Government neglect of mountain populations sparks violent conflict, experts warned Wednesday at a global mountain summit, noting that some of the most violent armed conflicts in the last decade — from Afghanistan to Chechnya to Kashmir - all arose in mountainous regions.
The risk of violent conflict is higher in mountainous regions because governments tend to neglect the economic and social needs of people who live there, Frederick Starr, chairman of the Washington-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, said at the summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.
"If the government does not care about them, mountain people will draw a reasonable conclusion and will be very angry," he said.
This creates fertile ground for extremist groups that attempt to spread separatist or other ideas and gain supporters, panelists said. Often funded by illegal sources such as drugs, these groups can offer material incentives that make it easy to win over people whose governments are ignoring them.
The link between armed conflict and inadequate government in mountainous areas was one of keynote issues discussed at the four-day summit on mountain problems. It was the first-ever expert-level attempt to look at mountain problems as a potential source of armed conflict.
The most violent conflicts of the past decade broke out in mountainous areas — Nagorno-Karabakh and Chechnya in the Caucasus; the Balkans in Europe; Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kashmir in Asia; and Ethiopia and Eritrea in Africa.
A study by the U.N. Environment Program and the World Conservation Monitoring Center released ahead of the summit found that 41 percent of all high-intensity conflicts between 1946 and 2001 happened in mountainous areas, against 26 percent in non-mountain regions.
For environmentalists, conflicts in mountainous regions are a major threat to fragile mountain ecosystems.
Military operations destroy environments, threaten already endangered species and increase pressure on natural resources, said Mark Collins, director of the World Conservation Monitoring Center.
Afghanistan's mountains, which make up over 60 percent of the country's territory, lost up to 30 percent of their forests in the past two decades of war.
The Afghan charge d'affaires to Kyrgyzstan — Abdul Kadyr Dostum, the only representative of his country at the summit — said Afghanistan's mountain population needed urgent help after the country's more than two decades of war.
"People in the mountains are extremely poor. All roads have been ruined and there is no way to get any food supplies to them," said Dostum, the brother of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek commander and powerful political figure in northern Afghanistan.
Starr said war in the mountains were preventable as its main causes — poverty and ineffective government — were resolvable problems.
"As people in mountain areas begin to sense that the government is not an enemy, that they are receiving the same benefits as other citizens of the country, they will increasingly view themselves not as subjects but as citizens," he said.
By Bagila Bukharbayeva, Associated Press, October 30, 2002