Reconversion policies and ski implants: sustainable local development in Trentino-Alto Adige

di AA.VV. - Autori vari - 30 Novembre 2020

 from Rome, Italy

 DOI : 10.48256/TDM2012_00156


This article presents a possible project of local sustainable development in Trentino Alto-Adige. The focus of the project will be on the rural areas that inhabit the different valleys of which the region is naturally abundant. The aim of such a proposal will be that of re-organizing resources already present on the territory in “new”, more competitive ways. This proposal is developed around a context which  is considerate of issues such as depopulation trends, climate change, and cultural resilience factors. It is under this light that a tourism-centered activity is put forward, where the valorisation of the territory and its people are pivotal. Further, tourism is one of the sectors in which endogenous resources are best combined in an innovative way (Milán-Garcia et al. 2019), acquiring particular importance in regions witnessing steady depopulation trends.

The central point developed is how skiing facilities could be repurposed during summer (and increasingly winter) to create a network between different local agritourism locations. Such links would provide an interesting framework where tourists and local businesses become woven into the natural environment. Moreover, the conversion of some farms – along these routes and valleys – into small hubs for tourists presents significant market opportunities and windows of development. What distinguishes this approach from other growth models is its emphasis on the regional factor, where endemic resources are re-worked allowing for different cause-effect relations. Through incentives from the government and other European institutions (e.g. European Investment Bank), there is the real possibility of creating an enogastronomic route across different valleys. In addition, this initiative would not just be strengthening social cohesion but could – along with inclusive policies of credit and funds – help to level up socio-economic and geographic disparities.


Problematizing capacity building- bottom-up approaches and what does that mean

As most projects of development, it is important to talk about ‘capacity building’. Nevertheless, Schacter (2000) argues that it has become so “all-encompassing a term as to be ‘useless’ from an analytical and practical perspective”. Others call it a “buzzword”, which is a “term that combines general agreement on the abstract notion that it represents” (Cornwall 2010). Sometimes the word is but a more serious-sounding term for “training” and it is often used to further a neo-liberal economic and political agenda. However, its usefulness should not be overlooked so easily, as it is precisely within the wider context of local and global relations that we define its applicability. Capacity building is not a universal recipe prescribing “how to do it”. Rather it rests on the belief that the role of outsider institutions and organisations is that of supporting the principle of self-determination of the communities affected (Eade 2010, 209).

Questions as to who is entitled to what training/ resource in the context of capacity building are crucial. Amartya Sen’s work on entitlement and capabilities shows how during the process of “development” different axes of power manifest through exclusionary bases.  The Italian legislation is quite specific as to what constitutes an “agriturismo, for example, informing our understanding of “whose capacity of what?”. Given this tension between legitimization and social equity in the case of Trentino, our approach will be theoretically mindful of such a stress. Additionaly, Trentino has experienced important depopulation trends, particularly in rural areas. Thus, further measures other than those presently suggested are to be ascribed to this particular context. An example would be the funding of the project/s through initiatives of shared participation and communal shareholdings. As a bottom-line, sustainable changes in people’s lives mean a long-term commitment and listening to what they say (Eade 2010, 207).


Good governance advances sustainable development

In the wake of the neo-liberal turn that took place in the 1970s, the crisis of governability brought about new socio-political dynamics. The shift in public government led the debate to the then-novel concept of governance. Governance encompassed the new competitive market relations, the shifting responsibility to the individual, and increasing social efficiency (Bevir 2011): governance is the consolidation of regulatory capitalism (Levi-Faur 2012). It represents the multiplication of nodes of power across societies and is guided by principles of inclusiveness, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, and equity (Malito 2015). Governance networks represent a horizontal interplay between interdependent private and public actors that contribute to the self-regulatory production of policies (Torfing 2012). 

