2020•10•12 Sexten, Italy
The first Global Mountain Sustainability Forum entitled “Sustainability Governance: International Frameworks and Local Contributions”, jointly organized by the GLOMOS programme and the Eurac Research Center for Advanced Studies, has just come to a close. Researchers from around the world came together to discuss global developments and critical issues in sustainability in mountain regions, including natural resources, tourism, and governance.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two-day conference took place virtually. But the pandemic not only influenced the format of the conference, it also became an important point of discussion. Dr. Julia Klein, Associate Professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University, emphasized the importance of not losing sight of climate change during the current health crisis, saying that the inhabitants of mountain regions have to be involved right now in the creation of a sustainable and just post-COVID world. Mountain regions are less densely populated than many other areas, but because 50 percent of biodiversity hotspots can be found there and they hold 60-80 percent of the world’s fresh water, their protection is crucial.
“Unfortunately, mountains are considered among the most sensitive regions with regards to global warming and intensifying climate variability. It is very likely that climate change has particularly fast and direct consequences on the frequency and intensity of natural hazards occurring in these regions,” emphasized Dr. Shen Xiaomeng, Director of UNU-EHS in her welcome note. Mountain ecosystems and their inhabitants are increasingly coming under pressure due to unsustainable use of land and natural resources.
One recurring theme that speakers touched upon was how science can interact with local knowledge. Sustainable development in mountain areas can only be successful if it includes the people who live there. As Professor Jakob Rhyner of the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research pointed out, this also applies to risk management. Oftentimes the locals have a deep understanding of the risks around them. They know the markers to look for that mean an avalanche might occur soon, for example: “When you try to understand hazards like avalanches, scientific and local information need to come together,” he said.
One aspect that was discussed in depth was what sustainable tourism could look like. Here, the forum was able to benefit from a keynote by famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who emphasized that it’s not necessarily tourism itself that hurts the mountains, but the concentration of the tourists: “If mountain tourism was equally distributed, it could be sustainable. But people concentrate in few places and it causes the magnificence and grandeur of the mountains to get lost,” he said.
One way to better distribute mountain tourism would be to go beyond the “well-branded mountains”, such as the Swiss Alps, and visit mountains around the world. “The mountains in Africa have not been as well branded as the mountains in the Global North, but this is changing. There is now more ownership of local people, and access is improving as well,” said Dr. Musonda Mumba of UN Environment (UNEP).
Finally, Dr. Dirk Glaesser of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) came full circle when he brought the discussion back to COVID-19: “The pandemic has been a shock to the tourism industry worldwide. But maybe instead of an interruption, after which we pick up where we left off, we need to see it as the beginning of a structural change,” he said. “COVID-19 has changed how we work. It could also change how we spend our leisure time and travel. Right now, tourism is for most people a break from their routine, but with more flexible work solutions travel can become an integrated element of our lives where we go to places to live there for a while and learn, and we respect the environment around us wherever we are.”
The final keynote address of the forum was held by the American economist and Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Joseph Stiglitz. He concluded that the COVID-19 crisis has shown that global cooperation and solidarity in science can lead to great advancements, but that it has also revealed the weaknesses of our society and economy. A new start after the pandemic needs to therefore focus on a greener, more sustainable and more equitable society.
To read more about the Global Mountain Sustainability Forum please click here.
To read more about the Global Mountain Safeguard Research programme (GLOMOS), a joint initiative between UNU-EHS and Eurac Research, please click here.