very little about the functioning and characteristics of corporations, just when the need is great due to the ongoing processes of merging municipalities. In this regard, GC underlines the new role acquired by the corporations:

What I see is that the patriziato has acquired more importance ... in the sense of greater recognition, let’s say, in comparison to the municipality. [...] The first year I was here [1980] I had the impression that they were two separate entities, each managed independently, and there was rarely any collaboration. Now, however, it’s the opposite.38

A new strategic study on commoners’ organisations was published by cantonal authorities in 2020. It aims to make such corporations “protagonists” at an economic, environmental and cultural level, consequently reinforcing their public recognition and capacity for action, and also an open approach to other actors. The impression is that today these entities, despite their territorial strength (they own about 80% of the cantonal territory), are almost always “junior partners” vis- a-vis the Confederation, cantons and municipalities. The strategic study (Franchi 2020: 41) identified three types of project-oriented attitude: (a) traditional, (b) accompanied and (c) innovative planning. Traditional planning is mostly tied to agricultural activity, with a strong link to the land, such as the renewal of alpine building. Accompanying planning is mostly in the forestry sector, which responds to the fulfilment of management tasks by owners, and legal obligations for the conservation of the forest and the maintenance of its functions. Finally, innovative planning “depending on the sensitivity' and skills present in the corporation, it can focus on different areas, such as the enhancement of the territory and the historical heritage or on other sectors, such as tourism, adapting to the challenges of the time and the current socio-economic context”39.

The increase in public recognition, a project-oriented attitude and increasing the bargaining power of these entities are therefore essential steps in developing their resilience and exploiting their potential in the face of the numerous challenges of society, from urban environments to high mountains where questions arise around a more sustainable use of land and resources, as well as around topics such as climate change and natural hazards. In this context, local resources, also in terms of knowledge, prove to be important tools for facing new challenges.

Decline of the old corporations

The Vicinia (or Vicinanza) of Olivone, was already made up of lower- order administrative units before the creation of the patriziato. The “internal corporation” of Olivone was an entity that grouped the three degagne of Lavorceno-Marzano, Solario-Sallo and Scona-Petullo-Sommascona — in turn divided into six village communities, each belonging to one hamlet with its own chapel (Meyer 1977: 31, n. 42). These structures remained active even with the establishment of the PG-OCL in the mid-nineteenth century. This “multi-layered structure” is widespread and attested in Leventina (Fransioli 1994: 18 if), other regions of Italian speaking Switzerland, and in the neighbouring alpine regions (Broggini 1968: 118 ff), However, it is an exceptional case in the Blenio Valley. This structure, which was dynamic and flexible depending on needs, involved different plans of participation and coordination in active community life and was reflected in a sense of belonging to different “homelands” (Marca 2001: 31). The administration of the village chapels was one of the fundamental competences of these elementary units (vicinati or local corporations) up to their decline and consequent absorption by the PG-OCL, the local parish or their transformation into recreational societies during the twentieth century (Table 9.6). Each institutional level or body had specific competences. The degagne grouped the vidnati and represented them within the corporation of the “Vicinato interno di Olivone” which still held its annual assembly in the 1930s (Bolla 1935: 54-55). In the ancien regime in the Blenio valley there were other higher-level entities, such as the fagie (three fiscal and electoral circumscriptions) and, of course, the Valley Community which exercised its competence in criminal and procedural law under the direct control of the territorial lordships.

The multi-layered structure described above is an indicator of the political and institutional situation documented at least since the Middle Ages, which was focused on defining competences and delimiting rights and duties in a phase of important socio-economic and political development. In the territories of the “Italian Bailiwicks” controlled by the mountain Cantons Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (old members of the Swiss Confederation), this structure could perpetuate itself for a long time, since the process of administrative and political unification and “state-building” was less pronounced than in the Confederate cantons (Wiirgler 2013). This structure, however, as reported by GC:

(O)ver time has lost its sense, since the small corporations disappeared and in many cases the PG-OCL has taken over from them. [...] This is also because it is already difficult to find people even ready to be involved in the administration of the PG-OCL, let alone the village corporation [...] and so they closed the business.40

The small chapels have in most cases been transferred to the parish of Olivone. Not all the village corporations have disappeared, as NB and NS report:

NB: [T|here have been those who did not want to be incorporated definitively in the PG-OCL. Despite being commoners and members of the

Table 9.6 Internal organisation of the PG-OCL between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century (according to Bolla 1931)

PG-OCL, they still care about having their village corporation. He [NS], for example, is member of the corporation of Marzano-St. Roch and they wanted to keep it. NS: We practically created an association. It’s no longer a corporation under public law like the PG-OCL, it’s more like a recreational association.41

The past existence of a multi-layered structure divided into decentralised village units brought many advantages. They were small and flexible realities, more resilient if we think about today’s challenges in land management. They were based on the participation of all the members of the company, which is unthinkable today. Today the management of the territory is entrusted to an increasingly small number of farmers and livestock owners, while the administration of the corporation is based on a mix of voluntary and paid activities which, however, compensate for the commitment that such executive roles entail only to a small extent.

