|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 14, Number 2, 1993 (UNU, 1993, 12 pages)|
By Jack D. Ives
The mountains nourish some of civilization's most ancient cultures and beliefs. The environmental well-being of the global uplands has great consequences for hundreds of millions of people who live on their slopes or in their lowlands. A very crucial stage of the battle for sustainable development will be waged in these highlands.
But as Jack Ives points out, many approaches to mountain development in recent years have been ill-informed and misdirected.
An authority on mountain ecosystems, who has led the UNU work in that area, Dr. Ives is currently on the faculty of the Department of Geography at the University of California at Davis, the United States. He was one of the UNU delegates to the Rio Earth Summit, which argued the need for further research on fragile mountain ecosystems. - Editor
With some notable exceptions, most development aid to developing and poor regions has set a four-decade record of under-realized objectives, if not actual failure. This is especially true of the world's mountain regions, where pressure on resources appears to be accelerating at a greater rate than the effects of any counter measure.
There are many reasons for this lack of success, both with respect to the mountain terrain itself and its peoples. Foremost is the general failure to understand and appreciate the complexity, both in time and space, of the diverse and dynamic interrelationships between human activities and mountain ecosystems. Data, from the natural and human sciences, is woefully inadequate, both in quantity and reliability; the very diverse nature of the mountain milieu renders the problem of acquiring representative coverage extremely difficult.
To the development planner, mountains are too often treated as simply two-dimensional adjuncts of larger flat-land projects. There have been many attempts to introduce Eurocentric scenarios in these developing world regions, with little heed to the value of indigenous knowledge and skills and traditional ways of managing resources.
The "Periphery of the Periphery"
Mountain peoples occupy relatively remote and inaccessible regions. They are usually very poor, ethnic minorities, lying at the periphery of the periphery in terms of world markets. They lack political leverage and are frequently exploited, with their resources extracted for the benefit of the communities of the plains below. Many mountain countries rank at the bottom of the World Bank's list of Least Developed Countries, and the mountain provinces of such larger countries as India, China, or Argentina would rank equally unfavourably if relevant data could be disaggregated.
To make matters worse, mountain regions harbour some of the most devastatingly destructive warfare of the present century, whether it be large scale war, guerrilla activities, international drug traffic or the environmental scars of so-called "peaceful" defensive military presence. Afghanistan, Kashmir-Karakoram, Tibet and Himalayan India, Bosnia, the Caucasus republics, Tajikistan, Colombia, Peru, Kurdistan - it is a tragic litany of desperation and bloodshed.
It is perhaps only fair to ask: Why, under these circumstances, should the mountains be of major concern as one of the top-ranked environmental and societal issues of the 21st century? The reasons, often ignored, are overwhelming.
An Incalculable Resource
In simple geographic terms, mountains occupy about one fifth of the world's land surface, and provide the direct resource support base for about one tenth of humankind. But in terms of fresh water, hydroelectricity, minerals, timber, grazing lands - plus support of the world's largest industry, tourism/recreation - they are essential to over half the world's population. Their mismanagement has the potential for wrecking the livelihood of hundreds of millions on the densely populated plains below - through flooding, soil erosion and siltation.
Finally, mountains have provided much spiritual inspiration for humankind over the ages. They are the sacred places of most of the world's major religions and provide mystery, hope, and aspiration for the human soul. Collectively, the world's mountain lands are a major source of biodiversity, cultural diversity and simple intellectual and emotional inspiration - an incalculable resource.
The UNU has been working on mountain concerns since is earliest days, currently engaged in its project on mountain ecology and sustainable development. With comparatively slender financial resources, it has been able to mount modest but important studies in many mountain countries, among them, Thailand, Nepal, Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Bangladesh, China, and Tajikistan. The work has attracted significant additional funds and released university faculty time from its many affiliate institutions; a particularly loyal supporter has been the Swiss Development Cooperation.
To the Himalayan Rescue
One example illustrates the kind of important intellectual contribution this rather modest effort is capable of making. For a number of years, deforestation in the Himalayas by subsistence farming had been thought the cause of increased flooding in northern India and Bangladesh. World development agencies were poised to spend billions of dollars in trying to solve the flooding problem through reforestation, high dam construction, and river diversion and canalization. UNU research, however, challenged this approach as an overly simplistic one, which confused cause and effect and, in the solution, risked additional damage and wasting precious resources. Thus debate has been initiated, other institutions have now been drawn into the process, and overly precipitous intervention has been stayed. Similar types of claims could be made for the UNU research efforts in unravelling mountain watershed mismanagement problems in Ethiopia, Kenya and Ecuador.
