Simien mountains, Ethiopia. Photo: Marc Veraart
Simien mountains, Ethiopia. Photo: Marc Veraart
Oct 2015

Mountain systems are highly suitable as paradigmatic examples of global change

You're speaking at the Mountains of our Future Earth conference. Could you tell us some more about what you’ll be presenting?

Hans Hurni At Perth I will speak about Ethiopia, a paradigmatic example of land degradation in a mountain area that has been known as a historically rich but extremely degraded and famine-prone country. I will explain how our own geographical research started more than 40 years ago, focusing on climate change and bio-physical processes of soil erosion, and how we gradually involved other disciplines and formed transdisciplinary teams addressing sustainable land management in national network involving a number of Ethiopian universities and research institutions.

You've talked about sustainable land management as a growing movement. Has the focus of research changed over the past few decades, and how?

Hans Hurni Studies on land degradation were first done mainly by bio-physical sciences, measuring damages and processes of soil erosion, mapping landslides, recording glacial lake outflows. The roles of land users were addressed only at a later stage when it became clear that the problems needed to be addressed by them. Policy analyses came even later, when it became obvious that land users needed enabling conditions, such as secure access to land, national and international support, and coordinated investments and accompanying training. With this variety of disciplines gradually being involved around common themes the research concepts and methodologies also changed, from disciplinary to interdisciplinary and finally, to transdisciplinary approaches, where groups of scientists would work with local land users and concerned stakeholders and include their knowledge systems in finding appropriate solutions.

We hear more and more about the need for interdisciplinary working between the natural and social sciences in global change research. Some of your research has involved the inclusion of social and economic disciplines in what was previously a primarily bio-physical research setting. What were the challenges of this work? And what were the results?

Hans Hurni - Working between different disciplines was a challenge in itself, as virtually everything is handled differently by the different specialisations. Natural scientists normally work with hypotheses, setting up monitoring systems for better understanding bio-physical processes such as climate variability, rainfall-runoff relationships during the year, or studying parameters for characterising soils, vegetation or wildlife. Social scientists may start with theories, which would guide their interviews with stakeholders and later-on help using new knowledge for improving their theories. Finding a common approach and methods which would allow comparing the different research results was thus a core issue in our interdisciplinary work during the past decades.

When we started using transdisciplinary approaches in our large-scale programmes about 15 years ago, the challenge became even bigger: we had to find common epistemologies between the involved natural and social sciences and add all local knowledge, which is normally communicated using common language. Our approach was thus to start with stakeholder workshops in the areas where we wanted to do research, before doing any research, and agree on common themes to be studied. Only then did we do our research settings, while still organising regular meetings, i.e. once a year, to communicate our findings with stakeholders in order to get their feedbacks, which would help us designing the next phases. Finally, we used local stakeholders’ feedbacks and inputs for the syntheses of our research projects, which would normally last 4-6 years.

During the conference you’ll host a roundtable to discuss the future agenda for mountain research under Future Earth. What kind of ideas do you expect to hear?

As moderator of the final roundtable at the conference in Perth III, I will attempt to review the conference objectives, i.e. ask the panellists if we were able to present, evaluate and synthesize progress in our understanding of global change in mountain regions? Could we reach an agreement to refine and agree on agendas for collaborative research and action? Was the conference useful to foster effective interdisciplinary and international interactions?

These are questions which directly relate to the Future Earth agenda, and mountain systems are highly suitable as paradigmatic examples of global change, including climate change. The Sustainable Development Goals mention mountain ecosystems many times, as the effects of changes in mountains will affect a much wider area than the mountains themselves. Global warming in mountains will affect a highly sensitive water reservoir, the glaciers, and also destabilize mountain slopes through melting of permafrost. Demographic pressure in mountains will increase pressure on natural resources, particularly soil, water and vegetation, as shown in Ethiopia. Migration of people from mountains will depopulate agricultural areas, thereby affecting mountain stability. Biodiversity in mountains will change, not only through climate but also through land use changes. Changes in work power, finally, will help destabilize soils and induce land degradation, as is observed in many mountain systems with old agricultural areas, such as in Yemen or Nepal.

What outcomes do you hope to see from the conference – both for research and for sustainable mountain development?

I would be very happy if the conference is able to formulate a research initiative along the Future Earth agenda. Such initiative would focus on critical mountain areas world-wide and help establish a global system of mountain observatories. There, social and bio-physical processes will be monitored, and even more importantly, sustainable solutions developed between land users, line ministries and political decision-makers. Such global system of mountain observatories will compare the different mountain regions; it will need to obtain international support for its coordination and for giving incentives and providing finances for poorer nations; it will involve national institutions and complement them with an international group of researchers using most recent knowledge and methodologies.

A most important component of such mountain research programme will be training and education for mountain research and development. Support will be needed again to enable e.g. Master students doing their research projects in mountain areas, and establishing a system of PhD fellowships for mountain studies, where awards are granted competitively at the international level for longer periods of time, say 3-4 years for each fellowship, in order to secure that students can focus on their research. It is notwithstanding to say that financing such research grants will necessitate an overhead for supervisors to accompany the programme and for doing their own research.