The Club Alpino Italiano and the defence of the environment, from its founding (1863) to the present day

Par Stefano Morosini, Ph.D., Contemporary History, University of Milan

ABSTRACT

The Club Alpino Italiano (CAI – Italian Alpine Club) was founded in Turin in 1863. It has always been very active in reforestation campaigns, promoting and ensuring the protection of Alpine flora and fauna, the development of craftsmanship and small mountain factories, the control of water courses and the development of mountain agriculture. This environmental perspective changed completely during the First World War, when the fighting between Italy and Austria considerably damaged the Alpine landscape and its environment. Many members of the CAI were officers of the Alpini corps and described their experiences and all the changes occurring in the high mountain areas in letters, diaries and articles. After the war, the CAI supported the policy of environmental protection and the creation of national parks. During the fascist period, the trends were contradictory. In 1927, the CAI was placed under the Olympic Committee (which fell under the control of the Ministry of Popular Culture), and all democratic procedures were erased. In one article dated March 1934, the CAI’s monthly journal describes Mussolini as a skier (even though the country’s fascist leader could not ski). On the one hand, the CAI’s environmental commitment grew weak: It issued no critical comments after the Gleno Dam collapse (1923) or regarding the Molare Dam disaster (1935); on the other hand, the CAI, despite being a pro-regime association, protested against the construction of roads and hotels in the Breuil Basin, on the Italian side of Mount Cervino. In the 1950s and 1960s, as a result of the rapid development of tourism infrastructure and facilities for winter sports, the CAI expressed its opposition to the construction of cableways. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the CAI took part in protests against the development of uranium mines and at a later date was also involved in protesting against marble extraction plans in the Apuan Alps.

The origins of the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI)

When the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) was founded in Turin in 1863, the Alps were just starting to develop their tourism potential, with the opening of the first hotels and the construction of new roads. This development was aimed at providing easy access to Alpine towns, which were the first destinations for summer vacations, and therefore to mountain areas favourable to hiking or climbing. In fact, tourism and mountaineering also made progress. An analysis of the Italian situation and in particular of the evolution of environmental protection by the CAI and its members, since its founding and over subsequent decades, could shed light on the changes and the challenges of today. Although a reference to defending the natural environment was only inserted into the first paragraph of the statute of the CAI in 2004, the presence of environmental awareness was already present during the first years of the association (Pastore, 2003; Armiero, 2013). From the outset, Quintino Sella (1827-1884) and Richard Henry Budden (1826-1895) were both very active in campaigns in favour of the reforestation of eroded or over-exploited areas. Sella was the well-known founder of the CAI, as well as a scientist, entrepreneur and minister (Crivellaro, 1988), and the less celebrated Budden, who served as central council member and president of the Florence section, was a British philanthropist who had moved to Italy and quickly became enamoured with the mountains. He was even called the “apostle of Italian mountaineering” (Morosini, 2015). These two individuals also supported Alpine botanical gardens and meteorological observatories and promoted and ensured the protection of the Alpine flora and fauna, the development of craftsmanship and small mountain factories, the regulation of water streams and the development of mountain agriculture, livestock rearing, fish farming and beekeeping. The aim of these activities, which were often inspired by the best practices in Europe, was to ensure the sustainable development of the Alps and foster their economic potential while paying special attention to the promotion of local resources. With regard to tourism, the CAI initially built shelters and organised the first Alpine guides and porter’s corps. In the late 19th century and at the beginning of 20th century, the CAI was involved in a debate over the use of water and the construction of reservoirs, firstly as a possibility to control the irrigation of plains and subsequent improvement of agricultural production, and secondly as a way to harness motive power and later electricity. In 1897 the CAI became part of Pro Montibus, the Italian Association for the Protection of Plants and Reforestation, and one year later took part in the first edition of Plants Day (Pro Montibus, 1898). In 1913 the CAI founded, together with the Touring Club Italiano, the National Committee for the Defence of Landscape and Monuments (Comitato nazionale, 1913).

