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Vibrant Mountain Communities Regional Development in Mountains: Realizing Potentials, Tackling Disparities

This report draws on experiences from different mountain regions to shed light on three main levers for transformation in mountain areas: inclusive planning and decision-making, equitable access to quality public services, and collaborations to spark innovation.


Mountain regions and their inhabitants harbour unique development potentials. At the same time, they face great challenges. To help achieve a region’s vision, development strategies are best guided by a set of principles that make them inclusive, people-centred, place-based, environmentally sustainable – and that enable diversified livelihood options.

Considering these guiding principles, this report draws on experiences from different mountain regions around the world to shed light on three main levers for transformation: inclusive planning and decision-making, equitable access to quality public services, and collaborations to spark innovation.

*The key messages from the case studies presented in the report are provided below. Download the full report from the right-hand column.

Lever 1: Plan and decide inclusively

Bottom-up land use planning for equitable rural development in Lao PDR

Three-quarters of Laos is mountainous and dominated by subsistence farming. Most of the poor are rural, and poverty is concentrated in upland areas, where people generally lack formal land tenure rights. To promote pro-poor rural development, increase local tenure security and plan conservation, the Agro-Biodiversity Initiative (TABI) has developed a participatory forest and land use planning and management approach (FALUPAM). This bottom-up approach targets the village level and involves local residents and local/district-level government staff. FALUPAM is a multistage process that is implemented jointly over several years, enabling trust building, fair negotiation and adaptive change management.

Scenarios to steer and support development of mountain regions in Albania

Shkodra county (or “qark”, in Albanian) is characterized by mountainous terrain and, despite its diverse potentials, faces challenges to promote a sustainable and competitive economy. In 2010, the authorities of Shkodra qark initiated a future-oriented strategic process, assisted by a Regional Development Programme (RDP), to coordinate and promote development in the region effectively.

The Shkodra Regional Activity Plan identified 35 Priority Projects, of which 22 were already funded by the RDP’s grant scheme. These projects supported capacity building and employment of women in mountainous areas, small-scale enterprises focused on endogenous natural resources (medicinal herbs), mountain tourism through rehabilitation of existing infrastructure, and protection of the region’s natural habitat.

Lever 2: Ensure equitable access to quality public services

Citizen engagement for better public services in Ethiopia

Access to basic service delivery is still a serious challenge to many Ethiopians, particularly in rural highland areas of the country, where basic services have been inadequate and have not met people’s specific needs. The Ethiopia Social Accountability Program (ESAP) is a countrywide programme that aims at strengthening local-level social service delivery in five sectors: education, health, water and sanitation, rural roads and agriculture. The existence of the programme seems to have altered how local governments provide basic services also in highland areas, although there is as yet no conclusive evidence that these improvements can be exclusively attributed to social accountability activities

Modernized administrative services for Armenian citizens

In 2015, the mountainous Republic of Armenia had 915 municipalities of greatly varying population size. The municipal landscape was highly fragmented and many municipalities were too small to fulfil their functions effectively. In response, the government launched the Territorial and Administrative Reform of Armenia (TARA). TARA’s goal was to reduce the number of existing municipalities and support effective decentralization to provide better services to their citizens and businesses through decentralized Citizen Offices and a web-based Municipal Management Information System.

Addressing health care shortages through social innovations in the Bernese Oberland

As a result of national trends such as rising health care costs and falling numbers of general practitioners (GPs) and other skilled workers, the supply of health care has become a problem in almost all Swiss mountain regions. Health care service providers and civic actors have initiated a range of innovative solutions to tackle the challenge of providing health care services in their area. For example, the Frutigland Rescue Service Foundation (Stiftung Rettungsdienst Frutigland) supports the ambulance service of the regional hospital by funding and helping to train paramedics. In some cases, the public sector has played a supportive role. This helps the region to retain its attractiveness to existing residents, newcomers and health care personnel.

Lever 3: Connect actors to spark innovations

Marketing native crops to improve rural Andean livelihoods

Potatoes have been a staple of Andean families for thousands of years. Because native potatoes grow better at higher elevations where small-scale farmers predominate, the Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP) decided to concentrate its activities around those potatoes to promote pro-poor market innovation.

These innovations had several outcomes: enhanced social networks which stimulated value chain innovation; a dramatic expansion in demand by urban consumers for native potatoes (the volume of native potatoes sold by farmers increased by more than 70 percent as prices rose); and policy changes recognizing these potatoes in the formal seed production system.

Linking actors to promote sustainable development in rural areas: Grosses Walsertal

Limited development opportunities and a species-rich landscape encouraged stakeholders in the Grosse Walsertal, Austria to become a Biosphere Reserve (BR). In addition to improving the regional economy while preserving natural and cultural landscapes, the UNESCO label would increase visibility and encourage interregional and international cooperation.

Today, the Grosses Walsertal is well connected and can benefit from diverse networks at various levels. These networks have helped the region to overcome its former peripherality and accelerate the transition to sustainability by aligning innovative practices and testing nature-based solutions to global challenges.

Transboundary cooperation for mountain tourism in the Kangchenjunga Landscape

In 2012, the intergovernmental organization ICIMOD, in agreement with the three national governments, initiated the idea of promoting conservation and development in the transboundary Kangchenjunga Landscape through regional collaboration. The science-based and participatory assessment process involved local communities, experts from different disciplines, development partners and policy-makers. Subsequently, a systematic and consultative planning process integrating the local, national and regional levels resulted in the endorsement in 2015 of a Conservation and Development Strategy and Regional Cooperation Framework for the next 20 years.

From mountain law to effective national strategy in Georgia

Georgian mountain regions suffer from a shortage of employment opportunities and infrastructure, and from impacts related to climate change. Since 2012, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been implementing an US$ 11.6 million project on fostering regional and local development (FRLD). The FRLD project follows a holistic, multilevel approach to create sustainable change in Georgia’s mountain municipalities. It supported the government in developing a Law on High Mountainous Regions that forms the basis the country’s first four-year Strategy for Development of High Mountain Settlements.

The Aosta Valley’s Smart Specialization Strategy

The Aosta Valley, home to about 126 000 people, was hard hit by the 2008 economic crisis and is still struggling to recover. In 2014, the regional government embarked on the opportunity to develop a “Smart Specialization Strategy (S3)” under an EU-funded programme that enables regions to identify their own competitive advantages.

Aosta’s resulting S3 aims at strengthening sectors where the mountainous territory has clear competitive advantages and at promoting innovation and sustainable development in the valley, involving businesses, research centres and civil society. It also seeks to enhance regional partnership and trans-regional cooperation.

Promising futures for mountain regions and people

The good practices presented in this report have identified three promising levers for transformation of mountain regions: inclusive planning and decision-making, equitable access to quality public services, and collaborations to spark innovation. Using these levers would benefit people living both in mountains and the adjacent lowlands, and thus drive progress towards a jointly agreed regional vision. It is important that such interventions are guided by sustainability principles, and that they focus on a region’s opportunities and address its challenges.

Suggested citation

Wymann von Dach, S. & Ruiz Peyré, F., eds. 2020. Vibrant mountain communities. Regional development in mountains: Realizing potentials, tackling disparities. Bern, Switzerland, Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, with Bern Open Publishing (BOP). 56 pp

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