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Once, if you wanted to understand ties between local livelihoods and the flow of major commodities in global markets, you looked for the flow of water from the hinterlands into the major centers. As the flow of commodities has become denser and more complicated, this type of analysis would no longer be productive. The energy of water no longer facilitates travel and exchange as it used to. Where feasible, its great force, however, has been harnessed to drive economic growth through power generation. The use of water has increasingly become an issue of political contention around the world. Three European cases show how water courses have taken on symbolic meaning in the assertion of local claims to autonomy in the face of a changing global political economy.

The Ammerån of mid Sweden was once a water course by which timber was moved from forests in the interior to mills and then shipped to centers. Over the years, this river has seen modification to its shape and flow. Initially piers and barriers were constructed along its banks to create channels for logs. Finally, as late as the 1970’s, the water course was dredged by machines to remove obstacles to flow. Yet a proposal for a large hydro development which would divert the lower part of the Ammerån into another river was reason for protest. An important case was fought against the State hydro company, and the river was spared from diversion. In the process, those along the river began thinking more carefully about their relationship with the center, and a range of community level initiatives emerged. One of these was a new protected area for the Ammerån. While forestry continues to be an important occupation in the region, the river has been the site of new efforts to balance local subsistence use of fish, and a growing interest in sport-fishing tourism, which links to the park to help draw visitors to this area.

In the tight, steep Valle di Muggio in Ticino, Switzerland, we find the Breggia River which runs a length of about 20 km while dropping over 1000 vertical meters before emptying into Lake Como. In spite of the geological severity of the river valley, our friend and guide Alvaro tells us the Breggia was once lined by 28 mills. These mills were used for both local produce, as well as serving more distant parts of the great plain of Padana. Thus, on the one hand isolated by the steepness of the terrain, the villages along the water course played important roles in regional commerce. On a local scale, access to water from habitations was a difficulty due to the steepness of the valley. The value placed on water is visible in the housing of the fountain, pictured above. The mills have since fallen into disuse within the last two generations. Several, however, have recently been restored to working order by local artisans. One of these mills runs for educational purposes, however grain which is used is of a locally important variety, is sourced locally, and grown organically.

The province of Belluno, Italy is spanned by the Piave River, which flows from the mountainous interior to the north into the Venice lagoon. Here, log-driving has a deep history, with roots in the construction of Venice and the ships to support its trade empire. The water of the Piave itself became important with the State’s construction of large-scale hydroelectric dams and reservoirs in the 1960s. Water has returned to the Province’s political agenda and is seen to be an expression of acrimonious relations with the State. The Province retains control of water flow regimes as of this year.

Water flows out of one area and into another. Water linked political and economic peripheries to major cores or centers. Historically rivers were the routes by which cultures in peripheral areas were tied into regional markets. To Carl Sauer, writing half a century ago, cultural landscapes were the deeply historical expressions of relationships between people and the land which were rooted in their material ways of life. Today, these three cases show how places have gained new geographically specific, and culturally symbolic meanings, tied to the search for a degree of local autonomy, driven by the role of these rivers in historical relationships within broader regions.  This has meant creating new meanings and new economic opportunities for the cultural landscape along the path of flowing water.

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