Good governance results from the fulfillment of the above-mentioned principles, and it is a precondition to achieve sustainable development (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development 2002).  It means that the outcome of the governance process accommodates local demands, benefiting from increased political engagement and the employment of local resources (Evans et al. 2006). Yet, the underutilisation of locally available resources in Trentino-Alto Adige does not fulfill such requirements. The lack of responsiveness displayed by local authorities denotes their deficient consideration of climate change issues and sustainable growth. Setting  reconversion policies represents the promotion of social capital –  a key factor to manage locally available resources to advance development. Fostering relationships between civil society and multi-level public agencies promotes sustainable development because of greater exchanges in a bottom-up approach. However, to achieve good governance, it is primordial to set policies with a sustainability-driven rationale to benefit the most from local resources.


Ski resorts and their dubious destiny

Many are the crises faced by Western countries, be them economic, social, or political. One of them is though set to encompass them all: the climate crisis. “Alpine skiing” is an economy that hasn’t been able -and probably ever will- to fully adapt to this scenario. In the mountains, temperatures are rising double as fast compared to the plains. Shorter winters and longer summers. This has brought a good lot of ski resorts to be dismissed, especially those built in areas not suitable for this practice. Some installations were, in some cases, even below 1000 meters above sea level. In Italy alone there are 348 ski resorts dismissed as per February 2020, 132 of which have not been working in years (Legambiente 2020). Another 113 (mostly under 1500m) have been struggling in recent years, receiving public funds (already shrinking) to just postpone an inevitable destiny. Moreover, dismantling also costs money.

For what concerns Trentino, an emblematic case of “therapeutic obstinacy” is presented by the case of Bolbeno-Borgo Lares (TN). In recent years, the autonomous province of Trento has invested 4 million worth euros to help save the unsavable. All money that could be spent in other ways, considering experts also suggest not to invest in ski resorts below 1500m (Legambiente 2020). In fact, Bolbeno-Borgo Lares finds itself just between 663m and 573m above sea level, all powered by artificial snow (ibid). Effectively it is a hopeless investment and in the wrong direction, inconsiderate of the ecological transition we are witnessing. Rather, the suggestion here is to look at new initiatives of economic diversification, where other resources other than that of winter snow can be valued. “Agriturismo” seemed a good fit into this scenario, precisely in virtue of its ability to mobilize different socio-economic actors and dynamics (Santucci 2013).


Countryside capital and sustainable local development

Agritourism is a model of alternative growth. It is built upon the material and immaterial local resources, defined by Garrod et al 2006 (quoted in Ohe and Ciani 2011, 583) as countryside capital, the driving force of sustainable development. An “agriturismo” is enmeshed in both horizontal and vertical structures of power. Horizontal because it draws on cultural and community-based values and understandings; vertical because it is subject to institutional scrutiny and regulation (Santucci 2013). Further, relying on community-driven co-innovative processes (or smart growth), agritourism is able to involve local and region/national actors (Milán-García et al. 2019; Ohe and Ciani 2011), thus enriching its potential for development. Advantages are prevention of depopulation, conservation of cultural heritage, maintenance of biodiversity, and development of sustainable agricultural techniques (e.g. prevention of soil erosion) (Lupi et al. 2017). 

Agritourism represents one of the most radical innovations of the Italian agricultural sector (Lupi et al. 2017), whose competitive differential is the cultural narrative. In Trentino-Alto Adige, out of 20.024 operating farms, 3.648 are authorized agritourism – roughly 18% of the farms in the region (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica 2018). Yet, statistics translate into higher net farm income per adult working unit and incentives for local businesses to provide complementary services outside the farm (Santucci 2013). The number of Italian tourists in agritourism grew by 53% between 2005-2010; foreign visitors, by 61% (Santucci 2013). Therefore, the underutilisation of existing infrastructure exposes the multi-layered missed opportunities that alternative growth models may offer to the region. A rapidly growing market that also valorizes the territory and its cultural heritage are what puts this business at the forefront of sustainable local development. These bases elucidate how agritourism and ski resorts are possible ways forward. 


