Human Ecology

, Volume 39, Issue 6, pp 769–781 | Cite as

Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Swiss Alpine Farmers and their Resilience to Socioecological Change

  • Markus von Glasenapp
  • Thomas F. Thornton


The cultural landscape of the European Alps was formed over centuries through human agricultural activities. Smallholder family farms, made famous in the cultural ecological literature by Robert Netting (1993), are still the predominant socioeconomic unit of agriculture. This study assesses the resilience of farm households in relation to climate change in the village of Vals, Switzerland. Using ethnographic methods, farming households’ resilience to environmental change was investigated from two perspectives: 1) an assessment of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in the household and its social networks; and 2) the assets of the various livelihood strategies of the farms. TEK was found to be of vital significance for management of the local environment, despite its reduced integrity due to contraction of farmland holdings, mechanization of certain tasks, and fragmentation of the agricultural ecosystem into different jurisdictions. Today the strongest and most critical areas of TEK are centered on production of agricultural goods and hazard management. Households’ TEK, in combination with their flexible structure, gives them a high degree of adaptive capacity that nevertheless must be viewed in the context of an environment including not only significant natural constraints and variability, but also local and non-local sociopolitical factors, including state subsidies, which constitute a significant share of farmers’ income, and political directives to maintain biodiversity. TEK must also be responsive to these constraints and the premises of biodiversity conservation and landscape and livelihood maintenance that underlie them.


Traditional ecological knowledge Adaptive management Swiss alpine smallholder farms Political ecology Adaptive capacity Socioecological change 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental Change InstituteOxford UniversityZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Environmental Change InstituteOxford UniversityOxfordUK

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