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Connecting the global mountain community

Banff Centre hosts diverse Mountain Forum gathering

The attire and accents of the two-dozen delegates participating in meetings at the Banff Centre last month may have been diverse, but their conversations focused on a single topic – mountains.

For four days the Banff Center’s Mountain Culture division hosted the 10 th annual board meetings and node manager meetings of Mountain Forum, a global community of membership-driven networks which facilitate information sharing among organizations involved in mountain communities at regional and local levels, and which promote sustainable development of mountain areas around the world.

With a global secretariat based in Kathmandu, the MF network includes five regional nodes – African Mountain Forum, Asia-Pacific Mountain Network, European Mountain Forum, InfoAndina in Latin America, and the North American Mountain Forum, hosted by the Banff Centre’s Mountain Culture – all of which are autonomous organizations that function independently and are hosted by partner institutions.

Participants included node managers from Uganda, Peru, Nepal and Romania, members from the Mountain Forum Secretariat based in Kathmandu, MF board members and observers from Ethiopia, Ghana, Scotland, Washington D.C., Switzerland, Italy as well as the Banff Centre’s Associate Director of Mountain Culture, Leslie Taylor.

"We are all part of a global mountain community a lot of us don’t realize exists," said Amy Krause, node manager for North American Mountain Forum. "The people involved in Mountain Forum represent nations and organizations that recognize that mountains are important, not just to the people who live there, but to everybody. Mountains are the world’s watertowers, storehouses of cultural diversity and biodiversity, home to forests and minerals, and are spiritually significant to billions of people worldwide."

Originally from Delhi – not one of India’s mountainous regions – and now working in Kathmandu, MF information services program officer Prashant Sharma said mountains are ingrained in the social consciousness of all Indians.

"Mountains are very deeply ingrained for us, culturally," Sharma said. "We’ve always gone to the mountains for inspiration and to seek understanding of life’s mysteries."

With its core funding donated by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and additional funding provided by the nodes’ host organizations and other foundations, including the Mountain Partnership Secretariat of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, MF provides six distinct services that are free and available to anyone.

These include a searchable membership database, 12 distinct moderated discussion lists, an online library, mountain calendar, publications and e-conference services.

Some of the issues most frequently discussed by Mountain Forum members include water quality, conservation and climate change, many of which are cross-current to mountain regions on opposite sides of the globe.

Every year, Mountain Forum is contracted to conduct online conferences on topics such as these for mountain organizations around the world. Having e-conferences that are moderated by mountain experts is a valuable service, said Ana Maria Ponce, MF executive secretary.

"When there is a moderator, the discussion is more focussed, it reaches a final synthesis, and recommendations can be made," said Ponce, who before being appointed to the MF secretariat office in Kathmandu served as coordinator of InfoAndina, hosted at the International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru.

While its members include activists, administrators, artists, community leaders, entrepreneurs, journalists, policy makers and researchers from 100 countries – including Bow Valley residents – the Mountain Forum community also includes hundreds of organizations such as local and international NGOs, universities and research institutions, government institutions and intergovernmental organizations.

In many places, however, mountain populations continue to be marginalized – politically, economically, culturally and geographically – and remain disproportionately poor.

"Now there is an impressive network of computers in Africa, but very limited bandwidth," said African node manager Moses Musinguzi, who is based in Kampala Uganda. "When you send a message, it could be a week before you have a response. In many places you have to travel to the next town where there is an Internet café, you have to pay money and then you have to wait for the time it takes to download any information."

Mountain Forum works by phone and mail with members who don’t have Internet access. It also recently won an award for its work with community radio in Nepal. While in Banff, the delegates were introduced to First Voice International, a non-profit organization facilitating satellite radio services to remote communities in Africa and Asia.

Such a service could be valuable for discussing issues or sharing information in remote African communities, Musinguzi said, especially those where computer access is not readily available to those without money or literacy skills, and where hundreds of different dialects are the only languages spoken.

But even though in some countries mountain communities lack the modern global connections available to North American residents, many mountain communities face similar challenges.

"Water is a big issue," Krause said. "And the challenges of tourism are significant as well. Tourism is an attractive form of economic development for mountain communities partly because they see it as sustainable alternative – they believe that visitors consume the views rather than the resources. As tourism grows it presents unforeseen challenges that are familiar to communities like ours, but increasingly to communities in the developing world as well. We may think our challenges are unique, but they are shared with mountain communities all over the world. Of course, we have significant differences, but Mountain Forum reminds me that we are part of a global mountain community. We are all mountain people."