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Yet Another Transition? Mountain Areas’ Conflicts and Trajectories Facing Socio-Ecological Changes

Mikaël Chambru, Marie Cambone, Raphaël Lachello et Emma-Sophie Mouret
Cet article est une traduction de :
Encore une transition ? Conflits et trajectoires des territoires de montagne face aux changements socio-environnementaux [fr]

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1In December 2021, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2022 as the International Year of Sustainable Mountain Development. Adopted by consensus, this resolution invites Member States, non-governmental organizations and stakeholders from civil society, private sector and academic institutions, to raise awareness about the importance of sustainability for mountains’ areas socio-ecological system facing climate change. The sustainable development concept used in the 2021 resolution has spread into the public sphere like a tool for social conflict neutralization (Krieg-Planque, 2010). The newer “ecological transition” concept stands in the wake of sustainable development and tends to supplant it (Oudot and De l’Estoile, 2020), particularly in political, mediatic and scientific discourses related to mountains. In France, an important stage in this replacement process took place in September 2021 with the organisation of the “États généraux de la transition des territoires de montagne” as part of the French Presidency of the European Union Strategy for the Alpine Region (SUERA).

2Now at the forefront of political and institutional agendas, the ecological transition is promoted by all kinds of stakeholders as a consensual solution to solve public issues related to climate change in mountain areas (Chambru and De Oliveira, 2020). Because of its flexible and protean nature, the transition is gradually unfolding without a clear strategic horizon: winter sports tourism remains in the midst of a transformative hesitation towards new demands of environmental sustainability, torned between multiform creative action, inertia and structural maladaptation (Bourdeau, 2021). The ecological transition is in fact the subject of opposite appropriations throughout the French Alps and plays a part in bringing territorial dissensus. It reveals divergent definitions held by stakeholders who remains profoundly antagonistic in their relationships to environment and economy (Chambru et al., 2024). This observation suggests that the ecological transition should be studied through how it socially used. Moreover, its uses as an analytic category by Humanities and Social Sciences researchers should also be studied, since it helps to construct a narrative that “projects a past that does not exist onto a future that remains ghostly” (Fressoz, 2021).

3This dossier brings together publications from a variety of disciplines (geography, sociology and law), which proposes a critical reflection primarily about the injunctions to socio-ecological changes in mountain areas and secondly on the ecological transition as an analytic category of these changes. Nowadays, mountain areas are subject to a double injunction: on the one hand, an injunction to transition and, on the other, an injunction to consensus (Chambru et al., 2024). Transition seems inevitable and everyone should agree on a unique way to carry it, even though it is being driven simultaneously by both institutional and citizen logics in tension. However, as these injunctions to change and consensus deploy themselves over a long time period, (Hagimont, 2022) in a public space more than ever under the sway of communication (Pailliart, 1995), tend to make contemporary social conflict and public issues associated with mountain transitions invisible. Yet these conflicts are not new, they have been the main drivers of territorial adaptations and innovations for several centuries: conflicts are a revealing factor that generates territory just as much as territory itself produces conflicts (Gal, 2016).

  • 1 By mountain territorialities, we mean "the imperative that human beings have to come to terms with (...)

4Linked to spatial dynamics and to the communication issues they underpin (Raoul, 2020), these mountain territorialities1 are plural in their manifestations and changes over time. They materialized themselves in organizational forms, institutional processes, democratic experiments, and social innovations; they are also based on distinct regimes of action, reveal antagonistic stakeholder strategies and are part of temporalities that can be either diachronic or synchronic. Are these transitions as much unprecedented, linear, and consensual, as advertised? What insights can past transition processes examination provides into the current territories’ renewal? In what way discourses and communication’s renewal are part of these socio-political dynamics? How do mountain territorialities differ from other territorialities that are also in transition?


  • 2 These papers originates from an international conference held the 1st and 2nd December 2022 at Univ (...)

5The four contributions highlight a variety of transition processes, trace conflicts and adaptation trajectories that have resulted, but also adaptation failures that are rarely mentioned but which are nonetheless rich in lessons2.

6Emeline Hatt and Cécilia Claeys highlight winter sports resorts’ adaptation trajectories in the Southern Alps since the 1990s. The authors combine sociology, spatial and urban planning to study transition strategies based on both institutional impetus and citizens’ initiatives. These two perspectives reveal the difficulties of changing winter sports’ socio-technical system especially concerning the alpine ski resort model inherited from the “Trente Glorieuses”. The attachment to this model on the part of institutions and residents enables the authors to trace territorial equity’s issues, particularly regarding the current transition support. Faced with these mechanisms, civil society is divided.

7This adaptation dynamic is complemented by the one analysed by Pierre-Olivier Garcia and Marie Poulain. Using a geographical perspective centred on the case of the Girose Glacier at La Grave (Hautes-Alpes), the authors study the territorial tensions that have arisen since 2020 regarding a project to extend a cable car built in the late 1970s. The positions of the various stakeholders are deciphered, including SATA (the project operator) and the “La Grave Autrement” citizen collective. This case study provides an opportunity to examine the way in which mountain areas are faced with a dual injunction: to take account of climate change and to maintain economic development. Several negotiation scenarios illustrate the regional impacts’ scale of the project. Alternatives lie within the scale of the territorial effects of this cable car project.

8The conflicts that arise during transition processes can also be studied from a legal perspective. Oriane Sulpice’s contribution enables us to understand the mechanisms and strategies deployed during these conflicts, from the perspective of public law. Based on a study of disputes over town planning documents in municipalities located near major resorts in the French Northern Alps between 2000 and 2017, the author explains how court rulings about local town planning schemes’ provides an understanding of social-environmental conflicts. Urban planning disputes have an impact on mountain municipalities development. In this context, legal recourses become a tool to encourage municipalities to take environmental constraints into account. As a result, ski resorts are implementing strategies that sometimes result in a reversal of their initial aims.

