Recent Steps at the Mountain Societies Research Institute

Bernadette Dean, associate dean at UCA, at MSRI meeting (source: Ben Orlove_
Bernadette Dean, associate dean at UCA, at MSRI meeting (source: Ben Orlove)

Participants at a meeting held in Kyrgyzstan on 29-30 October 2016 reviewed recent developments of the Mountain Societies Research Institute (MSRI), a unit of the University of Central Asia (UCA). They discussed MSRI’s future directions, focusing on research, education and development programs. The participants included the five members of the MSRI Working Group that provides support and oversight to the Institute, as well as key personnel of the MSRI and senior staff of the UCA. The event built on an earlier meeting in 2015. It was followed by a two-day trip to Naryn province in Kyrgyzstan, with a visit to the first campus of UCA and several environmental facilities.

Bohdan Krawchenko, director general and dean of graduate studies at UCA, opened discussions at the meeting, held at UCA offices in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. He explained the context of the university, acknowledging the challenges that Central Asia faces, particularly governance issues and the slow economic growth that results from weak commodity prices and a reliance on remittances. He pointed out opportunities to improve productivity and advance technological knowledge by building a new set of higher education institutions attuned to the region’s history and cultures.

UCA campus in Naryn (source: Ben Orlove)
UCA campus in Naryn (Source: Ben Orlove).

Krawchenko also emphasized accomplishments. The first UCA campus, in the town of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, opened in 2016. Its recruitment efforts resulted in a large pool of applicants, from which they selected the top sixth, on a competitive basis. There are 71 students in the first cohort, a number which will increase to 150. The current student body is diverse, with a large number from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and a good representation from other countries in Central and South Asia. Moreover, 56 percent of the students come from small towns and rural areas, following the UCA’s mission to broaden its base beyond the capital cities and large towns.

He noted that the construction and student recruitment at the second campus, in Khorog, Tajikistan, is progressing well, with the opening date set for 2017, ahead of schedule. Work is advancing on a third and final campus, in Tekeli, Kazakhstan, as well. Krawchenko commented on the Institute of Public Policy Administration, another UCA unit broadly parallel to MSRI, which has had successful postgraduate certificate programs and a set of working papers that have attracted attention throughout the region.

MSRI researcher (left)and head of local water committee, discussing irrigation canal maintenance (source: B. Orlove)
MSRI researcher Samat Kalmuratov (left) and head of local water committee, discussing irrigation canal maintenance (source: B. Orlove)

Diana Pauna, the dean of arts and sciences, presented other developments at UCA. The preparatory program at the Naryn campus has succeeded in bringing the students to a fully international level of quantitative and English-language skills. She spoke about the steps that have been taken in faculty recruitment, potentially a challenge given the location of the campuses in provincial cities. Currently a quarter of the faculty come from North America and Western Europe, another quarter from India, Turkey and China, and half from Central Asia, reflecting the progress of the Central Asia Faculty Development Program.

Pauna then focused on the Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) program, which will be the fourth and final department at UCA, along with economics and business, media and communications, and information technology, each of which offer concrete support to EES. She discussed the steps that have been taken to develop curriculum, providing practical laboratory and field-based experiences that provide strong local content and prepare the students for capstone projects which can lead directly to employment. She emphasized the importance of the program in linking Central Asia’s natural resources with development and sustainable livelihoods, and in addressing issues of climate change, such as glacier retreat. Bernadette Dean, the associate dean at UCA charged with directing undergraduate programs, joined Pauna in exploring the complementarities between MSRI’s research mission and the teaching focus of EES, and the potential for applied outreach programs as a way to develop these possibilities.

Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, the chairman of UCA’s Board of Trustees, joined the meeting by Skype for a full discussion of the EES program. The group paid close attention to the question of providing local content in curriculum. They discussed career paths for graduates, exploring capstone courses and internships that could build ties with local partners. Disaster risk reduction programs offer a concrete possibility in this region, where glacial retreat and other changes increase flood risk.

