Mountain Meeting by the Beach

From HIMAL, Volume 8, Issue 2  (MAR/APR 1995)

A meeting of mountain representatives from far corners of the globe ended a hollow exercise. Was this the way to lobby for the world’s highlands?

In the last week of February, some 120 academics, bureaucrats and a sprinkling of activists gathered at the International Potato Center in Lima to try and flag attention to the special development needs of the world’s highland communities. However, the poorly organised conference did not even add up to the sum of its parts.

The “funding sources” had asked the Woodlands Mountain Institute of West Virginia (recently re-christened ‘The Mountain Institute’) to convene the meeting. The Institute’s organisers confessed that they had never organised an event of this kind before, and it showed. The selection of participants was uninspired, the paper presentations were disappointing, and, most importantly, a symbiosis did not occur among those gathered.

Lima participants, iacilitators and all.

The participants, however, found their feet despite the organisational stumbling blocks and by the last day had even managed to adopt wide-ranging recommendations for appropriate development of mountain areas. The organisers were pleased.

Was the effort worth it? As the participants disbanded, it was clear that they did not have the necessary unity and clout to make a sustained case for mountains. There were those who questioned extravagant meetings as a means to push the mountain agenda, and even one or two who thought heretically that there was no need to bring the mountains of the world together because there was too much to set them apart.

Is there anything that makes “mountain development” inherently special compared to other backward and marginalised regions of the world? This question was not even explored in Lima as the participants in Lima were the converted; it is the rest of the world that needs convincing.

Affirmative Inquiry

Under its new Director fresh from the World Bank, Jane Pratt, Woodlands would like to develop as a central despatcher for mountain-related work. The Lima meeting offered the Institute the chance to set some of the agenda, using funds from aid agencies to stage-manage the first international ngo consultations on the mountains.

One of Pratt’s initiatives, which brought the conference close to disaster, was to fly in a team of “facilitators” to run the meeting. These five American feel-good therapists took over the conference a few minutes into the opening ceremony on 22 February.

The unsuspecting audience was told that they would have to be friendly to each other, to discuss only positive examples on the mountain experience, and to share only “good stories” during their time in Lima. The procedure was called Affirmative Inquiry. “Be heliotropic, look towards the sun,” one Jane M. Watkins admonished, but a black mood descended upon her listeners, made up as it was of the wizened and the cynical.

The facilitators had the participants write down their innermost desires for mountains on three-by-five index cards, which were posted on a side wall. Next, they were asked to draw images of mountain themes that came to mind, on more index cards, which were then posted on a “Wall of Wonder” up on the stage. These were supposed to be reference points as to “why we are here”, but few bothered to go back to the Wall of Wonder.

By the end of the second night of the four-day meet, it was clear that the facilitation was killing the conference. A breakaway faction calling itself the “Red Rebel Group” decided to make a point by going out to dinner in downtown Miraflores rather than suffer more late-night facilitation.

On the whole, the participants seemed too polite to remonstrate. And so it was up to Carol de Raedt, a Filipino activist, to voice the developing mood. Asking everyone to remember why they were in Lima, she said, “You’re standing up against powerful forces, and there is going to be a lot of pain. People die when they speak up for their demands. Let us stop playing around.”

As the general attitude towards the meeting’s organisation beacme clear, thankfully, the facilitators were pulled back on the third day and they retreated to the background. The Woodlands organisers refused to say how much they had spent for the facilitators, and insisted that it had been “independently paid for” by USAID. The cost for the rest of the conference was said to be upwards U$ 220,000, shared between the Swiss Government, UN agencies, and others.

Papers and Participation

For a meeting that went under the title “Global NGO Consultation on the Mountain Agenda”, there were very few ngos represented—if the term ‘non-governmental’ refers to organisers at the grassroots. Most of those present were from university departments, research institutes, private consultancies, aid agencies, and semi-official bodies like Nepal’s King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation.

Many organisations and individuals who might have played a key role in Lima were either not invited or chose to stay on the sidelines. The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), set up to address the very issues that were the focus of the conference, kept a low profile in Lima.

While ICIMOD might have lain low, the Himalayan region was clearly over-represented in Lima, somewhat to the detriment of the other major mountain regions, including the Andes, the Central Asian mountains, and Africa. There was, in fact, a bias towards the Nepal Himalaya at the meeting—with 15 out of the 120 participants having close ties with Nepal either through research or nationality.

The Spanish speakers were present but mostly silent, stymied by lack of English. Japan, a country that is two-thirds mountainous and a source of funding to boot, was not present. The neglect of the Caucasus and the Central Asian states (Tadjikistan, Kazakhstan, Khyrgystan) was such that Yuri Badenkov, the Moscow geo-scientist, made a point about the “domination of the Himalaya”.

Many of the invitees in Lima seemed to be working associates or prospective partners of Woodlands rather than independent-minded mountian activists come to share ideas.

There was general agreement that the papers presented were not up to par. A paper on global warming was presented by a non-climatologist, and the one on cultural diversity spoke instead of gender issues in the Garhwal Himalaya. The one on water resources was obviously written in a hurry, and another that took an overarching but unsuccessful look at the issue of sustainable mountain development was presented by the husband of the paper-writer. Then there were extracts from books which were palmed off as papers.

One of the discussion groups went to the extent of formally asking that the papers submitted not be published as part of the conference proceedings unless they were rewritten and rigorously reviewed.

Good Stories

Although the meeting certainly was not generating any energy, it would have been doubly unfortunate if all the experience gathered in Lima were to be completely wasted. After the hurdles set by the organisers were shrugged off, it was possible for the participants to divide into groups that discussed many of the issues that concern mountain environment and societies. Discussions were held and recommendations adopted in subject areas such as production systems, cultural diversity, sustainable development, climate change and natural hazards, and water resources, biodiversity, energy demand and supply, cultural and spiritual significance of mountains, and tourism.