9Finally, the study of transition dynamics shows that transition initiatives can fail. In their article, Marjolaine Gros-Balthazard, Caterina Franco and Anouk Bonnemains combine territorial science, architecture and geography to study the “failed tourism transitions” of the Val d’Hérens in the Canton of Valais, Switzerland. Studying territory via a diachronic approach provides three perspectives for examining transitions through the prism of failure: material, conceptual and institutional. The decisive role played by territorial thickness and the relationships between local and regional scales explains why projects that do not come to fruition (railways, ski areas and Regional Nature Parks) play a cardinal role in the territory’s trajectories. These failures help to understand some specific features of the 2020s tourism and, more broadly, the strengths and weaknesses of current socio-ecological transition.


10These four articles illustrate the importance of recreational activities associated with skiing, at a time when calls for an ecological transition are omnipresent in discourses from various stakeholders (Hatt and Claeys). A new stretch of cable car is planned to make the mountains “even more accessible” (Poulain and Garcia); more and more tourist infrastructures are being built to accommodate more and more visitors (Sulpice). At the same time, mountain areas, particularly those close to major cities, have seen record visitors’ numbers since “COVID-19” lockdown crisis, rising new usage conflicts. While ski holidays remain the preserve of richer populations, it is accessibility and economic development that are the watchwords of the projects described in this issue. Indeed, it is out of fear of shrinking visitors’ numbers that some valleys have remained on the sidelines of transition (Gros-Balthazard et al.). As a result, stakeholders are diversifying, as are the practices within mountain areas, based on economic, recreational, and ecological considerations, giving rise to conflicts at every level.

11From then on, initiating socio-ecological transitions implies to conceptualize a new relationship with mountains, to imagine new narratives, to renew imaginaries that put an end to the myth of “the ski resort that saves the mountain” and move from “skiing to living” (Bourdeau, 2021). There is an urgent need to give impetus to these post-tourism conversion processes, particularly in areas where alpine ski resorts have already closed (Métral, 2021) or are threatened with closure in a short-term perspective. In 2023, the decision was taken to close the Sambuy resort (Haute-Savoie); in 2024 Autrans/Méaudre resort (Isère) is playing for its survival facing threats of closure from state; Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse/Le Planolet resort (Isère) is still uncertain and is trying to reinvent itself through an associative model and voluntary work. As the rain-snow limit rises, this list will increase throughout the Alps. What kind of new trajectories will emerge in the face of global changes? Will they reduce or exacerbate socio-ecological inequalities? What role will social innovations play in these structural transformations of the regional development model? Will tourism, whether winter or summer, once again become a means of making mountains habitable and dealing with socio-ecological issues?

12To conclude, these articles illustrate researchers’ place and role in mountain areas transitions. Taking a full part in these issues, authors of this dossier question the ways in which they carry out research in these areas, address requests from stakeholders or civil society, question transitions and sometimes become involved in implementing them.

Krieg-Planque, A., 2010.– “La formule ‘développement durable’ : un opérateur de neutralisation de la conflictualité”, Langage et société, no 134, pp. 5–29. DOI:​10.3917/​ls.134.0005.

Oudot, J., De l’Estoile, É., 2020.– “La transition écologique, de Rob Hopkins au ministère”, Regards croisés sur l'économie, no 26, pp. 14–19. DOI :​10.3917/​rce.026.0014.

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Bourdeau, P., 2021.– “Dilemmes de transition. Les destinations françaises de sports d’hiver entre agir créatif, inerties et maladaptation”, Géocarrefour, vol. 95, no 2. DOI:

Chambru, M., De Oliveria, J.-P., 2021.– “Changement climatique et développement territorial en montagne : conflictualités et enjeux communicationnels”, Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication, no 21. DOI :

Chambru, M., Baptiste, N., Bonnemains, A. et Claeys, C., 2024.– “La diversification du modèle touristique dans les Alpes du Sud : consensus discursif et dissensus territorial”, in C. Claeys, M. Hirczak (ed.), Alpes du Sud : trajectoires d’un espace en transition, Presses Universitaires de Provence.

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Raoul, B., 2020.– Le Territoire à l’épreuve de la communication. Mutations, imaginaires, discours, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, Villeneuve-d’Ascq.

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1 By mountain territorialities, we mean "the imperative that human beings have to come to terms with their earthly condition, and the material and symbolic arrangements that results from it" (Debarbieux, 2008).

2 These papers originates from an international conference held the 1st and 2nd December 2022 at Université Grenoble Alpes by the Groupe de recherche sur les enjeux de la communication (GRESEC) and the Laboratoire de recherche historique Rhône-Alpes (LARHRA), with MSH-Alpes and the Labex Innovations et transitions territoriales en montagne (ITTEM).

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Mikaël Chambru, Marie Cambone, Raphaël Lachello et Emma-Sophie Mouret, « Yet Another Transition? Mountain Areas’ Conflicts and Trajectories Facing Socio-Ecological Changes »Journal of Alpine Research | Revue de géographie alpine [En ligne], 112-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Mikaël Chambru

Maître de conférences en sciences sociales, GRESEC / Labex ITTEM – Innovation et transitions territoriales en montagne, Université Grenoble Alpes

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Marie Cambone

Maîtresse de conférences en sciences de l’information et de la communication, GRESEC, Université Grenoble Alpes

Raphaël Lachello

Doctorant en histoire de l’environnement, LARHRA, Université Grenoble Alpes

Emma-Sophie Mouret

Docteure en histoire de l’aménagement du territoire et de l’environnement, LARHRA, Université Grenoble Alpes

Articles du même auteur

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