Perth III was hosted by the University of the Highlands and Islands/Perth College, in Perth, Scotland, with support from MRI and GBMA -- underscoring before a single speaker came forth the explicit effort to integrate social, physical and natural sciences. On the one hand this was successful: Presentations on plant phenology, or soil composition, landslides and stream sedimentation were held in parallel with roundtables on cross-scale governance (of which I was a part), new research on social-ecological systems (SES) and “sacred mountain landscapes” (indeed blogs related to individuals sessions, written by session chairs, are available here). There was a concerted effort to incorporate, indeed elevate, the role of social sciences in our efforts to understand sustainable mountain development under conditions of climate change, which I can only commend.
Colorado State professor Julia Klein’s early plenary, in which she isolated six mountain paradoxes (like being rich in biodiversity, or natural resources, but income or food poor, for example) that orient her innovative Mountain Sentinels project, was particularly exciting, and embodies arguably the current apogee of interdisciplinary, and integrated, mountain systems research.
The above notions are at the core of AMRDI’s philosophy and work, in which both adaptation and resilience are as much a function of modes of local decision-making, and where poverty and hunger are as much inputs to a resilience calculus as they are the result of system pathologies. Understanding the interaction between local institutions – formal or informal – and a changing environment is fundamental both understanding our challenges, and working with communities to find ways forward. Crucially, many presentations shared original research and insights that both broadened and deepened this understanding
And yet, despite these efforts and innovations, I remain somewhat dispirited by the lack of explicit attention paid to human welfare, democracy, social and environmental justice, state and sub-state fragility, and conflict, in mountain regions, whether in the U.S. or around the world. In fact, “well-being” and “sustainability” were oft-evoked, but rarely explicitly examined as desirable outcomes. This hole in our study of mountain systems seems especially paradoxical given opening and closing statement in which the SDGs were a key concern (the main message being that “mountains” were not incorporated into the SDGs in enough places, literally, in SDG text).
Rather than fretting about mountains as text in the SDGs, however, I propose a more inter-disciplinary effort to incorporate SDG-oriented approaches into mountain development practice (in fact I recommend a much more thorough integration of existing development and poverty reduction scholarship into mountain development research and practice – we reinvent the wheel either far too frequently, or not at all, it seems). How, for example, do we build inclusivity into global, regional, national and sub-national systems of governance? How do we promote gender equality in schools, business and leadership? How do we deliver adequate health care, equitably, across remote mountain landscapes? How do we build resilient systems of education, energy, water security and agriculture? How do we resolve conflict in fragile states? While many of these challenges require mountain-specific calculations, they are not exclusive mountain region concerns, though their prevalence and prominence in mountain regions cause us great concern. These puzzles were not well addressed (with apologies to those who did in fact take these on in some fashion).
Again, adjudicating conflict and resolving conundrums of the sorts listed above will almost certainly require both rigorous, rules-based fora, as well as ad-hoc, informal dispute resolutions and customary institutions. Understanding this, I put forth, remains elemental in making progress in mountain sustainable development. In mountains, where local arrangements and traditional knowledge can inform (or upend!) even the most sophisticated development schemes, development practice needs to more cautiously merge global and national governance with local and traditional leadership (my “complementarity” biases on full display – yet more apologies). Think locally, act globally (to invert the adage). Otherwise the current disconnects will continue to yield poor results.
Finally, I found great inspiration and greater resolve to continue with AMRDI’s efforts to work with coffee families in Nicaragua to better understand their challenges, and to take on the status quo so that the coffee economy results in greater prosperity and well-being for farmers on the front lines of climate change, and to continue to challenge unsustainable patterns of development and exploitation of low-wage service work throughout the mountains of Colorado, helping navigate policy and practice that results in far healthier communities here in our backyard.
Alas, it is a rare conference that is thrilling to be a part of, and which puts itself out in front on issues concerning scholarship everywhere – whether breaking down disciplinary boundaries, utilizing participatory methods in research design, data collection and evaluation, or pressing for representation of mountain peoples and their communities in global development efforts. I want to underscore my thanks to fellow presenters, and commend them and the organizers on their creativity, their capacities, and their commitment to sustainable mountain development. I hope to see you all again at Perth IV.
-Matt Klick, Director