16 December 2002, Rome -- Strengthening the ability of countries to lead the sustainable development of their mountain regions is a major FAO priority after the International Year of Mountains.

"Right from the beginning, we believed the Year must be, above all things, a catalyst for action," says Doug McGuire, head of the International Year of Mountains coordination unit at FAO's Forestry Department. "Our goal was to ensure that the Year wasn't just fireworks. As the Year ends, our challenge is to transform the momentum of 2002 into on-the-ground action."

The United Nations declared 2002 the International Year of Mountains to increase awareness of the need to protect fragile mountain ecosystems and improve the well-being of mountain people, many of whom are among the world's most impoverished and food insecure.

The Year evolved from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. There, mountains became the focus of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development. The United Nations designated FAO as task manager for coordinating the implementation of Chapter 13 and lead agency for the International Year of Mountains.

Recommendations for future action

FAO is assessing the results of the Year and will prepare a report in 2003, with recommendations for future action, for the United Nations General Assembly and FAO''s many partners. Already it’s clear that much has been achieved.

According to Mr McGuire, 2002 has changed the way many people think about mountains and relate to them.

"Thanks to a global awareness-raising campaign, many people around the world understand that mountains are crucial to life on Earth," says Mr McGuire. "Celebration of the year prompted countless special events and celebrations, newspaper articles and television reports, educational programmes and conferences -- not to mention, nine major global events."

He adds that concern is growing about the effects of climate change and unsustainable development on both mountain ecosystems and mountain communities.

A second major achievement is the rise in national commitment to sustainable mountain development. Thanks to the efforts of the 77 national committees that led observance of the International Year of Mountains, real change in mountains is now a priority in countries around the world.

Finally, the Year has strengthened the partnership for sustainable mountain development that has evolved since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The International Partnership for Sustainable Development in Mountain Regions was launched on 2 September at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was launched by FAO together with the United Nations Environment Programme and the Government of Switzerland, on behalf of 15 member countries of the International Year of Mountains Focus Group. Already, 30 countries, 15 inter-governmental organizations and 14 major groups have signed on to the Partnership.

"The challenges facing the world's mountain ranges and mountain communities are as big as mountains themselves," said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf when announcing the Partnership. "The way forward, I believe, is to break the challenges down into smaller pieces, smaller issues, and for each of us to contribute what we have and what we do best."

In Johannesburg, Dr. Diouf offered to host a secretariat at FAO to support the Partnership, and the offer was supported at the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit in Kyrgyzstan in October 2002. While the role and structure of the secretariat are still to be determined, FAO’s 2003 mountain initiative is already taking shape, with support from the governments of Italy and Switzerland.

Strengthening national capacity

Mr McGuire says many countries don't have the institutional environments, expertise, financial resources, information and knowledge to undertake sustainable mountain development. To overcome these barriers to action, FAO will be helping countries strengthen their institutional and human capabilities to lead and undertake sustainable mountain development beyond 2002.

"We intend to provide countries with the support and tools they need to plan and lead their own mountain development," says Mr McGuire. "We will also be enhancing and focusing FAO’s ongoing work in fisheries, agriculture, forestry and sustainable development on the needs of mountain people."

In addition, FAO will help to link those who need assistance with those who are able to provide it.

"We need to improve the way we share information and coordinate action by better connecting countries, donors, providers of development services and programmes, non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, civil society and private sector," says Mr McGuire.

International Mountain Day to highlight the importance of mountains in years to come

The United Nations General Assembly is currently debating a draft resolution to guide FAO’s and its partners’ priorities and roles in the follow-up to the International Year of Mountains. One possible outcome of the resolution is the designation of 11 December as International Mountain Day.

FAO's partners in the International Year of Mountains include: United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations University, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United nations Development Programme, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Mountain Forum and the Mountain Institute.

Ms Sandra McGuire
Communication Officer, IYM
+39 06 570 55737