The thrust of UNU mountain research embraces elucidation of basic scholarly knowledge, its application to sustainable development policies, and the training of a cadre of young host-country scholars in interdisciplinary understanding. Another major component is dissemination of mountain knowledge, both in the scientific and popular literature.
Over the past 14 years, these efforts have established an informal international network of mountain scholars and resource managers. A vital step was the founding of the quarterly journal Mountain Research and Development, jointly with the International Mountain Society in 1981, and the creation of the International Mountain Network Newsletter in 1990. In both these projects, Swiss Development Cooperation financial assistance has been essential.
The Issue before UNCED
But even more important, the experience provided the impetus for the creation of "Mountain Agenda 1992," a group whose primary objective was to place the mountain issue before the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (see box).
UNU Mountain Strategies Backed at Rio Summit
Dr. Ives was one of those who led the UNU efforts at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit which resulted in unanimous acceptance of a fresh approach to sustainable mountain development. The University had substantial backing from many other institutions, with particularly valuable assistance lent by the Swiss UN delegation to UNCED, the International Mountain Society, the East-West Center, Hawaii the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development and the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). Their combined efforts led to the adoption of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, entitled: "Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Sustainable Mountain Development."
The Rio action means that the problem of the mountains, enumerated by Dr. Ives in this article, will finally get equal billing on the 21st century's environmental agenda - along with other major areas of concern like climate change, toxic waste disposal, and the tropical rain forests. Chapter 13 identifies two specific programmes, both arising from earlier UNU work, that should be implemented on a worldwide basis:
"(a) Generating and strengthening knowledge about the ecology and sustainable development of mountain ecosystems;
(b) Promoting integrated watershed development and alternative livelihood opportunities."
Chapter 13 further recommends that national governments and
intergovernmental organizations encourage networking at various levels among the
parties working on mountain development and cites the United Nations University
as one of those to be actively involved.
While many reviewers regarded the overall outcome in Rio with deep dissatisfaction, it is maintained here that, under the leadership of Maurice Strong, it was a pivotal event. By forcing many of the crucial worldwide issues on our political leadership, it will empower people and institutions to maintain this pressure into the next century, to ensure that our political leaders are obliged to contend with them.
What then should be the specific response of the UNU? It seems clear that the University's special academic status within the United Nations community should allow it to continue its scholarship at the cutting edge of analysis, assessment, challenge and skepticism. The search for "mountain truth" should continue, and its integration into the training of young scholars and resource managers should be accelerated. The mountain network needs to be protected and enlarged and the programme of information dissemination fortified.
The ongoing work has entailed almost annual workshops and field excursions to view critical regional issues, together with publication of proceedings. Recent workshops have been held on the Caucasus (Armenia, 1989), Atlas Mountains (Rabat, 1990), Andes (Santiago, 1991), Sierra Nevada/White Mountains (California, 1992), and Mount Kenya (Nairobi, 1993). Future meetings are planned for the Andes (La Paz, 1994), and Madagascar (1995). Fieldwork should continue in Tajikistan, Kenya, Yunnan, and the Himalayan arc, and the African and Andean mountain associations should be nurtured, as well as the new East Asia/Pacific Rim centre based at Lincoln University, Christchurch, New Zealand.
A new UNU field project, funded predominantly by the Ford Foundation, began in Yunnan this year, its institutional base is the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, the University of California at Davis, and the UNU. Located in Lijiang County and the Yulongxue Shan Mountains of northern Yunnan, site of a 1985 UNU research expedition, it will study the effect of development on rural poverty, minority peoples and mountain environment. The work could evolve as a prototype for future mountain problem case studies. There are also plans to eventually make it one of the regional components of Professor Harold Brookfield's Population, Land Management and Environmental Change, where it could provide valuable information on agrodiversity and fanning practices in Yunnan minority villages, including Naxi, Yi and Tibetan.
In general, there needs to be reinforcement of site-specific research efforts directed at understanding the causes and effects of mountain poverty, the role of women in these highland societies, and environmental conditions. Historical data must be assembled to permit correct assessment of environmental and demographic change.
Perhaps most important to the nourishment of sustainable development, sufficient heed should be paid to the available indigenous strengths and the ability of local communities to identify their own felt needs. The extent of local knowledge and know how must be identified in order to formulate development approaches that incorporate local self-expression.