If you thought it was the Year of the Horse, you're wrong. The time of the moutain is here. Mountains are difficult to reach; once you get there, they're difficult to live in, and if you stay, they're difficult to endure. But they cover more than a quarter of the earth, are home to a tenth of the world's five billion, and provide goods and services to over half the world's population.
When some 50 scientists gathered in France in June 2000 to find an agreeable definition for a mountain, they couldn't. But like their predecessors at the World Environment Summit in Rio in 1992, they agreed that mountains were much more than a physical mass, and integral to the world's environment. And so, ten years after Rio, the UN has decided to celebrate 2002 as the International Year of the Mountain to draw the world's attention to the mountains, their importance and their problems, and experts will gather in Johannesburg, South Africa this September to evaluate the outcome of the 1992 meeting at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
"The most important mountain policy issue for all mountain regions, and particularly here, is about providing better environment and resources for people living downstream, and redressing the imbalance of resource flows from upstream, mountain areas," says Dr Gabriel Campbell, director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the first international centre with a mandate to promote sustainable mountain development.
Nepal with its Himalaya is certainly exceptional, but around 135 countries in the world have mountains and hills. Not just the home of snow-fed rivers that are a vital source of drinking water and critical in hydropower projects, mountains also contain a quarter of the world's forests, rich hubs of biodiversity with some of the world's rarest flora and fauna, an astonishing diversity of cultures, and endless spots of recreation and renewal.
"But by their very remoteness and their fragile and dynamic nature, which makes transport, development and infrastructure all cost five times more, they face increasing marginalisation, economic decline, and environmental degradation," says Campbell. ICIMOD has been engaged in providing conceptual guidance and advice for preparations across the world for the International Year of the Mountain, but will itself largely focus on observing IYM activities in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.
Millions of people in this part of the world still don't realise, understand, or have never been taught that the water they drink comes from the Himalaya. In the Gangetic plains of Bihar and Bangladesh-the result of thousands of years of silt eroded by water and weather-people still suffer from the misconception that deforestation in the hills is the cause. "They haven't understood or been explained that soil erosion over the years has changed the courses of rivers like the Kosi, that all Asian countries are affected by the connection between the Indian Ocean, the Himalaya and the monsoons," says botanist Dr Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha. "Even then, the public attitude towards mountains is negligent. Access to mountains is difficult. They are difficult to reach; once you get there it's difficult to live in, and if you stay, they're difficult to endure. That's why it's important for a mountainous country like Nepal not to look at mountains from a distance, but to look at their practical problems in the face." Dr Shrestha is working with national committees that includes professionals from the non-governmental sector and tourism as well as academics and researchers, who will all track the various special mountain-related programs in Nepal this year
What's happening, where
ICIMOD, together with other donors such as the FAO, the Japanese government, the Swiss Development Cooperation, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Mountain Institute, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the German aid agency Gesellschaft f?r Technische Zusammenarbiet (GTZ), is taking a lead role in sponsoring and organising IYM 2002 activities.
The highlight of the Centre's busy calendar of events will be global mountain women's meet from 28-31 May. "Celebrating Mountain Women" will bring together indigenous women, donor agencies, policy makers and planners, entrepreneurs, and researchers to share the problems and progress of mountain women. Mountain women will have a forum to articulate their concerns and share their experiences and ideas in areas like natural resources and environment, health, entrepreneurship, legal, political and human rights, and cultural and indigenous knowledge. The idea is that such a gathering will not only enable mountain women's networks to grow and strengthen as agents of change, but that it will also make a significant contribution to policies and practices that empower mountain women and their communities.
The other major event will be the High Summit 2002 International Conference Around the World's Highest Mountains from 6-10 May, that will take place with simultaneous regional conferences in Kathmandu, Milan, Mendoza and Nairobi to identify critical mountain policies, with policymakers and planners video-conferencing every day for an hour. And a global e-conference in February and March will explore the dimensions of natural resources-based conflicts and resolution mechanism in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.
During the IYM, Kathmandu is playing host to a number of regional meetings. There is one on developing a framework for regional cooperation in Flood Forecasting and Information Exchange, another on securing farmers' rights to livelihoods in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. There will be a regional planning meeting on improved labour-saving options for mountain women, still another on rural road infrastructure development and maintenance in the Himalayan region, and finally, others on assessing mountain agricultural systems for sustainable agricultural planning and development.
ICIMOD will also work with the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and technology (RONAST) to hold an international seminar on mountains in Kathmandu in March, and with other organisations to hold the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Forum South Asia 2002 in November, and the Asia Pacific regional FAO Conference on Mountain Agriculture in mid-May.
Not only glossy brochures
The celebrations have already kicked off in Nepal with the opening of the highest botanical garden in the country in Daman on January 1, with the promise of at least fifteen others to be set up around the country. But, says Shrestha, "one hopes the IYM is not only restricted to pictures in glossy brochures, but reflected in the faces of highland inhabitants. People have to be clear about what IYM is and what it isn't."
With the 2002 launch of the Destination Nepal Campaign and the 50th anniversary celebrations of the first summit of Mt Everest next year-national events that cash on the International Year of the Mountain-there is concern that the accompanying hype to promote Nepal as a tourism destination will draw attention away from the basic aims of the IYM: to highlight mountain issues and to serve as a springboard and catalyst for long term, sustained, and concrete action that will extend far beyond the year.
Says Shrestha: "Various other events can accompany the IYM to highlight Nepal's development efforts, but if by the end of the year there is no sign of a long-term plan for mountain development, for many people the year 2002 will have just come and gone."
This is why the priorities set forth by the IYM will no doubt be repeated throughout the year:
- Ensure the present and future wellbeing of mountain communities by promoting conservation and sustainable development in mountain areas;
- Increase awareness of and knowledge on mountain ecosystems, their dynamics and functioning, and their overriding importance in providing a number of strategic goods and services essential to the well-being of both rural and urban, highland and lowland people, particularly water supply and food security;
- Promote and defend the cultural heritage of mountain communities/societies;
- Pay attention to frequent conflicts in mountain areas and promote peace-making in those regions.