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Central Asia: Swiss Project Helping Regional Mountain Residents

  • Janyl Jusupjan

The Central Asian Mountain Project (CAMP) was established by the Swiss government ahead of the UN's designation of 2002 as the International Year of Mountains. Along with other state and nongovernmental organizations, CAMP is implementing projects aimed at alleviating poverty in mountainous regions of Kyrgyzstan and other countries of Central Asia.

Prague, 22 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Zina Kangdybay kyzy is a native of the remote, mountainous Naryn region of Kyrgyzstan. The 68-year-old pensioner says that, in her village, herbs were once widely used as household medicines, but she acknowledges that the centuries-old knowledge of using herbs to heal is now almost forgotten.

"No, we don't use [herbs]. The herbs grow in the mountains. To find them, one has to identify and then dig [them] out. It is not easy to find them. Formerly, those who were knowledgeable, also the healers, would use them."

In Kyrgyzstan's high-altitude regions, unemployment among women can reach up to 95 percent. Now, a development group funded by the Swiss government is hoping that herbs can serve -- in addition to medicinal purposes -- as a generator of income for mountain peoples, especially women.

The group, the Central Asian Mountain Project (CAMP) is currently working with people in Kyrgyzstan and other mountainous countries in Central Asia to help realize such possibilities. Its activities are timed to coincide with the United Nations' declaration of 2002 as the International Year of Mountains, which seeks to promote the conservation and sustainable development of mountain regions and ensure the well-being of both mountain inhabitants and lowland communities.

The deputy director of CAMP's main office in Bishkek, Regula Imhof, says the main challenge for prospective herb sellers in Kyrgyzstan is overcoming the bureaucracy.

"People here are fighting more to be accepted with their knowledge in Kyrgyzstan, because now for the moment it is a very complicated, expensive, and long procedure to get a license to collect and to sell afterward these products."

Imhof's organization is also working on projects to raise yaks for meat, to sell produce grown in the mountains, and to improve the overall quality of life in mountain villages. She tells our correspondent that many of the projects have a regional focus. She explains that the project to raise yaks, for example, makes perfect sense in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where yaks are plentiful.

In Kyrgyzstan, there are around 20,000 yaks in the remote high pastures of Naryn and Ysyk-Koel provinces. The yak project aims to improve the technology for processing and selling the meat.

Imhof says one obstacle to overcome is that people aren't familiar with yak meat, which she says has many advantages.

"Yes, it is a very healthy meat and we can make [many more things out of it than we have until now]. I think this is a little bit different technology, like to sterilize or to marinate. There is a possibility to make really very different and good-tasting products."

To identify the needs of mountain populations, CAMP conducted research in 32 towns and villages across Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. The organization also installed what they called a "tree of wishes" in public areas, on which residents were encouraged to write down their hopes. Many of these wishes, she said, focused on the desire for employment, or that the quality of life of the elderly be improved.

The wishes were separated thematically and used to establish projects in the villages. The requests were also brought to the attention of local officials to inform them of the needs of the people.

The Swiss government has allocated about $1.3 million for CAMP's activities in the first three years, but organizers hope to keep it going for 10 years. Switzerland's involvement in the project is natural. As a mountainous country itself, Switzerland faces many of the same issues as the rugged Central Asian countries.

According to Swiss businessman Bernard Repond, the main concern of the Swiss government is to prevent mountainous areas from becoming depopulated, as people leave for better economic opportunities in the cities. Repond says governments can help by issuing subsidies, like low-interest loans, to rebuild farms or roads, or to maintain schools and transportation systems.

Repond's group, the Association of Pamir Bridges, is working to repair bridges in the high mountain areas of Kyrgyzstan. It has financed surveys of more than 40 bridges, mostly in the Ysyk-Koel region. So far, four bridges have been repaired. Repond says the bridges are particularly important for shepherds to have access to summer pastures.

The UN kicked off the International Year of Mountains at a ceremony in December at its headquarters in New York. The initiative was launched by Kyrgyzstan, and officials from Peru, Italy, Austria, and other mountainous countries are taking part.

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