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Don’t forget the Mountains and its People!

By Guenther Baechler- Ambassador of Switzerland in Tbilisi, holds a PhD in political science and is a visiting professor at the Institute for European Studies at the University of Basel.
Thursday, December 11
Olympus, Ida, Kailash, Gauri Shankar, Sinai are some of the sacred mountains to be found in the regions of the world. Mountains and in particular mighty peaks are sacred and religious objects – or purely mythical such as Zoroastrian Hara Berezaiti. Mountains are the home of gods and goddesses or the home of Titans and wars. Against myths and legends the question arises: what is about people in the mountains? Are mountains dwellers just as forgotten subjects of modern world such as remote valleys, slopes, and peaks are as well?

There is some evidence to this: mountains and deep valleys in between have become perfect refuges for radical groups, rebels, Islamists, and terrorists of all colors. Remote areas that have been depopulated over the years; that have been abandoned by governments and state structures; that have been left alone by people in the cities seem to be preferred areas of armed conflicts, skirmishes, violent action, and blood feuds. Since World War II indeed many of the most destructive wars have occurred in mountains and highlands: The Caucasus, the Balkans, northern Iraq, Anatolia, the Hindu Kush, Kashmir, Tibet, the Peruvian and Colombian Andes, the Vietnamese and Laotian mountains, and the Ethiopian/Eritrean Highland have experienced exten¬sive and sometimes long-lasting (para)military activities and wars. In the Nineties of the last century, nineteen out of thirty five wars and seven out of thirteen armed conflicts were tak¬ing place in mountain areas.

Such conflicts mostly stem from interactions with lowland areas. Some of the most common patterns are conflicts over mountains as water towers and resource divides; mountains as a sanctuary of indigenous people that defend their identity against penetration of modern state structures; mountains as niches of ethnic minorities or as a refuge for people who were forced to move due to political or socio-economic crises; large scale mining activities or hydropower projects do also quite often provoke reactions of local communities that are afraid to be re¬settled or forced to leave.

Focus on Mountains of the World

In a rapid changing world with growing environmental, climatic, and socio-economic challenges mountains shall be more and more in the focus of governments and inter¬national organizations: as a major target of climate change, as a source for sustainable devel¬opment, as a refuge for the world’s most vulnerable people, and as a sanctuary for terrorist groups. There are three main issues that have to be addressed by both national governments as well as the international community:
• Mountains are the world’s water towers and supply more than half of humankind with water. Mountain forests represent 23 % of the earth’s total forest cover. Moun¬tains also host numerous natural, biological, and mineral resources which provide a sound livelihood for local populations. They are among the most important sources of food security, of traditional medicine and herbal plants, pastures for animals, renewable energy, and rich biodiversity.
• Mountains form boundaries between neighboring states and as such, provide a val¬uable basis for cooperation, for disaster risk prevention and reduction, for the sharing of scarce resources, for cross border collaboration and sustainable infra¬structure development.
• Without close and friendly international collaboration both at a global and at a regional scale mountains will become a matter of insecurity and societal risks rather than an area of scientific research, economic partnership, prevention of disasters, as well as environ¬men¬tal protection and sustainability.

Mountains shall remain high on the international agenda

Mountains are specifically mentioned in the Rio+20 outcome document (The Future We want, para 210, 211, 212). Against this the members of the Mountain Partnership (MP) strongly promote the inclusion of mountains in the Post-2015 development agenda; during its Fourth Global Meeting in Erzurum in September 2013 the assembly decided that specific advocacy efforts should be undertaken.

The Resolution adopted by the General Assembly of the UN on 20 December 2013 on sustainable mountain development recognizes that “fragile mountain ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, deforestation and forest degradation, land use change, land degradations and natural disasters, and that mountain glaciers around the world are retreating and getting thinner, with increasing impacts on the environment and human well-being”. The resolution also acknowledges that despite progress in development and conserva¬tion of mountains, poverty, food insecurity, social exclusion, and environmental degradation are still high.

In most of the mountain regions of the world academic networks and action-oriented centers for mountain research and development have been or will be established. Among the most famous and active ones is the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in the Himalayas, based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Under the Swiss Chairmanship, the 22nd OSCE Economic and Environmental Forum held in Prague from 10 to 12 September 2014 responded to global environmental challenges with promoting co-operation and security in the OSCE area. The final statement suggests that natural disasters severely affect the security and safety of nations and communities. There is a clear need to foster local, national and international capacities for risk mitigation and prevention, preparedness, forecasting and early warning as well as to promote sound recovery from natural disasters. The OSCE shall be a platform to promote an integrated, holistic approach to disaster risk man¬age¬ment.

