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1 August 2006 Key Issues for Mountain Areas
Fausto O. Sarmiento
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Key Issues for Mountain Areas, edited by Martin F. Price, Libor Jansky, and Andrei A. Iatsenia. Tokyo, Japan: United Nations University Press, 2004. xiv + 273 pp. US$35. ISBN 92-808-1102-9.

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When I received a copy of this book from the United Nations University, little did I know that soon after I would be asked to review it for Mountain Research and Development. I welcomed the task because the book offered potential as a new instructional resource for my teaching of mountain geography, resumed after a hiatus of 3 years of administrative duties in the Office of International Education. During my preparation, I found the latest scientific, technical, and managerial advances of mountain theory and practice, as well as the pedagogy of montology itself, to be compatible with the contents. Therefore, recalling the debate on whether sustainable development can be attained in mountain communities, and avoiding the redundancy of the sustainability mantra and keeping it unbiased, reading this book has left me with several points to share with the readers of MRD.

I recognize that this is an important effort in which a mountain scholar (Price), an academic administrator (Jansky), and an official conservation practitioner (Iatsenia) have joined to produce an overview of both the state of knowledge and debate on the most important topics related to mountain areas, which mountain people and scholars necessarily see as issues. It is admirable that the 3 coeditors contacted a plethora of recognized experts in their fields to produce an elegant and eloquent book on seemingly disparate topics in different regions of the world. I enjoyed reading contributions from some 31 co-authors in a wide network, representing current narratives on the geographies of mountains. Moreover, I am glad to know that the different chapters reflect the joint efforts of many mountain people who reviewed them electronically in preparation for the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit.

I am satisfied with the choice of words in the preface, written by the UN Under-Secretary General and Rector of the United Nations University, Dr. Hans J.A. Van Ginkel, who clearly points to the advancement of the MountainPlatform, attributable to the International Year of Mountains (IYM, 2002) and the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit, in areas such as establishing institutional frameworks and preparing white papers for wider discussions and generation of knowledge. His call for future research priorities and for capacity development is framed with a transcendental push for political, economic, and cultural approaches to both science and education for sustainable mountain development. Moreover, his charge that “accumulation of scientific information with monitoring projects and data measurement, not research, does not generate knowledge,” is an admonition relevant to what I feel is lacking in the following chapters: recognition of different knowledge systems, including traditional and indigenous techniques that should be empowered at the local level. Mountains are so diverse that homogeneous categorization is doomed from the onset. Respect for the individual conditions of mountain landscapes in different regions should be a guiding principle.

I found the selection of chapters and the issues they cover quite engaging; this should stimulate further geographical and ecological inquiries. Not only the array of possible research topics that can be discerned from these pages, but also the different methodological approaches students could take to deal with each issue, are beneficial. When using the book as a textbook for my undergraduate class, I will be able to assign certain chapters rather than the entire book. Each chapter provides a wealth of information on its subject. Topics covered include 1) an overview of sustainability in mountains (M.F. Price); 2) environmental challenges due to the implications of climate change for water, natural resources, hazards, and desertification (M. Iyngararasan, L. Tianchi, S. Shrestha, P.K. Mool, M. Yoshino, and T. Watanabe); 3) access, communications, and energy infrastructure in mountains (T. Kohler, H. Hurni, U. Wiesmann, and A. Kläy); 4) compensatory legal and economic mechanisms for mountain sustainability (M. Koch-Weser and W. Kahlenborn); 5) poverty reduction and livelihood opportunities for mountain economies (S. Parvez and S. Rasmussen); 6) conservation of biological and cultural diversity through mountain tourism (W. Lama and N. Sattar); 7) democratic and decentralized institutions for mountain sustainability (J. Pratt); 8) peace and conflicts in mountain societies (F. Starr); 9) national policies and institutions for sustainable mountain development (A. Villeneuve, T. Hofer, D. McGuire, M. Sato, and A. Mekouar); 10) prospective international agreements for mountain regions (W. Burhenne); and, in the concluding chapter, 11) the role of culture, education, and science in sustainable mountain development (B. Messerli and E. Bernbaum).