The present structure of the PG-OCL is much less complex than in the past, but this does not mean that the concerns related to generational change and the search for people willing to join the corporation executive disappear. Nowadays, these originally closed corporations often have to deal with the loss of interest, knowledge and experience of the territory by a large part of the population, commoner or not. Participation in the assemblies is perhaps the most eloquent indicator. There seems to have been a drop in interest compared to in the past, when local society had a very compact structure, albeit with inevitable divergences within it, and in which the decisions taken by the assemblies had much more concrete consequences on everyday lives than today, as reported by GC: “Regarding participation, in my opinion it is quite low. Usually about 30 persons participate, and only here in Olivone will there be at least 300 commoners [with voting rights] ...”42 . The decrease in participation in voting is, however, a general trend in society that is also found at municipal, cantonal and federal levels, starting from the second post-war period. It seems to be even more pronounced within the corporations, however.

The hope for continuity, however, pushes the respondents to look with a certain optimism towards the future of the management of collective resources. So, GC:

In the future I think it [the PG-COL] will be more oriented towards tourism [...] and much more in collaboration with the Municipality'. I see it as more open, I don’t see a return to closure and exclusivism. 1 see greater collaboration, while remaining a clearly separate entity' but more integrated. I do not see a questioning of its existence, because even if there are not many, there are young and active people. And this in my opinion bodes well.43

And finally, NB:

I hope that [the corporation] will continue to exist. But I am confident, because farms declined, but the few resisting are bigger and seem to be solid. And then there are young people ensuring continuity and, consequently, the mountain pastures owned by corporations will also be there in the future. Continuity is guaranteed. Here in Olivone, from a cultural point of view there is a particular attachment to agriculture and alpine pastures.44

This confidence is also reflected in the proactive attitude of some members of the corporation executive, and of the former president himself, regarding projects such as the National Park (Parc Adula). This was an initiative being studied in a large area straddling the Blenio Valley and the valleys of Graubiinden. The project had been put to popular consultation in 2016, but in the end, it was rejected by six municipalities from Graubiinden and two municipalities in the Blenio Valley. As NB reports:

I was very favourable to Parc Adula, I was a member of the operational group. [...]. In my opinion it was an opportunity, perhaps not an immediate one, but in the long term it would have brought economic activity for the region. But now ... it was a popular decision.45

This initiative saw members of the PG-OCL take sides in favour of a project that was inauspicious to the majority of the population of the concerned regions. At the time of the consultation within the Municipality of Blenio, a deep rift was created between proponents and opponents of the project, with significant political, social and interpersonal implications. This outcome, at least, is an indicator of decision-making processes and the low degree of acceptance of supra-regional projects.


Considering the case of Olivone as a “society in transition”, it is interesting to follow the decline of the “multi-layered structure” of at least medieval origins which lasted until the second half of the twentieth century. In Ticino, these multiple corporate structures are also attested in other regions, but they constitute a particular case in the Blenio Valley. The general trend of commoners’ organisations from the Ticino valleys is towards a simplification of structures compared to in the past. At an institutional level, they were very complex bodies. Today, however, it is the bureaucracy and system of relationships with higher-order entities that is more complex. The “internal corporation” of Olivone has disappeared, but at least one village corporation is still alive, even if it has other purposes than governing the commons. Starting from these very deep roots there could be a strategy to revitalise the so-called “commoner spirit”, through cultural initiatives and a greater dissemination of their role to the rest of the population. In this sense, an “identity utility” emerges in both the cantonal authorities and the local corporations, but rather as a programme. In recent years this awareness has declined in the PG-OCL due to lack of time and the availability of people actively involved in the administration of the corporation. Looking for a balance is not simple in a context where there is no professionalisation of roles and the continuity of activities rests entirely on the passion and availability of a few key people. The members of the corporation executive complain about the growing complexity of the problems and greater bureaucracy in relationships with other entities. There are positive elements, however, identified in the collaboration and dialogue established in recent decades with the municipality, the cantonal services, other corporations and new actors. A sendee and post-industrial society cannot ignore the collaboration between various actors. The hopes of the interviewees, however, seem to break with reality, due to the growing investments and commitment that the management of these corporations entails and, on the other hand, the low public awareness.

The new legislative and economic promotion tools made available by the canton and the spaces of collaboration between municipalities, corporations and other entities seem to pave the way for the future continuity' of corporations in Ticino. This largely counterbalances the lesser autonomy than in the days when the legal bases were more uncertain and conflicts more heated. On the other hand, the whole population’s lack of awareness of the role played by these corporations raises different questions.

Economic fragilities can be mitigated with the financial means allocated by the cantonal authorities, and through a more effective collaboration with other entities such as municipalities; however, the institutional and human resources fragilities limiting a proactive and project-oriented aptitude represent even greater challenges.

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