Women’s groups drive sustainable development in mountain zones

Sunday, 11 December marks International Mountain Day, which celebrates the natural beauty and diversity of mountain areas, while also highlighting the threats they face.

Chief among them is the climate crisis, which is melting away glaciers around the world. All remaining ice in African and Latin American mountains is expected to disappear in the coming decades, and with it important stores of freshwater.

Global temperature rise is also pushing many species to higher altitudes, where more than a third are at risk of extinction in some areas.

Lastly, waste, and especially plastics, are a pervasive problem, with more than two-thirds of people visiting mountains encountering plastic pollution.

Amid these challenges, mountain communities around the world are trying to tread more lightly on nature, while providing sustainable incomes and opportunities. In many places, women, who are often stewards of the land, are leading the push towards sustainable development. Here’s a closer look at three such communities and their solutions.

Fruit plantations arise in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan

In the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains of Central Asia, climate change is expected to dry out valleys and force herders to graze their animals further up the sides of mountains, where they risk coming into contact with snow leopards and their prey.

To avoid that scenario, conservationists in two parts of Kyrgyzstan, Chon Kemin and Suusamyr, are working to provide herders with alternatives to livestock farming.

UNEPs Vanishing Treasures programme,  along with partners Ilbirs Foundation and the Snow Leopard Trust, have presented sea buckthorn seedlings to women’s groups and taught them how to plant the fruit-bearing bush, which thrives at higher altitudes.

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The women’s groups have cleared planting areas of countless rocks, erected fences and dug irrigation channels. The plantation in the Chon Kemin region is located in a community-managed protected area, Shumkar Tor, next to the Chon-Kemin National Park.

Community members are earning money from the sale of the sea buckthorn fruit and have committed a portion of the proceeds to conservation.  This holistic approach presents an opportunity for investment, increases women participation, provides long-term contributions to conservation, and increases the climate resilience of mountain pastures and communities.

In the Andes, women lead regional cooperation

The Andes are the longest mountain range on the planet. The seven countries sharing these unique summits, valleys, and plateaus have joined forces in the Andean Mountain Initiative, a platform that promotes regional dialogue and the sustainable development of Andean ecosystems and communities.

Its Roadmap to Strengthen Governance emphasizes the need to overcome power asymmetries between women and men in the Andean states. Their 2022 Call to Action noted that women and indigenous communities are particularly affected by climate change and need to be included in decision making. In 2021-2022, Peru led the regional coordination of the initiative, while the civil society organization CONDESAN acted as the technical secretariat, all led by women.

In recent years, UNEP has provided strategic support to the Andean Mountain Initiative in the development of activities to tackle the impacts of climate change and protect and restore biodiversity. Activities included capacity building workshops, regional and interregional exchange through the Mountains Connect online space, the community of practice Adaptacion en los Andes, virtual dialogues, and a regional study.

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“Governance is a process that must always be understood as a means to ensure representativeness and equality, said Karen Price from the Andean Mountain Initiative’s Technical Secretariat.

In Georgia, a business association empowers women

Women in Georgia are more affected by climate change than men, due to a higher vulnerability to natural hazards, lack of inclusion in decision making and economic barriers. In the Ambrolauri municipality in north-western Georgia, local communities have suffered from the degradation of forests, landslides and flooding.

To strengthen women’s economic opportunities, the Georgian Association of Women in Business offers trainings on alternative and sustainable income opportunities. This includes beekeeping, agriculture and tourism.

For instance, the association provided several bee colonies as an incentive to start an own business and organized trainings, including on honey production, packaging and sales. This new income stream helps strengthen resilience to climate impacts and the bees pollinate crops.

“Greater participation of women in local businesses significantly improves the resilience of households to climate risks,” said Ina Girard from the Red Cross, which has supported the initiative.

Another important aspect of the association’s work is community building, providing a space for women to meet and exchange, and a business incubator.

The work has been highlighted in the Mountains ADAPT booklet, as part of a larger effort by UNEP and partners to support communities living at altitude. Starting in 2023, UNEP will work on the transfer of adaptation solutions in the mountains of East Africa and the South Caucasus, funded by Austria.

“Strengthening resilience and empowering women in mountain areas will form an integral part of the Mountains ADAPT project,” said Austrian Federal Minister Leonore Gewessler.

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