Environmentalists, government officials and donors gathered Tuesday to sound the alarm about the increasing vulnerability of mountain ecosystems and mountain peoples to environmental, social and economic pressures.
The first-ever global mountain summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek surrounded by majestic snowcapped ranges of the Tien Shan Mountains gathered over 500 delegates from about 60 countries. The four-day event is aimed at raising global awareness of the importance of mountain regions.
Opening the summit on Tuesday, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev urged a radical change of attitude toward mountain regions.
"Consumerism toward mountains has caused poverty, depopulation, environmental degradation, loss of ethnic and cultural traditions, interethnic tension, conflicts, migration and information problems," he said.
Issues to be discussed at the summit include the impact of climate change on mountains and problems of education and employment in mountainous areas.
Crown Prince of Nepal Paras Bir Bikram Shah Dev said mountain regions had been deprived of access to markets, education and opportunities.
"Far too many our people live in poverty, far too many suffer from inadequate health care," he said. "It is high time that the pattern was reversed in favor of mountain regions."
A study released ahead of the summit by the U.N. Environment Program and the World Conservation Monitoring Center found many mountain environments are fast disappearing due to excessive use of natural resources, inappropriate infrastructure development, deforestation and natural hazards.
The report said one of the biggest threats to mountains' environmental security today was global warming, which is rapidly melting mountain glaciers and snowfields.
Despite the warnings, two of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia failed to sign a mountain charter Tuesday intended to signal the region's unity in solving environmental and development problems in their mountain areas.
The charter was signed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but no official reason was given as to why Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — both of which sent delegations to the summit — didn't join the signing ceremony.
The region is facing a number of serious environmental problems inherited from its Soviet past, but there has been little cooperation on any level between Central Asian neighbors after their 1991 independence. One of the main sources of tension has been the unequal distribution of costs and benefits in using mountain resources, mainly water.
Mountains cover a quarter of the planet's surface and provide fresh water to almost half of the world's population. Remote from power and economic centers, mountain communities are often marginalized. About half of the world's approximately 700 million mountain inhabitants are vulnerable to food shortages and chronic malnutrition, according to the United Nations and other summit organizers.
The summit is the biggest international event ever hosted by Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia with a population of about 4.5 million people. Mountains cover more than 90 percent of its territory.
By Bagila Bukharbayeva, Associated Press, October 29, 2002