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Zau Zoura /SD Ayer - Introduction : Ayer village

A combination of old, new and traditional buildings.

Ayer village - A combination of old, new and traditional buildings

A thorough exploration of Ayer village today holds the key to understanding the special relationship between the village and the land. A study of the local geography and architecture reveals an impressive mix of styles belonging to three different time frames. You will find various ancient, near archaic buildings, several examples of an ever evolving modern architecture, and a few structures testifying to a fresh concern for the environment. At the heart of the old village and its beautifully preserved treasures, you must note the modern construction along the cantonal road towards Zinal. As you drive or walk down, you will then discover the new « galaxy » of recent buildings challenging the steepest slopes, to the north and to the east. The fundamental resilience of mountain people becomes clear when one sees these changes taking place. Actually, Ayer traditionnel village might well have fallen into lethargy or even been abandoned when the major tourism revolution of the sixties occurred, a phenomenon which initiated a new upward immigration in Zinal. Ayer continued to thrive, however, with some of its inhabitants and younger generations settling in new buildings. The rehabilitated Nava high mountain pasture, with its large cowshed managed by the consortage, allowed for a new form of cattle breeding. Numerous tourists favouring the sun drenched slopes established a holiday home or even a permanent home in Ayer. A new social life developed with the support of the lively Société de Développement.

To understand the forest, a leap into the past is necessary. As early as the 16th century, Ayer was a most substantial village in Anniviers, on par with Grimentz, St-Luc, and later with St-Jean. In the old “district” system, Ayer and Mission operated together as a first rate power. At the heart of the district each village had its “Community”. Ayer’s community for instance includes undivided property and private property, a combination that sometimes works smoothly and sometimes breeds conflicts. The “Community” ensures the proper working of the village and of its various homes and constructions designed to shelter people and animals. In the area around the village, meadows, fields, and shared ways are delineated by a comprehensive network of footpaths and irrigations canals (bisses).

The forest plays an essential role and has three main functions: ensuring protection against avalanches, providing firewood and offering basic material for construction. In addition, the forest offers resources to a society defined by the circular relation between people, animals and land, and by a delicate balance between preservation and consumption. Important variables to take into account in forest analysis are :

  • Wood preservation
  • Logging
  • Wildlife-habitat relationship
  • « A bonanza» for mountain population
  • Litter harvesting

Windstorm “Vivian” that hit Switzerland and the Alpine region in 1990 was a large scale natural disaster with 590'000 m3 of timber felled in Valais. After the storm, the canton announced long term disaster preventions measures including the Zau Zoura project in Ayer. This project was a capital innovation. It signaled the birth of neo-environmentalism among indigenous populations in the Alps. There was a revolutionary change in people’s thinking, from looking to the earth only for nurture and production. Now,they found that it was no longer enough to produce, consume and destroy but that one must also protect, preserve, conserve and allow for renewal. Paradoxically, it turns out that this change of outlook is to some degree a return to the genius of ancient mountain communities. Nobel prize recipients in economics are now coming to Valais to study these primitive forms of economy and report on their possible implementation today, in other parts of the world. The humble author of these lines dare say: « In the traditional life of the mountain we have a thousand years of ecology behind us ! ».

Text : Bernard Crettaz, sociologist





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