Mountains without mountain people will not be sustainable

Mountains without mountain people will not be sustainable


This interview was conducted by Mr. Anand Gurung of that appeared in its online news portal on 13 January 2009 and is hereby published with permission. Dr Andreas Schild
Dr Andreas Schild
Director General

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This interview was conducted by Mr. Anand Gurung of that appeared in its online news portal on 13 January 2009 and is hereby published with permission. It can be accessed on the web at:

Dr. Andreas Schild, a Swiss national, is the Director General of Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional knowledge development and learning hub which has been working persistently for the past 25 years to assist people of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Mountain (HKH) region to understand the effects of globalization and climate change on the stability of fragile mountain ecosystems and the livelihoods they provide.

In his career spanning 30 years Dr Schild, who is trained as a historian and sociologist, has worked in various multilateral development agencies in countries as challenging as Afghanistan and North Korea. For his outstanding lifetime contribution to the cause of the Himalayan Environment, Dr Schild received the prestigious First Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Environment Award in 2008. Having first arrived in Nepal in the 70s as head of a Swiss development agency, Dr Schild through his extensive involvement in the development works here understands the special status of Nepal in this region. In an interview with Anand Gurung of, the self-proclaimed “mountain man” talks about ICIMOD’s pioneering works that have contributed immensely to sustainable mountain development.

When you first arrived in Nepal to work for a Swiss development agency you must have gone to various parts of the country and had an opportunity to closely know and understand the mountain and hill communities of the country. Tell us, what changes have you found in their conditions now from what they were in those days?
Yes, I did a lot of traveling mainly in the hill and mountain areas during the 70s, as most of the projects run by the Swiss agency that I was involved in back then were exclusively focused in those areas. Although my work here at ICIMOD gives me little time to travel around the country, I recently went to the areas that I visited during those days to see first hand what kind of changes have arrived there. To tell you frankly, I was positively impressed by what I saw.

For instance, there were some places which hardly had any forests when I visited them for the first time and some low-lying areas had very poor pastures. Now when I go there I am walking through forests and the pastures are also lush green. At that time the girls and women of the village brought fodder and fire-wood by walking very far. But now you see in front of every house a pile of dry wood. These may be simple things, but something you’ll not have seen 30 years ago. Similarly, you also see that electricity has reached many rural parts of the country and with it some notable developments. You see villagers more involved in agroforestry, fisheries, animal farming, and beekeeping apart from traditional agricultural practices to earn their livelihood. They have managed to greatly improve their living standard because of this and now have better access to health, education and other basic services. All in all, I must say the changes I saw were positive. But I cannot say if this is representative for the whole country. I believe however change has taken place much faster in the cities and mountain people are much more exposed to what is happening outside Nepal through seasonal and other migration. This is a source of potential, but also of frustration and disappointment.

So what is ICIMOD doing for sustainable development of the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region?
We have been criticized in the past for only focusing on the environmental aspects of the mountains. However, we believe that mountains without the mountain people are not going to be sustainable. We can only achieve the goal of sustainable development through the interaction of environment and society. That’s why we have created a special program for supporting sustainable livelihoods in the mountains. The main idea behind the program is to convey that our findings are having a positive impact on the development of the mountain areas and the people. Having said this, I would like to remind you here that we are not a poverty reduction organization. We want to explore options and create more opportunities in the mountains, and of course hope this will help in poverty reduction efforts. Our main aim is not only to conserve the mountain system but also to make sure that the livelihoods in the mountain areas are sustainable and that the resources are available in a sustainable way. It also means developing new opportunities for income generation for the mountain communities and management of the resources available to them.

Tell us how ICIMOD’s work in the Himalayas has enhanced upstream/downstream relationships?
To put it simply, our mission is to work for the good of the mountain ecology with the aim of having a positive impact on people’s lives. We believe that if you can show the importance of mountain ecosystems in securing the sustainability of both uplands and lowlands then there is a good opportunity for enhancing the living standards of people from both areas. So we are promoting understanding of major environmental challenges, and helping mountain communities adapt to them by creating new opportunities, while all the time addressing upstream/downstream issues for a sound mountain ecosystem.

What has been the pioneering work of ICIMOD in the 25 years of its operation?
In the initial years we concentrated more on convincing people that there is a potential for mountain development. Then in the next phase ICIMOD concentrated on developing typical mountain technologies for improving the living standards of mountain populations. However, our emphasis has always been on protecting the fragile mountain ecosystem while going about the task so that it ultimately benefits the mountain population as well as people living downstream.

For example, ICIMOD has played an important role in promoting mountain tourism, mountain risk engineering, use of seabuckthorn, and beekeeping in the past to enhance livelihood opportunities in the Himalayan region. People nowadays are not aware that seabuckthorn and mountain risk engineering were originally promoted by ICIMOD and that it was only later that the non-government organizations picked them up and used them successfully, not only in Nepal but also in the region. We’ve also helped to document and promote the experiences of micro-hydro projects for mountains, including developing ‘how to do’ manuals. And we have helped many farmers groups and development organizations to understand and learn new approaches from natural terracing to compost making and water harvesting at our Demonstration and Training Centre at Godavari. This apart, we have introduced innovative projects that have played an important role in biodiversity conservation in the region.

The non-government organizations with whom we work very closely have been very good in absorbing the technologies we have introduced in the past and have spread them at the grass roots level in a much better way than we could do.

How great are the risks of climate change in the Himalayan region? And how well are you preparing the mountain people against the eventual outcome?
Due to receding of glaciers and loss of permafrost, we have an increase in the number of glacial lakes in the Himalayan region. With the increase of glacial lakes, the probability of glacial lake outburst floods has also increased and, concurrently, the loss of glaciers will have serious implications for downstream water resources. This has very clearly increased risks and hazards for millions of people in both regions and we think one of the main roles is to make them aware of this great environmental challenge that we are facing. At the same time we propose measures diminishing these risks. This is just the tip of an iceberg, there is also the whole situation of changing conditions for agriculture, crops that can no longer be grown successfully, new crops that can be introduced, types of housing that are no longer appropriate, and so on. In pasture land, for example, we observe the invasion of new species. Moreover, the erratic availability of water due to changing rain patterns will have long term consequences on the food security and livelihoods of the mountain people.

So our main focus is on disseminating a clear message about climate change. At the same time our role is also to see how the mountain people have traditionally defended themselves from such risks. These challenges in the mountains are not new. The mountain people have always coped with them with great resilience and we want to help them apply these approaches to mitigate the risks of climate change in the Himalayan region, to safeguard the well-being of the mountain communities themselves and to save the beautiful but fragile mountain ecosystem as well.

Credit: For more details contact:
Nira Gurung (Ms),
Communications Officer
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)
Email: [email protected]