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'Mountains without mountain people will not be sustainable'

Feb 03, 2009

Dr. Andreas Schild, Director General of Kathmandu based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development believes mountain communities and fragile mountain ecosystems deserve equal focus. In an interview he explains his organisation's work in supporting sustainable livelihoods and the need to prepare people against climate risks in the region.

In his career spanning 30 years, Dr. Andreas Schild, Director General of Kathmandu based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has been working persistently to assist people of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Mountain region in understanding the effects of globalisation and climate change on the stability of fragile mountain ecosystems and the livelihoods they provide.

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For his outstanding lifetime contribution to the cause of the Himalayan Environment, Dr Schild received the prestigious First Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Environment Award in 2008. In an interview with Anand Gurung of, the self-proclaimed “mountain man” talks about ICIMOD’s pioneering works that have contributed immensely to sustainable mountain development.

Anand Gurung: When you first arrived in Nepal to work for a Swiss development agency you must have gone to various parts of the country and had an opportunity to closely know and understand the mountain and hill communities of the country. Tell us, what changes have you found in their conditions now from what they were in those days?

Andreas Schild: Yes, I did a lot of traveling mainly in the hill and mountain areas during the 70s, as most of the projects run by the Swiss agency that I was involved in back then were exclusively focused in those areas. Also, I recently went to the areas that I visited during those days to see first hand what kind of changes have arrived there. To tell you frankly, I was positively impressed by what I saw.

For instance, there were some places which hardly had any forests when I visited them for the first time and some low-lying areas had very poor pastures. Now when I go there I am walking through forests and the pastures are also lush green.

At that time the girls and women of the village brought fodder and fire-wood by walking very far. But now you see in front of every house a pile of dry wood. These may be simple things, but something you’ll not have seen 30 years ago.

Similarly, electricity has reached many rural parts of the country and with it some notable developments. Villagers are more involved in agroforestry, fisheries, animal farming, and beekeeping apart from traditional agricultural practices to earn their livelihood. They have managed to greatly improve their living standard because of this and now have better access to health, education and other basic services.

All in all, I must say the changes I saw were positive. But I cannot say if this is representative for the whole country. I believe however change has taken place much faster in the cities and mountain people are much more exposed to what is happening outside Nepal through seasonal and other migration. This is a source of potential, but also of frustration and disappointment.

AG: So what is ICIMOD doing for sustainable development of the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region?

AS: We have been criticised in the past for only focusing on the environmental aspects of the mountains. However, we believe that mountains without the mountain people are not going to be sustainable. We can only achieve the goal of sustainable development through the interaction of environment and society.

That’s why we have created a special program for supporting sustainable livelihoods in the mountains. The main idea behind the program is to convey that our findings are having a positive impact on the development of the mountain areas and the people. It also means developing new opportunities for income generation for the mountain communities and management of the resources available to them.

AG: What has been the pioneering work of ICIMOD in the 25 years of its operation?

AS: In the initial years we concentrated more on convincing people that there is a potential for mountain development. Then in the next phase ICIMOD concentrated on developing typical mountain technologies for improving the living standards of mountain populations.

However, our emphasis has always been on protecting the fragile mountain ecosystem while going about the task so that it ultimately benefits the mountain population as well as people living downstream.

For example, ICIMOD has played an important role in promoting mountain tourism, mountain risk engineering, use of seabuckthorn, and beekeeping in the past to enhance livelihood opportunities in the Himalayan region. We’ve also helped to document and promote the experiences of micro-hydro projects for mountains, including developing ‘how to do’ manuals.

And we have helped many farmers groups and development organisations to understand and learn new approaches from natural terracing to compost making and water harvesting. This apart, we have introduced innovative projects that have played an important role in biodiversity conservation in the region.

AG: How great are the risks of climate change in the Himalayan region? And how well are you preparing the mountain people against the eventual outcome?

AS: Due to receding of glaciers and loss of permafrost, we have an increase in the number of glacial lakes in the Himalayan region. With the increase of glacial lakes, the probability of glacial lake outburst floods has also increased and, concurrently, will have serious implications for downstream water resources.

This has very clearly increased risks and hazards for millions of people and we need to make them aware of this great environmental challenge. At the same time we propose measures diminishing these risks.

This is just the tip of an iceberg, there is also the whole situation of changing conditions for agriculture. Moreover, the erratic availability of water due to changing rain patterns will have long term consequences on the food security and livelihoods of the mountain people.

So our main focus is on disseminating a clear message about climate change. At the same time our role is also to see how the mountain people have traditionally defended themselves from such risks. These challenges in the mountains are not new.

The mountain people have always coped with them with great resilience and we want to help them apply these approaches to mitigate the risks of climate change in the Himalayan region.

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