The recommendations of these groups were many, and so were the “needs”. Significant ones included the need for “decisional autonomy” for mountian peoples; the need for mountain languages to be protected as primary carriers of traditions and identity; the need to recognise intellectual property rights for indigenous knowledge systems; the need to recognise “true value” of mountain resources in terms of economic return; and the need to recognise and take advantage of the fact that up to 80 percent of the world’s fresh water comes from the mountains. The meeting also called for protection of mountain regions’ unique biodiversity, and to ensure that economic benefits from biodiversity resources stay with the local people and communities.

More than the recommendations, however, were the snippets and statements gathered in the days together that indicated the diversity and depth of experience gathered at Lima.

Jim Enote, a thoughtful representative of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico, who has also worked in Tibet, spoke of the treasuries of knowledge developed by native people over thousands of years. “Culture plays out like a film,” he warned, and when the last spool is used up the unique mountain cultures of the world will vanish.

Jack D. Ives, the geographer who has chaperoned the mountain agenda over the last twenty years, said that all the world’s great biomes that are environmentally threatened—the oceans, the arid lands, the tropical rainforests, and Antarctica—have attracted powerful constituencies, but not the mountains. “Unlike the oceans, the mountains have no Jacques Cousteau,” Ives said.

Mario Tapia, a Peruvian agronomist, pointed out how geographic orientation of the Himalaya and the Andes differed dramatically. While the Himalaya keeps more or less to the same latitude, the Andes “is a totally different kind of mountain system, going from north to south, from the tropics to temperate zones, creating conditions for great diversity,” he said.

Sophie Moreau, an agricultural scientist from Bolivia, complained of parachute scientists from the North who flew in with thick wallets for short periods, to do high profile research of limited value in the Andes. Meanwhile, Southern scientists worked with little resources. For example, Bolivian scientists who were studying frost on the altiplano faced great difficulty because no one was assisting them.

Virendra Painuly, an excitable activist from Uttarakhand, insisted that the Conference learn to distinguish between “mountain development” and the “development of the mountain people” and favour the former, which he said empowered the local people.

Jorge Lopez Bain, of Chile, expressed concern at the eco-fundamentalist position being pressed by some who preferred to see the mountains as the holdouts of nature rather than regions which had resources required by nations. He objected to a recommendation that the mountains be reserved for “non-extractive industries”, reminding those gathered that the Andean countries relied on large scale mining. The relevant recommendation was adjusted to read, “non-extractive and controlled extraction…”

Many Southern participants argued that mountain peasants were not docile creatures who preferred to live life as museum pieces for the edification of those that were modernised. They, too, wanted modernisation, and access to highways, cars, consumer goods, and other modern amenities. Mountain societies should be provided with the information about the changes that are set to overtake them, but ultimately they have to take their own decisions on how to cope with change and outside influence.

Mountain Mafia

The Lima meeting seemed to mark the passing of the baton from the Mountain Mafia to a larger group of individuals representing disparate backgrounds and not necessarily similar agendas. The term Mountain Mafia, which the members themselves use with relish, includes Jack D. Ives, editor of the journal Mountain Research and Development; forester Larry Hamilton, who has worked both in islands and mountains; Yuri P. Badenkov, of Moscow’s Institute of Geography; Bruno Messerli, a geographer and mountain ecologist at the University of Berne; and New Zealander Kevin O’Conner, who was absent in Lima.

It is the effort of this group that saw the establishment of ICIMOD in 1985, and the organisation of the first mountain conference at Mohonk in upstate New York in 1986, and organised the effort to highlight mountain issues through Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, the declaratory document of Rio. All that had led to Lima.

From a group of Northern physical scientists, Lima seemed to open up the field to a larger community of social scientists, semi-bureaucrats and ngo workers. The “initial organising committee” which was formed to work towards an International Mountain Forum was now made up of a much more diverse group, including a native American, a Nepali biodiversity expert, the chief of the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Studies in Almora, representatives of Latin American groups, and an American come in from the World Bank. While the torch has been passed, it remains to be seen whether this larger, more disparate and necessarily more political group holds together, and is able to generate wider support for the highlands.

Lunch Hour

The Lima meet had been called to generate a constituency with which to approach the United Nations Council for Sustainable Development (CSD), and to lead towards a summit meeting of mountainous countries. It was planned that the recommendations from Lima would feed into the Open Ended Ad-Hoc Working Committee of the CSD, which was meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York around the same time.

Although the CSD meeting in New York was to have been discussing mountains, the focus seemed to be almost entirely on forestry. Those with clout in the committee, such as the representative of the European Community, made clear that they were opposed to a world mountain summit, an idea originally mooted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which is the designated “focal point” for mountain activities among the UN agencies.

One diplomat in New York ‘sympathetic’ to the highlands said many Western states were opposed to giving mountain countries special status because they might emerge as yet another block with power out of proportion with economic clout. Fears of a rise in the sea-level as a result of global warming has apparently given island states disproportionate bargaining power in UN forums. “They fear that the same will happen with the mountain countries if they are allowed to form a block,” said the diplomat.

Jane Pratt of Woodlands came up from Lima on 1 March to address the New York meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee. ICIMOD’s Director General Egbert Pelink flew in from Kathmandu. Unfortunately, there were only eight country representatives in the empty hall to hear the distilled wisdom of Lima’s confabulations. The session had been called during lunch hour.

As anyone who knows the United Nations system will tell you, never call a meeting of diplomats during lunch hour.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *