The mountain village of Les Diablerets has launched a local currency known as the ‘Isenau’ to help save an endangered ski area and secure the village’s future. Complementary currencies are popping up in Switzerland as ways of raising valuable funds and of encouraging people to think and buy local.
“This is on me,” says Jean-Marie Schlaubitz, a member of the Foundation for the Defence of Isenau’s Interestsexternal link, as he reaches across the table to pay for my coffee.
A large gold-and-grey coin embossed with a gondola chairlift glints in his hand. On the flip side is a Diaboltin – a mythical flute-playing fairy, the symbol of Les Diableretsexternal link.
Since December 1, 2016, 50,000 Isenau coins– each worth CHF10 ($10) - have started to circulate in the local economy alongside the Swiss franc. The foundation launched the currency to help finance a replacement for the aging four-seater bubble lift in the Isenau area above the village. It was originally built in 1953. The foundation also wants to raise wider awareness about the future of the sunny south-facing mountain area, which is a favourite with beginners and families in winter, and hikers and mountain bikers in summer.
Residents and visitors in the mountain resort can invest in their cause by paying for local products and public services with Isenau money.
Standing behind piles of goat’s cheese and Gruyère, Lucien Morerod, who runs the Laiterie du Petit Diable cheese shop, is one of the converts.
“It works really well. Some people buy CHF10 worth of cheese and pay with a CHF20 note. We ask if they want an Isenau coin back or a CHF10 note,” he explains. “The only problem is people tend to keep them in their pocket and don’t give them back much - a bit more in the restaurants. The currency needs to circulate a bit more.”
Replacing the distinctive bubble lift has turned into a highly symbolic emotional battle for the small ski resort, whose population grows in winter from 1,400 to 10,000 thanks to many Swiss, British, French and Scandinavians visitors.
Securing the future of Isenau should help safeguard the future of the village, explains Schlaubitz in this short video.
He says it provides an enormous socio-economic contribution with 50 direct and indirect jobs, 80% of ski school revenue and income for hotels in Les Diablerets.
“It’s our only four seasons area and they wanted to get rid of it,” he adds.
The fight to save Isenau has been going on for over six years, ever since canton Vaud established a moratorium on public funding for ski projects. In 2011, it was proposed to scrap the Isenau area largely for financial reasons, but locals fought back and in 2013 finally got Isenau’s renewal registered in the Vaudois Alps cantonal development planexternal link.
But saving the lift and mountain area came with conditions: the merging of Les Diablerets tourist office with the one in neighbouring Villars external linkas well as their ski lift companies, and for the local community to put their hands into their own pockets for the new cable car.
The foundation hopes the currency scheme will raise CHF250,000 by April when it ends. The money will reimburse a municipal loan that forms part of the CHF4 million the foundation is seeking from private donors. The lift company is responsible for the remaining CHF9.5 million.
The campaign to save Isenau has involved a tremendous effort, said Schlaubitz. One remarkable consequence of the currency scheme is its galvanizing effect on residents and holiday home owners, both young and old.
“The currency has brought together people both close to the project and youngsters from the village who were previously only involved marginally. Young active adults have realized they need to invest energy to save their future so outside work they visit businesses and follow up to raise interest,” he said.
But all is not over yet. While the fundraising looks like it is on target, the Vaud government and parliament must still give a final green-light. And locals are concerned that a separate Les Diablerets ski lift project, suggested for the Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Gamesexternal link, could scupper the Isenau lift at the last minute.
“If we lose Isenau, it's a disaster,” said Schlaubitz. “We can't let that happen. In a village that decides to suppress its ski runs you can't reasonably imagine an investor coming forward to invest. It's the worst signal you can give.”