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Leading Himalayan Organization Takes a Historical Step by Appointing a Leader From Bhutan

On July 17, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) announced a decision to appoint Bhutanese politician Pema Gyamtsho as its next director general. He will replace the current DG David Molden in October.

Despite focusing on the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH), a mountain range that stretches from Afghanistan to China, ICIMOD has been led exclusively by nationals of the US and Europe since its creation in 1983. “This is a historic moment for us,” a source at ICIMOD told GlacierHub. Pema is a native from the HKH and his selection shows confidence in the capability of people from the region to take ownership of their own institution.

The next director general at ICIMOD will be from Bhutan. The small kingdom of the Eastern Himalayas is a global model when it comes to conservation and sustainability. (Source: Göran Höglund, Kartläsarn). 

ICIMOD intends to secure a better future for the Hindu Kush Himalayas, a region called “the Third Pole” because its glaciers and permafrost contain the largest freshwater resources outside Antarctica and the Arctic. Although it serves eight member countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan), it was established in Paris with founding sponsorship from Switzerland, Germany, and UNESCO.

Paris, 1981. Krishna Raj Aryal, who was Nepalese ambassador and permanent delegate to UNESCO, and UNESCO’s director general Amadou Mahtar M’bow signing the agreement that would found ICIMOD (Source:ICIMOD)

The organization was originally created for scientists to share their knowledge on the region’s cryosphere to promote sustainable mountain development. Its experts regularly contribute to the world’s most prominent science sources, notably the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Glaciers in the Afghan and Pakistani parts of the Hindu Kush Himalayas (Source: Ninara)

“Recently, we’ve put a lot of effort in finding common grounds for countries to work together,” the current director general David Molden told GlacierHub. In addition to promoting scientific research, ICIMOD has played an increasingly important role in creating a space for policy makers to discuss the region’s environmental challenges.

ICIMOD is organizing an online ministerial summit on October 15 where senior officials from member countries will plan a joint declaration to work together for mountain sustainability. While its contours are still vague, the mere fact of initiating formal cooperation is an achievement in the politically tense region.

David Molden speaking at a podium
Current ICIMOD director general David Molden, from the United States, at a consultative workshop on renewable energy in the Hindu Kush Himalayas (Source: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

“In this region, there are contentious issues when working across boundaries, like security and trade. Climate change, disasters, science, and many mountain-related issues are of common concern, so countries can get together despite their differences,” Molden explained to GlacierHub.

For ICIMOD, this political neutrality has been key to moving forward, the current DG told GlacierHub. In the past, the choices of leaders amongst donor countries who are external to the HKH region—like the United States—have reflected a commitment to neutrality. Appointing someone from China or India could seem biased because of their country’s influence, no matter how qualified they may be, a source in Nepal told GlacierHub.

Over 60 percent of Bhutan is forest cover. Surrounded by a pine forest, this is the Taktsang Palphug Monastery, a prominent Buddhist site. (Source:Antonio Morales García)

For a first time selecting a director general from a member country, choosing a Bhutanese seems wise for ICIMOD. Bhutan has good relationships with all countries. “I think this was an important reason,” Golam Rasul who is chief economist at ICIMOD told GlacierHub. Plus, Bhutan is a global role model in the field of the environment. “At ICIMOD, we appreciate that,” he added. The small kingdom — covering less than a third of the area of New York State — is the only carbon negative country in the world. As mandated by its constitution, a minimum of 60 percent of its land must be under forest cover at all times.

Pema, who has been a member of Parliament, opposition leader, and a minister for Bhutan, played an important role in contributing to these ambitious goals. During his time as the minister of agriculture and forest in 2012, he developed the plan to become the world’s first fully organic nation.

In addition to holding a PhD in natural science, Pema has worked in politics for over a decade and knows the region’s main political leaders, Rasul told GlacierHub. This is aligned with ICIMOD’s present focus on political cooperation. He also knows the organization very well as he has worked there as a watershed specialist before his time in politics. Since then, “he has kept close connections with ICIMOD,” Rasul added.

Pema is a politician and scientist. He was a speaker (second from left) at a panel of policy makers during Rio’s Earth Summit in 2012. (Source: MPCAH/Alma Karsymbe)

Despite his strong qualifications, “it was a pleasant surprise that somebody from Asia, especially Bhutanese, would be chosen,” Kinzang Wangdi, a former cabinet official for Bhutan, told GlacierHub. This decision indicates that ICIMOD is placing importance on locals to take charge of their own region, he said.

This has not always been the case. “In the 1990s, I remember that Western scientists would ask people in the region to install their hydrological modeling software, but locals would never take part in making them,” Miriam Jackson, a glaciologist, told GlacierHub.

Now, ICIMOD offers training to build capacity locally. For example, an online course was offered on 14-17 July 2020 to empower women in Pakistan to use geospatial information technology.

The appointment of Pema is another prominent sign of the increased ownership of locals in the Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain sustainability sector. Choosing someone from a member state, especially from Bhutan, is a positive statement for ICIMOD.

As the mountain organization reaffirms its roots in the Himalayas, the surrounding glaciers become of greater significance to the people who live up and down their streams.

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