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Celebrating International Mountain Day With Biodiversity Commitments

by |December 17, 2020

On December 11th, the United Nations gathered virtually to celebrate International Mountain Day. Usually, this event is held at the UN headquarters in New York City, but this year it was held virtually for the first time since International Mountain Day was established in 2003. The Kyrgyz Republic led the event in partnership with other international organizations such as the Group of Friends of Mountainous Countries, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

The event linked priorities for mountain nations with other global concerns, including biodiversity and conservation, which is a key factor for sustainable development. A sustainable recovery from COVID-19 was also a major focus of the day; many of the participants noted that the pandemic was the result of an imbalance between nature and humans. The main goal of the event, however, was to encourage cooperation in the development of current and future initiatives of the UN member states.

Moderator Jamil Ahmad, the interim director of the New York office of UNEP, introduced the event with the theme for the day: the role of transboundary cooperation in restoring and preserving mountain biodiversity, and how it can contribute to sustainable development and the fight against COVID-19. Then he introduced Mirgul Moldoisaeva, the permanent representative of the Kyrgyz Republic mission to the UN, who delivered the opening remarks. She stressed the importance of the resolution “Nature Knows No Borders.” The resolution was first announced in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyz Republic, and submitted to the UN General Assembly in October. The resolution highlights the need for cross-border efforts to protect biodiversity from all nations, large or small. Moldoisaeva’s speech urged the other mountain member states to continue the international dialogue around fragile ecosystems.

sixteen speakers smiling, each in their own box, joining the zoom call from all over the world

Speakers at the International Mountain Day Event. Screengrab by Abby Meola.

The permanent representatives (PRs) to the UN spoke next, echoing the sentiments of the opening remarks. Mohammed Naeemi, the deputy to the PR for Afghanistan, spoke on behalf of PR Adela Raz. He highlighted that their country’s mountain ecosystem has been damaged by a decade of war, and needs a systemic approach to biodiversity restoration. PR Elisenda Vives Balmaña of Andorra gave a discussion of the country’s traditional mountain communities, and added that their perspectives should be incorporated into institutions to protect the complexities of their culture and best practices.

Austrian PR Alexander Marschik discussed the future of Alpine glaciers, subject to melting as temperatures rise in the Alps, twice as fast as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. Marschik also spoke about the Alpine Convention––established in 1995 as the first transnational treaty for the countries within a single major range. Austria and the other seven nations of the Alpine Convention announced a new climate tool, Alpine Climate Target System 2050, the day prior to this event. The tool offers information on implementation pathways for climate goals, and has resources on a community platform. This new tool reflects Austria’s goals––to take concrete steps at the nexus of climate change, biodiversity, and mountain recovery from the pandemic.

PR Amrit Bahadur Rai of Nepal noted that this event is a good opportunity to bring mountain people to the forefront ahead of the Convention to Protect Biodiversity’s Conference of Parties (COP) 15 in China next year, since the anticipated event will set the agenda for biodiversity initiatives internationally. He noted international scientific cooperation between China and Nepal, which has developed in the past few years and recently resulted in the finding that Mount Everest has increased in height. “With international commitment, we can move the metaphorical mountain,” he said.

“We need to do something radically different,” said Baeriswyl Pascale, PR of Switzerland. She noted that mountains make up 66% of Swiss land area, and that mountains play a critical role in the nation’s identity. Still, world mountains are under-protected, and mountain nations are not on track to meet their goals. She expressed hope in the Alpine Convention to promote these goals in the Alps.

Finishing the remarks from permanent representatives was Mahmadamin Madmadaminov of Tajikistan. He echoed the unprecedented and interconnected environmental challenges that are exacerbated by COVID-19. He noted that ecosystems have been restructured in Tajikistan––forests have been reduced by half, and more than 1,000 of their glaciers have melted. The country has committed to the 1 Trillion Trees Initiative.

three cartoon triangles that form mountain range. underneath the words "11 December" and "international mountain day" in blue

This year’s IMD logo, Source: FAO

After all of the permanent representatives spoke, members of UN institutions shared their remarks and described their commitments to mountain communities.

Liu Zhemin (China), under-secretary-general of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, joined with a pre-recorded video that described Indigenous people guiding a path forward. “Working together, we can not only mitigate and prevent future pandemics, but also chart a path for a more sustainable future,” he said.

Maria Helena Semedo of the FAO talked about food security in mountain communities. She described the Mountain Partnership, which the FAO founded in 2002, that now has more than 400 government and intergovernmental members. “We need to respond to the call of mountain communities, and place mountain people at the center of our global agenda,” she said.

Satya Tripathi from the UNEP in New York highlighted some of the major cultural contributions that have come from mountains in the past––from philosophy, to art, to science—as well as the stunning biodiversity. “I shudder to think about what the 1.5 Celsius increase will mean for mountain communities, and see a great urgency for climate action,” he said.

Following the UN statements, the event featured a panel discussion of experts. They discussed topics such as the role of regional integration for mountain decision-making, the implementation of relevant projects, potential obstacles for mountainous member states, and ecologically neutral practices for pandemic control.

Marianna Elnmi of the Alpine Convention talked about the convention treaty in more detail, describing the role of transboundary cooperation and the importance of continuous implementation of treaty protocol.

Basanta Raj Shresta from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development talked about the Hindu Kush Himalaya nations taking a catalytic role in mountain development, and learning from the Alpine Convention. He described the success of the Ministerial Mountain Summit in October as an impetus for greater cooperation.

Mette Wilkie spoke on behalf of the forestry division of the FAO, describing that ecosystem services from mountains provide benefits for lowland and highland communities alike. She discussed a recent FAO study determining that food insecurity in mountain communities had increased from 44 to 56%.

Ben Orlove, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and managing editor of GlacierHub, explained a few successful partnerships in revitalizing species, including the snow leopard. “In protecting a keystone species, you can protect an entire landscape and revive communities,” he said.

Lastly, Eva Garcia Balaguer from the Pyrenean Climate Change Observatory focused on their organization’s efforts, including how they engage their community through citizen science and open access data.

Following the panel, more nations expressed their support for the event’s themes––including Greece, Bhutan, Colombia, Morocco, and Italy.

The event returned to Mirgul Moldoisaeva for closing remarks. She thanked all the participants for sharing their experiences and expertise with the group, and expressed her gratitude for continued transboundary partnerships.

Transboundary cooperation is a salient theme for our current moment, when large-scale problems like COVID-19 and climate change require international solutions. International Mountain Day symbolizes the importance of working together to protect mountain biodiversity, combatting a changing climate, and bringing mountain communities to the forefront of sustainable development.

“All people have the joy of mountains in their hearts,” said Moldoisaeva. “We will work tirelessly to ensure their protection. Happy International Mountain Day!”


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