Transboundary Biosphere Conservation, Development and Peace-Building: Lessons from the Altai Mountains
Gila Altmann, Parliamentarian State Secretary, German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety
Hardy Vogtmann, President, German Federal Agency for Nature Protection
Robin Mearns, Senior Natural Resource Management specialist, The World Bank
February 7, 2001—The Altai Mountain range—an ethnically diverse area of over 37 million acres that straddles the borders of Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan—has been named one of the world's most significant areas of biodiversity by the World Wildlife Fund.
But protected portions of this region suffer from the tension there between environmental and economic goals. Because it is difficult for residents of the Altais to fashion sustainable livelihoods, their societies have little capacity for environmental protection. As a result, some of the important large animals of the Altai range are now threatened with extinction.
Gila Altmann of the German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety and Dr. Hardy Vogtmann, president of the German Federal Agency for Nature Protection, outlined an evolving international effort to facilitate transboundary conservation management in the Altais. The initiative is being watched closely and could serve as a conservation and peacemaking model for the world.
Toward a Sustainable Development Policy
Two areas in the Altai range had already been designated UNESCO natural heritage sites. But economic growth and industrialization in the region have clashed with local sustainable development initiatives. In response, the four countries of the Altais in September 1998 signed a "Protocol of Intentions" to work towards an "Altai Convention for Sustainable Development," which among other measures would declare the entire area a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The Convention is intended as a first step towards a coordinated policy for sustainable and culturally-sensitive development of the region.
Initiated by the Russian government as a joint German-Russian cooperative nature protection effort, this effort to promote sustainable and culturally sensitive development in the Altais is also designed to strengthen and promote conflict prevention by setting a collaborative precedent. As Altmann put it, "a successful environmental protection policy is peace policy." She noted that China remains the most reticent party to participate actively; she also lauded Russian NGOs for being particularly active in supporting the effort.
Both Altmann and Vogtmann are senior German officials who are intimately involved in the Altai project. They stressed that Germany is playing a facilitator role in creating multilateral institutions in the Altais while remaining cognizant of the challenges of applying sustainable development models from the West. (German interest in this area stems in part from the sizable ethnic German population now residing there, the result of forced migrations early in the 20th century.) Altmann and Vogtmann said they remain at the beginning stages of their efforts, however, and were making their presentation to gather feedback and formulate partnerships. They requested assistance from meeting participants in the design, implementation, and funding of this emerging multilateral biosphere conservation effort.
Caution About Conservation Efforts
Robin Mearns, senior natural resource management specialist at the World Bank, highlighted his keys for any conservation effort in the Altai region. Mearns said that it is unrealistic to hope that the region will return to an earlier form of pastoralism, and that any conservation effort must take into account economic reforms that are changing the livelihood context for local inhabitants.
Mearns also emphasized the importance of distinguishing between policy and policy-in-practice in the Altais, saying that on-the-ground reality may differ greatly from what formal regulations dictate. He also cautioned against always associating conservation with peace. Mearns said he could envision some situations in the Altai region where exchanging present land-use patterns for conservation patterns could exacerbate rather than ameliorate conflict. Rhetoric about "peace parks," he noted, is often unpopular with local populations when it is not accompanied by an emphasis on tourism within a larger sustainable development framework.