www.ocamagazine.com oca#35 summer 2020
Since 1999, Utah Valley University (UVU) has partnered with the International University of Kyrgyzstan (IUK). The important feature of their academic exchanges was to study and share experiences of economic development in mountain areas, which are affected not only by traditional challenges from nature such as high altitude, harsh climate, environmental problems, but also the emerging ones like climate change and outmigration.
IUK then studied the economic model in Utah which is considered as one of the best in the U.S. to do business, and how UVU contributes to it. UVU is the largest university in Utah, which primarily serves local communities in mountainous Utah by combining both community college, as well as baccalaureate and master’s degrees for students.
UVU, in turn, was able to learn about IUK’s experiences with the United Nations (UN) and its contribution to Kyrgyzstan’s co-sponsorship of the United Nations’ initiative to celebrate 2002 as the International Year of Mountains (IUM). This led to a cooperation between the State of Utah and the Kyrgyz Republic to jointly advocate for a UN Sustainable Mountain Development (SMD) agenda in the State of Utah, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere. As a result, Utah Governor, Olene Walker, visited the Kyrgyz Republic in August 2003 and, in reciprocity, President Askar Akaev traveled to Salt Lake City in September 2004.
In 2006, UVU joined the Mountain Partnership (MP) under the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO-UN), the first North American university to do so. MP coordinates the SMD agenda globally through more than 390 members including 60 mountain nations, except the United States.
Since then, UVU and IUK advocated SMD by implementing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 2003) Resolution ”International Year of Mountains, 2002”, A/RES/57/245 from 30 January 2003. This UN document recommended that interested institutions: 1) Join the MP; 2) support, including financially, programs resulting from the IYM, and; 3) organise events each 11th December as part of the UN International Mountain Day (IMD) to highlight the importance of SMD.
In March 2007, UVU and IUK co-hosted the first international Women of the Mountains Conference (WOMC) in Utah as a major initiative to implement the second recommendation of the UNGA 2003. WOMC supported the 2002 “Celebrating Mountain Women” conference in Bhutan.
Under the MP umbrella, the first WOMC gathered more than 120 participants, including officials from the UN, diplomats from mountain nations accredited both to the UN and the USA, specialists from Central Asia, and experts on gender issues from all Rocky Mountain States, as well as more than 25 mountain nations. The United Nations Secretary Generals’ (UNSG) Report on SMD A/62/292 from 23 August 2007 highlighted UVU for hosting a forum to “ensure an improvement of women’s status in mountain communities around the world.” UNSG Report on SMD A/64/222 from 3 August 2009 emphasized that WOMC “established a regional network on sustainable mountain development and gender issues.” UVU was the only academic institution from North America highlighted in both UN documents.
During 2007-2013, envoys from Kyrgyzstan to the UN and US regularly visited UVU. They were followed by three visits to Utah of deputies of the Kyrgyz Parliament representing such parties as Ata-Meken, Respublica and Ata-Jurt. As reciprocity, a joint delegation of state legislators from the State of Utah and the State of Montana visited Kyrgyzstan and, through joint dialogue, contributed to building the Parliamentary model of democracy in Kyrgyzstan.
Since 2011, students have played a major role in SMD advocacy. Through a UVU-developed inclusive, student-engaged learning (SEL) model they gain professional skills by addressing real-world problems of mountain communities as a group with faculty being as mentors. The model engages students across the campus, especially non-traditional learners who are older than 25-years of age, and balance their education all the while working part- or full-time jobs and taking care of their families.
The Utah International Mountain Forum (UIMF), a coalition of student clubs serves as its core. Its members advocate for SMD by contributing both initiatives and funds and then being recognized at the UN level. They, for example, recruited more than 15 new MP members in the region and jointly with many of them raised awareness about SMD in North America, in particular by observing the International Mountain Day every year since 2010.
UIMF members advocated for the adoption of three mountain targets as benchmarks for implementation of SMD, among 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during sessions of the UN Open Working Groups (OWG) on SDGs in 2013-2015.
UNSG Report on SMD A/71/256 from 29 July 2016 highlighted UIMF for the first time for hosting the fourth international WOMC in Utah in 2015, as well as for providing recommendations about implementation of SDG #5 on gender in interaction with three mountain targets. UIMF was the only student club coalition worldwide featured in the UN document.
Since 2016, UIMF members advocate for the implementation of three mountain targets during forums of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on sustainable development. They reported about WOMCs contribution to support mountain women and girls during the 62nd and 63rd sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 2018-2019. They also spoke about the lack of attention from the international community to challenges experienced by mountain communities, especially from food insecurity, during general debates at the High-Level Political Forum of ECOSOC on sustainable development in New York on July 19, 2018.
Most recently, the Outcome Document of the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference held in Salt Lake City during August 26-28, 2019 included, for the first time, language about the importance of mountain communities to be in the focus of the UN 2030 Agenda on sustainable development – again, due to the efforts of UIMF members.
Similar educational programs developed by other academic institutions could make a difference in the destinies of their own students, who then facilitate changes in the livelihoods of their local communities, as well as global communities.
Baktybek Abdrisaev, PhD, Lecturer, History and Political Science, Utah Valley University, was the Ambassador of the Kyrgyz Republic to the US during 1997-2005.
Rusty Butler, Ph.D., main representative at the UN of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, an NGO in general consultative status with ECOSOC, was Associate Vice-President for International Affairs and Diplomacy at Utah Valley University, 1992-2016