Sustainable local development projects: support of social fabric and economic growth

Sustainable local development is driven by the prospect of self-maintenance within the boundaries of the surrounding environment, benefiting from endogenous socio-economic resources. It is a growth model that emphasizes local/regional dynamics, engendering community resilience through local collaborative initiatives (Milán-García et al. 2019). The creative rural economy, of which agritourism is part, links the entire food supply chain in a community in alternative ways. This modification is due to the double benefit raised by such projects. First, the support of the social fabric; second, the consequential economic growth and development. The former is related to the contribution to social cohesion through value-sharing and identity-related culture preservation. The latter is a consequence of the former, the two dynamics being mutually reinforcing.  

Different initiatives, such as agritourism, the Italian projects “Adopt a Cow” and “Solidarity Purchase Groups”, contribute to sustainable local development. These initiatives share core values such as environmental priority, strengthening community feelings, ethical consumerism, and so on (Blasi et al. 2015). In geographically challenged regions, such as the mountainous Trentino-Alto Adige, alternative food chains, and agritourism may be bridging schemes that promote regional development. In Trentino, around 10% of farms sell products directly to consumers (Blasi et al. 2015), which denotes a high level of community-supported agriculture. These projects, within the sustainable local development principle, signal a communal commitment to “the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable food consumption, distribution and production” (Blasi et al. 2015, 1). Again, this principle should guide local authorities in their responsiveness towards climate change and reconversion of infrastructures to benefit the most from locally available resources.  


A “Globalised localism”: an enogastronomic route across Trentino’s valleys

What could the tourist landscape look like in the future? Most importantly, how are we to make projects appealing to the tourist industry? This is simple: by valorising the territory and its people. Trentino has a lot to offer, both for its breath-taking landscapes and local/regional products. Agritourism has the peculiar ability to combine them both. Ski resorts have the capacity to link different valleys and so different agriturismo locations, thus enhancing mobility. In a sense, there is a parallel that could be drawn here, and that is between the local and the global. In fact, by providing access to different valleys and agritourisms – and their local cuisine variations – the narrative would be very much resembling that of a “globalized localism”. Further, on-site organic grown food and the surrounding natural environment will emphasize a sense of peaceful isolation, while being a few kilometers from most urban centres.


Concluding remarks

The Italian economic boom of the 1960s-70s brought about not just an optimistic view and renewed confidence in human possibilities. It also carried a needless ability to build anything anywhere, low-altitude ski resorts included.  Yet, some ski facilities were built just to please local villages and not in pursuit of meaningful investments. However, not all hope is lost. Instead of considering ski resorts as unfruitful machineries, this article suggests feasible alternatives. Most of those ski resorts deemed as failing still have prospects, e.g. they could be used as alternative means of transport, linking different valleys. Some rural villages, unsuitable for the skiing industry, have nonetheless their own implant, and that shall be valued, and where possible exploited, as an endemic resource. A communication network could be used in a synergistic effort not just to make rural realities less peripheric, but also to sustain other initiatives such as agritourism.

Reconversion policies must be guided by the sustainable development principle. Initiatives such as the above-discussed agritourism are founded on such a principle and can be employed in the ski resort prospects. Mountainous communities and their cultural heritage have a lot to offer in terms of sustainable growth, addressing concomitantly climate change awareness, community empowerment, etc. They should benefit from incentives to develop local alternative growth models and reconversion policies are one example. Such policies are responsive and sustainable, resulting in the promotion of local development through good governance practices. Agritourism is one of the reconversion policies available, but possibilities are numerous. Yet, the robustness of the proposal is materialized in the employment of social capital and locally available resources as a path towards sustainable local development.


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Autori dell’articolo*

*Beatriz Pimenta Klein, expert in international security of the think tank Trinità dei Monti. BA in International Relations at Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, and Master’s student in International Security Studies at Università di Trento/Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna.

*Matthew Anni, BA in Anthropology and Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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