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Verzasca Nomads

Ronald Patrick (Chile)

Today, Switzerland might be more well-known for the money that traverses and flows within its borders, but the country’s also host to a much more ancient kind of movement. Hidden in plain sight throughout the grandiose mountains and valleys of the country, stone houses and ruins dot paths that nomads have walked on with their animals for centuries bearing witness to this country’s deep-rooted traditions of transhumance. In the Verzasca Valley, in the South of Switzerland, communities have kept these old customs alive, passing down the skills and knowledge necessary from generation-to-generation.

The bucolic landscapes of placid streams, lakes and meadows conceal the intensive labour carried out by those who live in this region; the daily caring for the livestock, hay baling, fencing and, of course, the many kilometres walked by foot herding animals from lower to higher planes in accordance to the seasons. The work is by nature a collaborative affair making these communities tight-knit; neighbours rely on each other for the accomplishment of tasks and share their lands for the livestock to graze on. Manual activities like these are increasingly shunned by younger inhabitants of the valley who often leave for the cities in search of the comforts of modern life, yet have also recently become coveted by a few urbanites enamoured by the idea of self-sustainability and living in closer contact to nature. With every exodus looms the threat that these ways of life might disappear entirely, with their future hanging by a delicate balance between those who leave, the few who remain, and the even fewer who chose to settle here.

Seven years ago, Gloria and Lorenzo Schärer traded their careers as teachers to become students of the land in Vald di Gerra Verzasca. With no prior experience in rural living or knowledge in farming, the couple bought a patch of land on the alps at 1270 meters above sea level, where they now tend to their 130 goats milking them twice a day throughout the year to produce a range of bio-graded dairy products such as ricotta, buscion and raclette cheese. This area is renowned for its fertile grounds where lush green grass grows abundantly allowing farmers and nomads to make exceptionally good “Swiss made” products – a distinguished label that requires rigorous criteria to have been met in the process. Despite the quaint settings, farming in Switzerland is far from a “simple life” affair, there’s an immense amount of regulation that controls every minute detail and step of the way, with a lot of the farmer’s time spent on paperwork and administrative hurdles. It’s been a long learning curve for the Schärer’s, but so far the benefits of living in the pristine valley have far outweighed the bureaucratic drawbacks. The couple’s two young children were born into transhumance, and, like every newborn to this valley, carry in them the hope of the lifestyle’s future.

Switzerland’s wealth and stability has meant that transhumance in Verzasca Valley also bears some fewer burdens than it would in other parts of the world. Import restrictions and state subsidies protect farmers’ trade and produce, and the supplies and equipment needed for the job might even get VIP transportation to the alps by helicopter. At a time when many become discouraged from venturing into off-the-grid lifestyles believing these to be the thing of evermore far-flung destinations, this valley in the heart of Europe shows the dream isn’t as remote as one might think. Still, the leap requires both courage and patience, and the preservation of this nomadic culture is largely dependent on the depth of the ties built between the community’s elders and younger apprentices, locals or foreigners, who can carry the age-old wisdom forward – something money just can’t buy.

Harboured in this quiet Swiss valley are some of the tensions between progressiveness and tradition that are seen playing out across the world, and if the people in Verzasca can find a way forward, then it’s a path worth taking note.


Ronald Patrick grew up in Santiago de Chile. After completing his studies on Business and Economics, he decided to undertake his passion for photography and focus on stories that are important to him.

Since 2008, he has been working in the photo-documentary field as well as in corporate photography. He has worked on numerous personal projects and commissions all over the world.