Event Coverage

GLF delegates: Act now to conserve ‘pulse of the planet,’ Hindu Kush Himalaya

Forum highlights risks to human well-being from biodiversity loss
The Himalayas, or Himalaya, form a mountain range in Asia, separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau. Photo credit: Lensnmatter

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Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is a hotbed of plant, animal and cultural life, but urgent measures are required to protect the region, which offers eco-services and livelihoods to 240 million people in eight mountainous countries, according to delegates attending a special session of the GLF Biodiversity Digital Conference: One World – One Health.

Academics, researchers and representatives of intergovernmental organizations made up the majority of participants who tuned in online from around the world. The event was hosted by Binaya Pasakhala and Janita Gurung from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and featured seven speakers before a closing address delivered by ICIMOD’s Nakul Chettri.

The HKH stretches 3,500 kilometers across all or part of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Known as the “water tower” of Asia, it is the source for 10 of the region’s largest rivers, whose basins provide water to 1.9 billion people, or about a quarter of the world’s population.

It is also home to the highest peaks in the world including Mount Everest, and is considered a global asset for food, energy, water, carbon and culture. Its rich biodiversity, ranging from the Asian elephant and the elusive red panda through to the Pleione orchid and the Himalayan larch, is a valuable marker of environmental health.

“The HKH is a region with incredible biodiversity and spectacular natural beauty,” ICIMOD Director General Pema Gyamtsho said in his keynote address. “Yet it is faced with many challenges in the form of poverty and ecological instability as a result of rapid population growth, urbanization, migration, economic development and climate change. The Covid-19 pandemic has further compounded these challenges.”

Dubbed “the pulse of the planet” for its role as a microcosm of global ecology, the HKH is now experiencing multiple crises. About 50 percent of its population suffers from malnutrition and 80 percent of its rural inhabitants lack access to clean energy for cooking. As a result of climate change, a third of its glacier volumes are expected to be lost by 2100, and a billion people are at risk of floods, droughts and landslides in a region where countries are either carbon-neutral or carbon-negative.

Poverty, food insecurity and migration affect women, children and marginalized communities more severely than others, but policies and responses in HKH countries overlook these multiple forms of exclusion, ICIMOD Deputy Director General Eklabya Sharma said in his presentation.

ICIMOD – based in Kathmandu, Nepal – has issued a call to action to save the region. Its recommendations include cooperating at all levels for sustainable and mutual benefits; recognizing and prioritizing the uniqueness of the HKH mountain people; taking concerted climate action at all levels to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100; taking accelerated actions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and Nine Mountain Priorities; enhancing ecosystem resilience and halting biodiversity loss as well as land degradation; and promoting information sharing while cooperating on science and knowledge.

Despite the challenges the region faces, Himlal Baral, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said he is hopeful about the future of ecosystem service-based management. “In the past, forests just meant timber to many, but awareness is increasing,” he said in response to the GLF session.

“But now, a growing number of people associate forests with mitigation of climate change, water, biodiversity and landslide protection, so we are moving in the right direction.”

During the second half of the conference session, a panel discussion of five speakers covered a range of topics relevant to the conservation of biodiversity in the HKH region.

Ecologist and author Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib illustrated the importance of traditional knowledge by highlighting how a remote pastoral society in Pakistan’s Karakoram mountains tell the story of the local Ibex trophy hunt from the perspective of the animal, which relates its tale of loss and prayers for safety to its own young. This role reversal helps to foster a worldview unifying nature and humans.

“Here we see the values that this community upholds, principled around identifying nature with human belonging and relevance. In our region this is called compassion and empathy,” she said.

Sarala Khaling of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment focused on local cultures in biodiversity conservation, citing the decision of the Adi Indigenous people in Arunachal Pradesh to give up hunting after the tradition shifted from subsistence toward commerce. Another example was Nagaland’s conservation of the Amur falcon, thousands of which used to be killed in the northeast Indian state by hunters who now protect them.

Fu Yao , an ethnobotanist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, talked about how local knowledge of biodiversity can be used for traditional medicines, such as teas and herbs, to remedy a lack of access to modern medicine or as an alternative for treating chronic illness.

Sonam Tashi Lama of the Red Panda Network in Nepal emphasized the overexploitation of forests, the conversion of land for agriculture, the loss of water resources and the unsustainable extraction of commercially viable species as some of the challenges that directly affect the conservation of wildlife. He called for the restoration of degraded lands through tree planting and also noted the importance of engaging youth, who have the greatest stake in the future and whose lives have been heavily affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jamyang Dolkar from the Royal University of Bhutan ended the panel discussion with a summary of how traditional and Indigenous knowledge in her country is used to support the four pillars of environmental conservation; sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; good governance; and the preservation and promotion of culture.

“It is very important that there is a continuation and transfer of this knowledge,” she said. “So, the most important thing is to create awareness and help youth develop an interest in traditional and Indigenous knowledge.”

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