Fifteen municipalities in Central Italy have supported a participatory process and an application to the International Model Forest Network, to promote sustainable landscape management across an area of 31000ha in the Aterno River Valley, Italy.
The Aterno river, in central Italy, is a small river that springs from the Gran Sasso-Laga National park. It runs as a mountain stream until it meets the floodplain near L’Aquila, the chief town of the region. The river then runs into the Subequana Valley – a contrasting valley with a steep side of woodland, while the other consists of small plains and rolling hills once dominated by fields and orchards.
Along the Aterno River Valley are fortified villages which date back to the middle ages and whose towers are all in sight of each other. These villages have a common history of farming, woodcutting and pastoralism, and are partially included in the Sirente-Velino Regional Park. Populations of ungulates such as red deer, roe deer and boar are growing, as well as wolves that are an established presence in the area. And from time to time the endemic and rare Marsican brown bear also roams the valley.
The Aterno River Valley is a long-lived area that has been managed by and for the local communities for millennia, yet now the past manipulation of the landscape and the current rural depopulation are causing landscape challenges that impact people, nature and the local economy.
The Aterno River has been reshaped and manipulated over the centuries. Historically for mills and more recently to mitigate flooding, although this has sped up water flow and increased erosion while limiting groundwater infiltration. Deregulation and lack of control over irrigation mean that in the dry season parts of the river can be below the minimum flow or even dry. On top of this, in recent years recurrent bacterial contamination, especially in the driest months, means that local authorities issue irrigation bans each year.
Agriculture and pastoralism, once fundamental parts of local community life, have nearly disappeared, and the landscape is changing accordingly. Scrubland encroaches on farmland leading to a decline of mosaic landscape features and pastures. This is linked to a general decline of both common and rare bird species like the chough, red-backed shrikes and tawny pipit. The surviving agriculture is not very intensive: it maintains a good biodiversity value that deserves attention.
The forests that once played a major role in the local economy pose complex management problems to the community. Pioneering pines, widely planted in the last century to prevent soil erosion, are now a wildfire risk. Animal and plant species linked to high conservation value farmland are declining and invasive species are spreading instead. Wild boar gorge themselves on farm crops and are a constant threat to mountain agriculture. High ungulate populations support the expansion of Apenninic wolves, and in recent years this has led to further conflict through wolves predating on livestock.
The rich ecosystems of the Middle Aterno Valley that once provided for local families are now degraded. And communities are out of tune with the biodiversity of their landscape. Innovative, ecology-based models of rural economy are needed to stop land abandonment and support sustainable use of the Aterno River Valley landscape.
The Model Forest: Ecology-based rural economy to stop land abandonment
Model Forestry is a forest management approach based on the principles of broad partnership that uses innovation and local governance to improve the quality of life in rural areas. A Model forest is composed of rural territories that choose to manage their forest and ecosystem resources in a way that promotes partnership and sustainability. The Model Forest Approach supports permanent cooperation, networking and looking for shared solutions between conflicting local governments, businesses, associations, families and individuals. These aspects are fundamental for the community to join forces and manage, preserve and promote the territory as a whole.
Fifteen municipalities, with Regional Government support, have promoted a participatory process leading to the application to the International Model Forest Network. This covers an area of 31,000ha which includes municipalities located outside and within the Sirente-Velino Regional Park. A Non-profit Association has been established to manage the application process.
Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture awarded the Association a grant to prepare a forestry strategic plan. The aim of the strategic plan is to promote ecology-based models of a rural economy that provide adequate revenue for local inhabitants, based on forest management, agriculture and pastoralism and tourism. Forests can provide employment for NTFPs like fuelwood, truffles and tourism. While recovering pastoralist practices and valuable crops such as saffron could offer communities a stable income.
Potential for communities
The Aterno River Valley holds incredible potential for local communities. With the right management, the landscape can add tremendous benefit to local people, rural economy and biodiversity. Yet only with hard work and a shared vision, can communities build a new perspective of a future for this magnificent territory and rural life. This is the mission of the “Model Forest” project in the Middle Aterno Valley.
The Model Forest in the Aterno River Valley, Italy
20 year vision
Lively villages with a stable community of residents are surrounded by traditional mosaic landscapes, full of farmland with traditional crops. Low-intensity pastoralism following the traditional transhumance routes takes place in the nearby mountains. Sustainable forest management enhances biodiversity while providing forest resources. Local businesses – based on direct marketing of local agricultural and forest products – supports a rural economy. A restored riverine ecosystem flows year-round, following its natural course with wetlands operating as filters and groundwater recharge.
This is a landscape that any visitor can enjoy not only as a pleasant place to stay on holiday, but also as a living representation of what ecosystems are, how human communities can live in harmony with nature, and how they can contribute to the common good by providing ecosystem services whose benefits go well beyond the area itself. A living landscape laboratory for young generations to build their future for themselves.
A booklet from 2018, illustrating the vision we already have begun to realize. In Italian, but it contains several images.
This landscape is deeply rooted in local culture. All local traditionos are rooted in the landscape features. There is a deep link between human communities and this landscape, since before Roman times. Enhancing landscape stewardship means re-discovering deep, ancient cultural roots, and giving adequate framework for human communities to evolve into modern systems without dying out.