Recently the Swiss Government accepted a Parliamentary Initiative that was highlighting the importance of mountains for the post-2015 development agenda. The Swiss President Didier Burkhalter highlighted the integration of “mountains” as a transversal theme in different chapters of the post-2015 Agenda stressing the fight against poverty, water, climate change, biodiversity, deforestation, etc. He underlined that the objective of Switzerland for the neg¬otiations of the Agenda which will be adopted by the UN in September 2015 is “the recognition of the mountain thematic as a fundamental basis for sustainable devel¬opment” (original in French).

Time for action and long-term solutions

The above mentioned UN Resolution lists several activities and measures to be taken. The General Assembly encourages states to adopt a long-term vision and holistic approach, including through incorporating mountain-specific policies into national sustainable development strategies, which could include poverty reduction plans and programmes for mountain areas. It stresses the special vulnerability of people living in usually remote mountain environments with limited access to services. Against this, the GA also recognizes the positive aspects of tourism initiatives in mountains, the contribution of local authorities and communities to protecting the environment and promoting indigenous people’s traditions, identities, and knowledge. It urges governments to raise aware¬ness with respect to the positive and unaccounted economic and culture benefit that mountains provide not only to highland communities but also to the large portion of the population living in lowlands or in big cities.

The interdependency between highland and lowland is very much reflected by the FAO which declares in a comprehensive report: “mountain farming is family farming”. Against a global perspective, the report reads: “Mountain areas, with their dispersed patches of useable land at different altitudes with different climates and with their often highly fragmented landscapes and narrow limits for mechanization, are most efficiently and effectively managed by family farms.” (Rome 2014: p. 10) Most of their production is for family consumption. However family farms in mountains help shape mountain landscapes, providing ecosystem services that are vital for development far beyond mountain areas. For FAO “family farming communities also are custodians of place identity, spiritual and cultural values, and of sit-specific knowledge – a precondition for survival in most mountain areas. The motivation of family farmers thus goes beyond profit maximization to include social, cultural and ecological motives.” (p. 10). The FAO highlights that in contrast to the intensive farming landscapes of the plains, mountains regions are hotspots of biological diversity: Farmers and pastoralists in these regions often live and work under extreme and harsh conditions, short summer seasons, sensitive soil conditions etc. Against this sustainable intensification without adverse environmental impact as well as organic farming are adapted methods to be applied in order to preserve fragile livelihoods in mountains. (pp. 42)

“Kazbegi Declaration”

On 1st of October a scientific seminar was organized by a group of concerned people in Tbilisi together with Swiss Experts in mountain research and development. The fifty or so participants concluded the seminar with the adoption of the “Kazbegi Declaration”. The participants acknow¬ledged that the Caucasian Mountains are facing big and multifold challenges. The par¬tic¬ipants identified the fol¬¬lowing issues at stake: climate change and glaciers’ retreat; earth¬quake and volcanic activit¬ies; landslides; erosion; floods and droughts; deforestation; trans¬boundary water flow and water pollution. At the same time they stressed political and socio-economic challenges such as: closed borders and interrupted communication lines; conflicts among states and entities that declared independence or are occupied; wide¬spread rural poverty; marginalized minorities in mountain areas; weak or ab¬sence of economic activities in depopulated mountain valleys; degradation of scarce resources; large-scale state projects; e.g. hydropower; mining; tour¬ism; lack of infrastructure.

Against the above mentioned the Kazbegi document declares regional integrated mountain re¬search and development in the Caucasus is an urgent matter. Participants suggested a set of action to be taken:
• To foster mountain research and development in the Caucasus Mountains.
• To promote a holistic and integrated approach to mountain development, disaster pre¬vention and reduction, environmental protection, and sustainable use of natural resources.
• To encourage regional transboundary collaboration and peaceful settling of disputes and related issues.
• To establish a regional center of excellence on Integrated Mountain Research and Devel¬op¬ment.
• To engage both the governments of the riparian states as well as major bilateral and inter¬nat¬ional donors to help set up a powerful regional Center.
• To ask the governments and donors to provide experience, knowledge, resources, and funds in order to guarantee the performance of an efficient Center of Excellence.
• The Georgian Government to be the dynamic driver of such peace–promoting init¬iative in and for the region.
• The civil society and academic world in the region to support such initiative as well as to engage with creative ideas, independent research, and innovative methods to make such center and academic networks a success and an attraction of the world-wide community of friends of the mountains.

The participants expressed their hope that “mountains and its people” will not be forgotten in the post 2015 Agenda to be adopted in September 2015 by the UN General Assembly in New York.

Guenther Baechler, Ambassador of Switzerland in Tbilisi, holds a PhD in political science and is a visiting professor at the Institute for European Studies at the University of Basel.