The book contains 8 figures and 10 tables that succinctly illustrate complex conceptual and regulatory information on the above issues. I found it useful that the book comprises 3 appendices dealing with the Bishkek MountainPlatform, the UN resolution for the IYM, and the International Partnership for Sustainable Development in Mountain Regions. The 102 acronyms listed on 3 pages reflect the target audience of the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit and justify the official and institutional jargon present in almost every chapter. The list contains the names of institutional agencies, technical documents, and advisory boards that deal with mountain themes.

I wonder if my students of mountain geography will remember next semester what those acronyms stand for; however, it is intriguing that some mountain collectives are not listed. Because of my close relation to the mountains of South America and my beloved Tropandean landscapes, it was easy to detect the lack of any reference to AMA, the Andean Mountains Association. AMA's triannual meetings since 1992 have become both a mechanism to gauge academic efforts in mountain research for sustainability in the continent and a forum for practitioners of Andean sustainable development. Aside from the lack of other Latin American agencies concerned with mountains that were very active in IYM, such as the Fertile Crescent in Brazil, the fact that the African Mountains Association (the “other” AMA) is also not mentioned prompted me to appraise the contributors' affiliations. I could not find any Latino name in the roster, nor any African name, apart from FAO officials.

Despite the inclusiveness and transparency of the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit, this book deals with issues listed and debated from a traditional Western cultural outlook, often in university settings of the developed world. It also emphasizes the representation of United Nations officials and other likely counterparts in non-governmental international organizations such as IUCN, WWF, and others. In short, in many instances I perceived an abridgment of individual reports provided by projects either sponsored or underwritten by those institutions, with the proverbial Northern expertise on Southern realities. Yet this is precisely the value of bringing those points up for discussion among a larger readership.

Because of the nature of activities defining the road to Bishkek and beyond, emphasis on positive experiences with sustainable mountain development is given without a corresponding enumeration of drawbacks or negative experiences. For example, the Italian Committee is mentioned for actively hosting IYM celebratory events and executing high-mountain monitoring projects, but nothing is said about the lack of response to efforts by Andean scholars hoping to link with the Italians for further funding initiatives proposed at the Alpine Forum 2000, which never materialized. There is little said about the lack of trained professionals in developing countries or the lack of commitment by UN agencies to fund sustainable mountain development demonstration programs executed by scientists from the developing world. It is obvious to those seeking funds for mountain research that a discontinuity exists, flanked by what is said and what is actually done, funding permitting.

I envisioned a chapter that would guide the reader through discussions of issues such as equity, environmental justice, or redistribution of wealth associated with development—some key components of the political ecology of mountain systems—but these concepts are difficult to find. I would also have welcomed a chapter on the environmental ethics of mining in mountain protected areas in the developing world, as well as a critique of how globalization is taking hold in isolated mountain communities, destroying ethnicity and creating markets without regard to or concern for acculturation. Traditional research questions (eg what, where, when, who, to whom, whose, how much) are interspersed in the literature; however, the most critical question (ie so what) is elusive. Finding it will become a fascinating didactic exercise for students.

I would recommend this book to a wider readership interested in mountain lore. Readers with a utilitarian perspective and minimal exposure to the “Water Towers of the World” will be intrigued by the complex and challenging oxymoron of mountain development. Those with an ecocentric perspective will be glad to read about progress made from Rio de Janeiro, through Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, to Bishkek and beyond. There will be those whose ethnocentric perspective will lead to inquiries about alternate and vernacular solutions for what is expected with regard to mountain issues in the developing world. Students will learn from well-written, thought-provoking chapters, whatever their perspective on mountain issues. I will keep this book handy in my arsenal of references on montology.

Fausto O. Sarmiento "Key Issues for Mountain Areas," Mountain Research and Development 26(3), 298-300, (1 August 2006).[298:KIFMA]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 August 2006

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