Celebrating International Mountain Day at the United Nations

Three countries, Peru, Kyrgyzstan and Austria, sponsored an event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on November 11 to mark International Mountain Day. It was attended by over 60 people, most of whom were senior and junior staff who represent mountain countries and officials from UN agencies. The speakers all underscored the importance of mountains in core UN priorities, including sustainable development, social justice, and human well-being.

Presentations by Permanent Representatives from Mountain Countries

Adriana Dinu, the executive coordinator of the UN Development Program Global Environmental Finance Unit (GEF), served as moderator. Her familiarity with mountain issues stems both from her position as a major representative of one of the key climate finance institutions in the world, and as someone with extensive experience in the mountains of her country, the Carpathians in Romania. She indicated the importance of mountains to key UN initiatives, particularly the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

An animated moment during the discussion (source: Madina Karabaeva)

The three countries’ permanent representatives, roughly equivalent to ambassadors, were the first to speak. Mirgul Moldoisaeva of Kyrgyzstan underscored her country’s long engagement with mountain issues. The Bishkek Global Mountain Summit was held in its capital in 2002. This event marked 2002 as the International Year of Mountains and led to the creation of International Mountain Day by a resolution of the UN General Assembly. Moldoisaeva described Kyrgyzstan’s engagement with snow leopard conservation as a form of mountain ecosystem management which preserves both biodiversity and human livelihoods.

Jan Kickert, the permanent representative of Austria, emphasized the need to maintain fragile mountain ecosystems so that they can support agriculture and water resources. He described the challenges which mountain countries face to keep population in balance with resources, particularly in the context of growing international flows of migrants. Kickert noted that temperatures in the Alps, and in other mountains, are rising at a rate faster than the global average, so that the 2 degree limit established in the Paris Agreement has already been breached there. He also discussed the Alpine Convention, a body which links the eight countries in Europe with portions of their territory in the Alps, and their work on a variety of environmental and social issues.

Peru’s permanent representative, Gustavo Meza Cuadra, noted with pride his country’s deep cultural heritage that traces back to the Incas, a civilization centered in the Andes. He spoke of Peru’s recent successes in poverty reduction. He indicated that the employment and income generation that support this progress rest in part on glaciers to supply water to the desert coast, an active economic region, and hence is threatened by climate change. The growth of tourism, another major economic activity, is also challenged by glacier retreat and water scarcity.

A Diverse Panel Discussion

After these opening addresses, Dinu chaired a panel discussion. The first to speak was Markus Reiterer, the secretary general of the Alpine Convention. He briefly summarized how the Convention on the Protection of the Alps was signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1995. It supports protocols in a number of sectors, including planning and development, nature protection, agriculture, forests, tourism, energy, transport and soils. He discussed several new initiatives of the convention, including a platform for information exchange and a commitment to making the Alps carbon neutral by 2050. He emphasized the importance of women in mountain economies and societies, and spoke of the importance of stemming the depopulation of high mountain regions.

Gustavo Meza Cuadra, Markus Reiterer and Ben Orlove, with Veronika Bustamante (standing) (source: Will Julian)

Carla Mucavi, the director of the Liaison Office of the UN Food and Agriculture Office, underscored the vulnerability of mountain peoples, recognizing the challenges which they face and the potential of their knowledge and resilience. She focused on women in mountain settings as resource managers, guardians of biodiversity, and decision-makers in adaptation programs. She noted that women in mountain settings often suffer from discrimination that blocks their access to land title, and proposed targeted investments to promote resilience in mountain regions.

Ben Orlove, a professor at Columbia University, and editor of this website, was the third to speak. He indicated that glacier retreat affects human well-being not only because of its impacts on water resources and natural hazards, but also because glaciers hold great cultural and spiritual importance in mountain countries around the world. He showed four slides of a pilgrimage to a glacier in southern Peru, discussing the accommodations that the participants, largely indigenous Quechua-speakers, have made to the retreat of the glacier. He noted the participation of mountain communities in UNESCO events that promote indigenous knowledge as a tool to address climate change, and spoke of glaciers as a focus of the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere.

An Engaged Audience

After this panel discussion, Dinu opened the session to questions from the floor. The four people who spoke were all from mountain countries in Asia. Their remarks focused on their countries’ experience with the issues of hunger, climate and gender that the other speakers had raised, including the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and the rapid response of mountain communities to assist each other, an innovative financing program involving the World Wildlife Fund and the private sector in Bhutan, knowledge sharing platforms in Tajikistan, and biodiversity programs in Kazakhstan.

Conversations after the meeting (source: Will Julian)

The permanent representatives, panelists and moderator all gave brief closing remarks. In addition to the serious reflections on issues of poverty and sustainability in the context of climate change, there were a few lighter notes, including Moldoisaeva’s invitation to the audience to attend the Third World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan in 2018.

After Dinu formally closed the event, people remained in the room for about 15 minutes. A staff member from one of the host countries commented to GlacierHub, “It’s not usual to see so many people stay around after a meeting. Ordinarily everyone is rushing off to their next appointment.” One small group formed to discuss migration issues in mountain countries. Several people commented to Orlove that they particularly appreciated his slides about the pilgrimage, because these cultural and spiritual dimensions of mountains are often neglected. Dinu received a number of compliments on her effective moderation of the session. And, as often seems to happen at UN events, many participants exchanged cards and promised to remain in touch. Such ties can support mountain issues in international forums in the future.

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