The Pagliare di Tione, an ancient highland settlement showing the long history of human-landscape interaction
The landscape of the Aterno Valley is extremely varied, a mosaic of farmland, pastures and forest, which represent a variety of opportunities not only for toursim and recreation, but also for food and other primary production. Despite heavy depopulation, young people are starting to approach agriculture again and come back to live in the area. There are new opportunities to market local agricultural products thanks to the Slow Food network. The participatory management of forest resources will open up new opportunities for woodland products (including non-wood ones).
Finding new ways of jointly managing common resources will make communities less conflictual and better places to live in.
Community meetings are an excellent way to build a shared vision about the future of the territory
The mosaic landscape of the Aterno Valley needs to maintain balance among its components to ensure all species are provided suitable habitat to live in.
Old growth forest is needed for species that have a low tolerance to disturbance, but also open habitat is needed for species that are linked to pastures and farmland. The abandonment of traditional farming activities has reduced open habitat and increased the risk of wildfires, so there is heavy pressure to “clear” land; but deadwood is also an important element in forest ecosystems. The river as well has been mismanaged and channeled, and the whole equilibrium with groundwater in the floodplain has been altered, leading to water shortages and pollution; vegetation on riverbanks is blamed instead, for episodes of flooding, so periodically the riverbanks are cleared and the river bed escavated.
Carbon capture is the only ecosystem service that has actually a global market. Carbon credits are being explored as a way of financing good forest management, and regenerative agricultural practices.
An unspoilt stretch of the Aterno River
Some new enterprises in the area had a good success in finding ways of transforing and selling local products in the nearby towns, also through the network of Slow Food or other farmers organizations. The entrepreneurial spirit needs to be supported through adequate incubation and acceleration tools and can spread successful nature-positive business models that rely on many family-run businesses. Principles of landscape finance and enterprise facilitation can help promote sustainability of economic development in the area.
New enterprises, such as a farm brewery, manage to enhance the value of local productions
The forest is used for recreation and for non-wood products. Wild fauna is increasing its population making it easy to carry out wildwatching activities. Pasture can be considered a seminatural habitat where fauna and domesticated animals share the space and resources such as ponds and water troughs, and create a pleasant iconic landscape.
Cattle grazing keeps open habitat suitable for wild fauna to thrive
Most of the area can fall within the definition of the combined zone, where forestry and farming create the mosaic landscape. The sunny oak woodland produce truffles, that can be found in the wild or cultivated in specific plantations. Farmland is cultivated in rotation with cereals, legumes, fuits and forage, it is irrigated in the river floodplain and dry on terraces. Animal farming involves grazing on natural pasture, and has a stewardship value in these habitats
The landscape mosaic on the hills
There are several economic activities that already profit from local productions. Meat and cheese are produced from grazing cattle and sheep, but there is also an intensive pig farm (that needs to improve its sludge management).
A local brewery and a bakery transform ancient cereals into typical products that sell outside the area. The villages host several family run Bed and Breakfast businesses, and in summer each village has a rich programme of cultural events that attract tourists from outside the area. All year long there is a steady flow of foreign tourists, some occasional, some regular. There is a elderly sanitary residence that is a local employer, and there are also some industrial parks, where there are commercial and artisanal activities, mainly in the farming and building sector.
Many local products, such as saffron and truffles, have a very high merket value
In a landscape that is already dominated by woodland, restoration means switching to good forestry management that ensures ecological integrity and the maintenance of the farmland mosaic, a seminatural habitat of great ecological value. There is already a Ministry grant to start planning this new approach to forest management, that will be participatory and will include consideration for private, public and collective property all alike. Most of the forest in the area is managed as coppice and produces fuelwood, that is going to be increasingly in demand as the gas prices rise. There is a need to complement the normative approach (that authorizes a wood cut just on demand of the owner) with a planning approach that avoids overexploitation at landscape scale, facilitating a rational allocation of cuts and a diversification of management practices, favouring the switch to old growth and selective cutting where appropriate.
Role of business
The tourism and farming sector have already demonstrated successful business models based on sustainable use of the land, that can cooperate to empower each other. Organic farms get an additional revenue from tourism, and tourists enjoy the experience of a lively productive landscape, besides the cultural treasures and the tasty specialties; these positive examples need to be scaled up and replicated.
The traditional forestry businesses (mostly charcoal and fuelwood, and some carpentry craft) are presently dying out and need to be reviewed and renewed. Sustainability needs to become the backbone of this sector, through training and the activation of new value chains more directly linked to ecosystem services, such as carbon credits and biochar. The Association includes several local enterprises, among which one specialized in forest management, the brewery, some farms, some tourism businesses and a local startup that is developing a biochar-based carbon credit scheme.
Private investment in landscape conservation is a novelty in Italy. The idea of promoting nature positive businesses would be a first of its kind in the country and become a positive example for others too.
Achieved so far
With past grant funding, like the Mediterranean Mosaics project by Mava Foundation, some small demonstration activities have been realized on forest and water pond management, showing what can be achieved with proper ecological management. The greatest result, though, has been achieved in later years, and it was managing to bring institutions together. An extensive participatory consultation process took place, with public assemblies on thematic topics, gathering the views of the population on the management of resourcces in the landscape. Fifteen municipalities, some tiny, some small, that were used to run by themselves, were convinced to join forces and constitute a public-private Association where citizens, institutions and businesses sit together to discuss the future of the land. Presently the Association is composed by about 75 voting members and the numbers are growing.