Meet the Steering Committee: Centro de Estudios de Alta Montaña (CEAM), Representative of Major Group Organizations of South America


The Mountain Partnership is guided by an 18-member Steering Committee that represents the diversity of the entire membership and ensures geographic representation. A new Steering Committee is elected approximately every four years. Most recently, elections were held in September 2022 during the sixth Global Meeting of the Mountain Partnership.

In this new series, we will be talking to the new members of the Steering Committee. Today, we are introducing Hugo Mantilla-Meluk, the Mountain Partnership focal point for the Centro de Estudios de Alta Montaña (CEAM) at the University of Quindío in Colombia, representing the Major Group Organizations of South America. Find out what he has to say about the importance of mountains to Colombia and how to strengthen regional collaboration.

Can you tell us what CEAM is and how its work relates to mountains?

The Centro de Estudios de Alta Montaña – or "Centre for Highland Studies" in English – is a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research and academic centre of excellence that champions understanding of the cultural and natural processes of the Tropical Andes, to promote the goodwill and sustainable development of mountain communities and their environments.

Why do mountains matter to you personally and to your culture?

For the many and diverse pre-Colombian ancestral cultures, mountains represented "the ascent of man" and the wisdom of Mother Nature. Nowadays, 75 percent of the Colombian population lives in mountainous areas, and 100 percent of the country depends on mountains to survive. Mountains have been identified as key ecosystems for regulating water and climate and host most of the country's biodiversity.

What is CEAM doing to promote sustainable mountain development?

Our Centre consists of 14 research groups and 48 researchers from different disciplines – from sociology, to robotics and molecular genetics – working together in a transdisciplinary and innovative way on three main topics: climate change, water and risk assessment; biodiversity loss, health and environmental surveillance (One Health); and socioecological systems, knowledge sharing and policy support.

We work with local authorities and the national government, helping to empower mountain communities by supporting decision-making and generating tools for better governance.

Examples of CEAM's projects include formulating and developing a climate change adaptation plan for the department of Quindío in the Central Andes of Colombia. Costing over USD 6 million, this was the first regional adaptation plan implemented in Colombia to be fully funded using public resources.

We have also been in charge of administering the first Colombian platform on environmental and health surveillance. The platform uses an artificial intelligence tool created by CEAM researchers that monitors nature's contributions to climate services.

Finally, the CEAM has published many management and conservation plans for mountain focal species, protected areas, and socioecological systems.

What tangible impact has your organization had on communities and/or landscapes?

We have impacted thousands of people from the most vulnerable mountain communities in Quindío. Our climate services platform has provided technical support to local farmers, including small-scale coffee producers. Agriculture is a climate-dependent activity that is strongly affected by climate variability in mountain systems. Scientists of the CEAM have developed and implemented artificial intelligence to monitor and analyse climatic data to generate early warnings for extreme events, such as droughts and storms. The platform allows local governments to allocate resources to support small-scale farmers' organizations of the Colombian Coffee Cultural Landscape, which consists of six UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

At the same time, our research on health surveillance has provided elements to improve healthcare in the department through monitoring vector-borne diseases, such as dengue and chikungunya.

In 2022, we produced management plans for eight highland protected areas at the head of the Quindío river basin, the direct water source for more than 300 000 people living in the cities of Armenia, Calarcá, and Salento. Between 2018 and 2022, we published management conservation plans for 15 endangered highland mammals.

What do you gain from being a Mountain Partnership member?

We have been a part of the Mountain Partnership since 2016. During this time, we have benefitted greatly from the networking opportunities the Partnership provides with other like-minded people and institutions who share our love and commitment for mountains. We have also learned alternative ways to view, analyse and overcome the many challenges imposed by life in the mountains by observing partners from other mountain systems all over the planet. Another significant benefit has been having the opportunity to express our ideas and contribute to high-level summits.

As a newly elected member of the Steering Committee, what objectives do you have for your constituency to increase engagement and promote sustainable mountain development?

I am deeply grateful to the allied major group organizations of South America for their vote of confidence in CEAM. Through discussions in the region, we have identified communication as a major challenge for the group, and we are working on creating ways to improve the flow of information about opportunities, to interact with each other and to participate in the activities of the Partnership.

Although the South American block includes 38 major group organizations that are members of the Mountain Partnership, less than 12 get together regularly, and we have found that the contact information of many is outdated, limiting the possibilities for integration.

My main goal as the representative of our community is to find ways for more inclusive and dynamic interactions with more efficient communication channels. As a first step, the CEAM has started reactivating contacts and creating an updated database. We are also designing a website where each of the organizations will have a space to present their work and interact.

CEAM's leadership will be crucial, but equally important will be that we grow together. We strongly believe that the Mountain Partnership is and will be what the member organizations want to make of it.

Is there any common theme that you would like to bring to the fore as a Steering Committee member?

Transdisciplinary and integrative work is in the DNA of the CEAM. We work under the framework of One Health, and our goal is to promote the concept of environmental surveillance as part of the agenda of the Mountain Partnership Steering Committee. Biodiversity loss and its effects on the emergence of zoonotic diseases and pandemic events are one of the main threats humankind faces. Our natural, socioeconomic and cultural stability depends on the planetary balance.

Follow this new series from the Mountain Partnership Secretariat to learn more about your electoral group's elected Steering Committee representative! Not sure which electoral group you're a part of? Visit your government or organization's member detail page or contact [email protected].

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