The First World War and the fascist era

This environmental perspective changed completely during the First World War, when fighting between Italy and Austria considerably damaged the Alpine landscape and its environment. Many members of the CAI were officers of the Alpini corps. In letters, diaries and articles, they described their war experience and all the changes taking place in the high mountain areas (Morosini & Zaffonato, 2015; Zaffonato, 2016). The articles published in the CAI review feature many descriptions of the construction of new tracks, roads, tunnels and cableways, as well as trenches, fortifications and artillery emplacements. After the First World War, the CAI supported the policy of establishing and developing national parks. After Sweden (1909), Switzerland (1914) and Spain (1918), Italy established the two national parks of Gran Paradiso and Abruzzo in 1923, many years before France, Great Britain and Germany, which created their first national parks after the Second World War. In the pages of the monthly review of the CAI there are also articles dedicated to European reservations like the Tatra Mountains National Park between Poland and Czechoslovakia (Pawlikowski, 1932). But very soon fascist power reduced the autonomy and efficiency of the two parks, and in 1928 the Pro Montibus association closed (Cederna, 1975; Piccioni, 1999). In 1927 the CAI was placed under the control of the Italian Olympic Committee, which reported directly to the National Fascist Party. This resulted in the loss of democratic elections and strict control over the central and local offices. On the one hand, the environmental commitment of the CAI grew weak: It issued no critical comments after the Gleno Dam disaster of 1 December 1923, which occurred in the Scalve Valley (Bergamo Province, Lombardy), when a dam wall collapsed and the resulting water flow caused over 500 deaths in the villages below (Bendotti, 2013). There was no mention of the Molare Dam disaster of 13 August 1935 (Alessandria Province, Piedmont) either, when the lake overflowed and caused over 110 deaths (Laguzzi, Ferrando & Bonaria, 2005). In 1934 an advertisement in the CAI’s monthly magazine celebrated the off-road performance of the Fiat 1500, and in the same year an article in the review described Mussolini as a skier (even though the country’s fascist leader could not ski). On the other hand, despite being a pro-regime association, the CAI (represented by Guido Rey) protested against the construction of roads and hotels in the Breuil Basin, on the Italian side of Mount Cervino (Manaresi, 1934).

From the post–World War II era to the present day

After the Second World War and in particular in the 1950s and 1960s, as a result of the rapid development of tourism infrastructures and facilities for winter sports, the CAI often expressed its opposition to the construction of cable cars in high mountain areas. In 1951 the central executive council of the CAI opposed the project to construct a cableway and observatory on Mount Cervino. In 1955 it protested, together with the Union International des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA), against the construction of a cableway on Mont Blanc and in 1956 officially expressed its solidarity with the Fédération Française de la Montagne et de l’Escalade and the Club Alpin Français in their protest against the construction of the Pointe Helbronner-Aiguille du Midi cable car. There was still no critical position on the intensive development of dams and hydroelectric power plant in the Alps and against the major disaster that occurred at the Vajont Dam, when on 9 October 1963 a massive landslide on the side of Mount Toc caused a 250-metre wave of 50 million cubic metres of water. The wave completely destroyed the town of Longarone in the valley below the dam, as well as other villages and towns, and killed a total of 1,917 people. In this context, it is also interesting to analyse the evolution of the environmental policy of the Società degli Alpinisti Tridentini (SAT) with regard to ski lifts. In the 1950s, at the beginning of winter sports development in Trentino, members of the SAT supported the construction of new winter resorts in the Dolomites, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s their position changed, when they took a radical stance against new structures (Ambrosi, 2016). In the same period, the CAI took part in protests against the development of uranium mines. For example, in April 1979, the CAI sections of Genoa, Savona and Ventimiglia (Liguria) took part, together with Italia Nostra and Pro Natura, in a protest against the uranium mine of St. Dalmas de Tende. In more recent times, the Tuscany sections of the CAI have also participated in protests against marble extraction plans in the Apuan Alps. Today CAI members have substantial ecological awareness. The CAI is approved as an environmentalist association in local advisory councils and works together with organisations like Legambiente, Mountain Wilderness and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

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Citer ce billet
Stéphanie Rouanet (2017, 1 juin). The Club Alpino Italiano and the defence of the environment, from its founding (1863) to the present day. Les carnets du Labex ITEM. Consulté le 13 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/qo59