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Planning for Climate Change in High Mountains: Foundations for Success

Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential – Winston Churchill
Plans are nothing; planning is everything. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

 As The Mountain Institute gears up for 2013, with great ambitions to do more for mountain environments and the communities that depend on them, I find the two quotes above a useful reminder as we plan our work for the year. We do not have to move a million people across the English Channel, under hostile fire, in the midst of World War II. Nevertheless, the issues confronting mountain people and habitats today are complex and multifaceted, as are the solutions. The warming climate is melting glaciers, increasing risks of landslides and floods, and reducing seasonal water supplies for potentially billions of people. Isolated mountain communities suffer chronic poverty with young people, any society’s best hope for the future, emigrating in search of better economic opportunities. Deforestation, habitat degradation, and poaching continue putting whole ecosystems at risk and threatening such magnificent species as snow leopards and Andean mountain cats.

To help us face these challenges we have new approaches grounded in science and integrated with traditional knowledge, deep partnerships with mountain communities, and growing realization globally that what happens in the high ranges matters to everyone. The challenge for a non-profit, like The Mountain Institute, is to deploy its resources to maximize its positive impact. This brings me back to the topic of planning,  the point of this blog post, in particular, adaptation planning for climate change in high mountains. Increasingly, national governments, international organizations, and donors are pushing for the production of national, regional, and local adaptation plans to orient action, investment, and policy. This evokes a strong sense of déjà vu for someone, like me, who has worked for twenty-five years to advance sustainable development and nature conservation in countries around the globe.

Over the years, I have seen many planning processes come into vogue including for the management of national parks, landscapes, watersheds, soils, logging concessions, wildlife, non-timber forest products, and ecotourism. Such initiatives can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more. They often deploy highly trained field teams working over multiple years, generate knowledge, engage local stakeholders, and produce plans and strategy documents that are hundreds of pages long. The enduring hope is that they will provide a foundation upon which to advance the three “E’s” of sustainable development: protect the environment, produce economic benefits, and advance equity especially for the poor and marginalized.

Done right, such exercises identify and advance processes and solutions to conserve natural resources, mitigate risks of natural disasters, and bring tangible benefits to impoverished rural communities. Such management plans can lead to significant results such as a reduction in deforestation rates, the recovery of populations of endangered species, and improved livelihoods.

On the other hand, I have seen far too many unproductive planning exercises. I will never forget reviewing timber-harvesting plans for various logging concessions in a developing country. Suddenly, I realized that all were identical copies with only the name of the concession changed on the cover page – a mockery of natural resource management. Little better, often these kinds of exercises end up generating knowledge, and copious documentation, but with findings and recommendations barely acted on. For instance, several protected areas I have worked in have had multiple management strategies, produced at 5-10 year intervals, none of which were implemented. Common impediments for action include inadequate resources, financial and human, to implement findings and perfunctory engagement with local people – without their “buy-in” chances of successful implementation often drops.

Looking forward, The Mountain Institute is being increasingly asked to support climate change adaptation planning at local levels in high mountain regions. Working with rural communities is one of our fortes, and these new approaches provide an excellent opportunity for us to help orient action on the ground in ways that advance our mission. However, I am convinced of the need to move thoughtfully, learning from the past, so that we can make such exercises worthwhile and effective. Below are some thoughts to guide planning so that it can best generate long-term and positive impacts:

  • The best plans are frequently those developed by the people living on the ground who will actually lead their subsequent implementation.
  • When needed, external planners, technicians and scientists must recognize that the success of a given exercise may hinge as much or more on the extent to which key stakeholders feel ownership of the resulting plan, than on the quality of technical input and the final documents.
  • While standards are needed and must be met, cookie-cutter – one size fits all – approaches are best avoided.
  • It is imperative that stakeholder engagement be as inclusive as possible, taking into account different social strata, ethnic groups, gender, youth, elderly, economic sectors, civil society, and government agencies (local to national, as appropriate). Full participation, as opposed to consultative processes, are preferred.
  • It is imperative that there is a realistic appraisal of potential conflict areas (e.g., for space or resources) so that win-wins can be identified, and fair and intelligent choices made where explicit trade-offs are needed between conservation, development, and other priorities.
  • It is important to use the best available science (natural, socioeconomic, political), while also recognizing and integrating local and traditional knowledge.
  • Local people are often well aware of processes in their region, but lack the means to act on what they know needs doing. A good plan should identify ways to create enabling conditions for such action.
  • Many areas where we work are little researched and it is important to recognize knowledge gaps that are imperative to fill for the planning process to be effective. However, often plans will have to be developed with inadequate information, and this is where the art of planning is as important as the science.
  • Plans must be realistic with implementation in-mind from the outset. Too often, such exercises generate unrealizable goals and unfulfillable expectations given financial, technical, geographical, ecological, and policy constraints.
  • Sufficient time needs to be dedicated for full consultation with stakeholders during both the initial fact finding as well as the development of solutions phases.
  • Final planning documents should be kept short to increase accessibility and usability. Also, a communications strategy for the plan, once completed, should be devised and implemented to reach target audiences (e.g., in local dialects). In this age of new media, consideration should be given to the production of video and web based tools to communicate findings to stakeholders.

The best plans are those that lead directly and seamlessly to their own implementation. Another mark of a successful planning exercise is demonstrated where empowered local stakeholders have taken on the ownership, responsibility, and accountability for a plan’s execution. My hope is that these few thoughts will help make The Mountain Institutes planning exercises this year a real foundation for success – and that they may contribute to the “planning” work of others.

For the mountains!

Andrew Taber

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