Marc Foggin, MSRI scientist, speaking at the MSRI meeting (source: Ben Orlove)
Marc Foggin, MSRI scientist, speaking at the MSRI meeting (source: Ben Orlove)

The second day of the meeting focused on the MSRI strategic plan, which has been developed by the director, Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, along with two MSRI scientists, Marc Foggin and Christian Hergarten. It centered on three cross-cutting themes: climate change and adaptation; mountain livelihoods, well-being and globalization; and the sustainable development goals promulgated by the UN. Foggin discussed a program of Learning Landscapes, with long-term ecological research and monitoring, which could promote poverty alleviation by promoting and supporting ecosystem services. These Learning Landscapes could be sites for MSRI research as well as for EES instruction.

Foggin pointed out that the mountains of Central Asia are recognized as a global diversity hotspot, and that the location of the three branches of UCA in mountain provinces allows for extensive field research in close proximity to the campuses. He cited as an example of training at outreach the partnerships that have been established with 10 schools in Naryn province, where teacher support programs contribute to environmental monitoring. The discussion of the MSRI strategic plan concluded with a review of the publication’s programs and a consideration of achieving financial stability.

Snow at the pass between Bishkek and Naryn (source: Ben Orlove)
Snow at the pass between Bishkek and Naryn (Source: Ben Orlove).

On the morning of 31 October, the working group departed for Naryn, joined by Schmidt-Vogt, Dean, and two MSRI researchers from agronomy and biodiversity programs. After leaving Bishkek, the group reached a pass at 3000 meters which was already covered in snow. They stopped to take photographs of the herds of yaks that had come down from their summer pastures earlier that month, and then continued on to tour the campus and meet with officials and students at lunch and  dinner. They also visited a weather station at a school in a nearby village, Döbölü, discussing environmental monitoring and reviewing relations with the national meteorological service.

Ben Orlove and four UCA undergraduates from Tajikistan (source: UCA)
Ben Orlove and four UCA undergraduates from Tajikistan (Source: UCA).

The field visit provided ample opportunities to observe the issues of mountain sustainable development that had been discussed more abstractly in Bishkek. The group heard that pastoralists aced problems in haymaking because of the wet summer in 2016, a growing issue with greater seasonal variability in recent decades. They learned that low technical and educational levels have impeded grading and certifying meat to permit export to international markets, where prices are much higher than locally; only four firms in the lower western provinces of Kyrgyzstan have met these standards, but the mountain provinces, with abundant herds and pasture, lag behind.

The Central Asian subspecies of red deer at a nature reserve (source: Ben Orlove)
The Central Asian subspecies of red deer at Naryn Nature Reserve (Source: Ben Orlove).

Visits to Salken Tor National Park and Naryn Nature Reserve demonstrated the potential for biodiversity research and conservation. Kyrgyz scientists make active use of camera traps to observe wildlife, but have had difficulties in receiving permission to use radio collars, once again because of international standards that are difficult to meet in such remote, poor areas. The group showed great interest in the videos of snow leopards and bears at the former and a center for recuperation of a population of the vulnerable local subspecies of red deer, Cervus elaphus bactrianus, at the latter. They commented that UCA and MSRI had the potential to help these units to achieve greater self-sufficiency and ease their reliance on sporadic international support.

The final conversations focused on maintaining the ties between the working group, MSRI, EES and other units at UCA, and concrete discussions of future visits to Naryn, and to the new campus in Khorog as well.

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Mountain Societies Research Institute Enters a New Phase

MSRI working group members and UCA leaders source:MSRI
MSRI working group members and UCA leaders source:MSRI

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.

Youth using mobile media facility e-Bilim source:UCA
Youth using mobile media facility e-Bilim source:UCA

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.

Visiting UCA campus in Naryn source:Marc Foggin
Visiting UCA campus in Naryn source:Marc Foggin

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.

Baktygul Chynybaeva interviewing Ben Orlove on Kyrgyz television source:Ryskeldi Sakte
Baktygul Chynybaeva interviewing Ben Orlove on Kyrgyz television source:Ryskeldi Sakte

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.

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