November 5, 2002

KYRGYZSTAN: Mountain summit - an important step for highland people

BISHKEK, 5 Nov 2002 (IRIN) - "We are all mountain people!" This was the recurring cry at the Global Mountain Summit, held last week in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Over 600 people from 60 countries came together for four days here, in what was the first-ever meeting of its kind, which also led to important donor pledges for mountain-development programmes in Central Asia.

The summit was organised by the government of Kyrgyzstan, with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and others. Its main output was the Bishkek Mountain Platform, which outlines the challenges facing mountainous countries and regions, as well as frameworks for addressing these issues.

Ninety-three percent of remote Kyrgyzstan's landmass is mountainous, and the country is dominated by the Tien-Shan, the world's third-highest mountain range.

The main goal of the summit, according to UNEP, was "to improve the lives of mountain people, to protect mountain ecosystems, and to use mountain resources more wisely". About 350 million people worldwide (one-half of all mountain dwellers) are vulnerable to food shortages and chronic malnutrition.

The unique aspect of this conference, a representative from the Central Asian kingdom of Bhutan told IRIN, "is the different kinds of people it has brought together. Never before have so many policy makers, academics, NGOs, and international organisations gathered in one place." Attending the summit were participants as diverse as the Aga Khan, several heads of state, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura and the managing director of the World Economic Forum.

The gathering looked at how integrated the lives of mountain people are with those living in lowland areas. "Though mountains make up less than 30 percent of the earth's landmass," explained Muhammed Tusneem of the Asian Development Bank, "they support more than 60 percent of the world's population" through their fresh-water resources and important reserves of biodiversity, minerals, forests and food.

Kristalina Geogrievna, the director of the World Bank's ecological department, was among the most eloquent in defining possible solutions to the problem of sustainable development in mountain environments. One option, she said, would be to transfer part of the cost of using mountain resources to the upstream end-users. This would give many more categories of stakeholders a reason to consume more carefully, she argued.

"Debt for environment" swaps also attracted the attention of many delegates from smaller countries, who predictably saw an opportunity for their nations to tackle many difficult problems at the same time.

These could take many forms, Geogrievna explained, including a scenario by which one government forgives a portion of another government's debt in return for an agreement to use that money for an environmental conservation initiative.

The summit produced several positive outcomes, one of which was a large financial contribution by the Italian and Swiss governments towards capacity development, needs assessment and the introduction of programmes to reduce the economic disparities between mountain and lowland regions.

Another concrete success was a pledge by the government of Norway to help Kyrgyzstan clean up its dangerous nuclear waste dumps in the mountain village of Mayluu-Suu in the Jalal-Abad region. Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev told journalists that 10 million people were threatened by this highly toxic waste, which could to spill into rivers flowing into the Ferghana Valley, home to almost 20 percent of Central Asia's population.