A meeting held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on 3-5 July 2015 marked an important point in the development of the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Societies Research Institute (MSRI). The five members of the MSRI Working Group that provides support and oversight to the Institute met with key personnel of the MSRI. They were joined by staff of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), of which UCA is an institution.
Founded in 2011, MSRI is a university-wide, interdisciplinary research institute dedicated to addressing the challenges and opportunities within communities and environments in Central Asian mountain regions, particularly the Pamirs and the Tien Shan Ranges. MSRI’s goal is to support and enhance the resilience and quality of life of mountain societies through the generation and application of sound research.
MSRI addresses a region facing many challenges in the post-Soviet era, including the poorly managed privatization of state enterprises, the outmigration of educated professionals and manual laborers, and the disruption of established patterns of transhumant pastoralism, as well as tensions between countries in the region, political violence in Afghanistan just across the region’s southern border, and climate change impacts, particularly glacier retreat. These challenges all strike the poor and relatively isolated and marginal mountain regions of Central Asian countries with particular force.
MSRI’s research serves not only to generate new knowledge, but also to promote education and capacity building more broadly, to support policy and practice for sustainable mountain development, and to serve as a knowledge hub for the region. The use of research to support policy in priority areas is evident in its Background Paper Series, which addresses major themes such as sustainable land management, mountain tourism, and agroforestry for landscape restoration and livelihoods. Its manuals for pasture management and restoration, available in Tajik, Kyrgyz and Russian, were among the first such resources to reach pastoralists in their own languages. MSRI has worked in conservation as well, for example coordinating with a global program to protect snow leopards through landscape- and community-based programs. Capacity building activities include the opening of a GIS lab available to MSRI partners and the establishment of a school-based program of citizen science in environmental areas such as water quality. MSRI’s mobile digital library, eBilim, reaches underserved mountain regions in Kyrgyzstan with critical resources.
However, MSRI is still in its initial phases. Activities will be picking up when the first undergraduate campus of UCA opens next year in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. Two other campuses will be built in Khorog, Tajikistan (to open in 2018), and in Tekeli, Kazakhstan (2020). The University is distinctive as Central Asia’s first regional university, seeking to promote exchanges among countries that have often looked more to build ties with powerful countries outside the region than with neighboring countries. It is also distinctive in its selection of provincial towns in mountain areas as the sites for main campuses, aiming to serve as development hubs in poor regions that are neglected in relation to the capital cities, where other universities are located. In the mountain regions, glacier retreat is threatening water supplies and increasing the risks associated with natural hazards.
The opening of UCA’s first campus will bring students and faculty members, who will engage with MSRI through research projects. There will be significant exchanges between academic departments of the university, such as Economics and Earth & Environmental Sciences, and MSRI.
To promote these exchanges and activities, UCA convened the first meeting of the MSRI Working Group. Its five members all come from different countries: Helmut Echtler from the University of Potsdam in Germany, Hans Hurni from the University of Bern in Switzerland, Yuri Badenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Xu Jianchu of the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, China, and myself. This diversity of national origins reflects the growing range of ties of Central Asia in the post-Soviet period.
The Working Group met with representatives from MSRI, UCA and AKDN, and with MSRI partners such as European bilateral aid agencies, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and the World Agroforestry Centre. It discussed priorities for research and education, and evaluated the internal organization of MSRI . On the last day of the meeting, the Working Group members visited UCA’s Naryn campus, still under construction. The group was strongly encouraged by these developments, and looks forward to working with MSRI in the future to address the urgent needs of the region.