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Previously in Web Citations:

Sucking Sounds

Is politics on the Web a bust? Nicholas Confessore investigates the new wave of for-profit "politics portals."

Conscientious Clicks

Alec Appelbaum on why the Web should do better than one-click charity.

Get a Life

Katie Bacon on Cyberguy, DotComGuy, and other intrepid trailblazers on the e-commerce frontier.


Wen Stephenson on why new commercial efforts to bridge the "digital divide" may only make it wider.

Shake Your Musicmaker

Are the days of the album format numbered? Ben Auburn looks at Musicmaker.com and other sites that let you build your own CD compilations.


Nicholas Confessore on Vote.com, Dick Morris's foray into online democracy.

Revenge of the Wizards

Harvey Blume looks at Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," and wonders if a Linux triumph is really what we want.

More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.

Leveling Mountains
May 10, 2000

www.mtnforum.orgFor two years in the mid 1980s Elizabeth Byers lived in the shadow of Mt. Everest in eastern Nepal, where her only contact with the outside world was through letters -- and she was a full day's hike away from the nearest weekly mail drop. Byers, a native of the Adirondacks who was in Nepal to map natural hazards and erosion, knew things would change. But even she didn't know how fast. "Mountains are inaccessible and isolated, and so are the people who work in them," she says. "Having spent many years living and working in remote mountain regions, I know firsthand the hunger, even desperation, for contact with colleagues and new ideas." So when she returned to the U.S. in 1995 after a second stint in Nepal, she changed that isolation by helping to found the Mountain Forum, an online discussion forum for people interested in high places and cultures worldwide. Now the Khumbu area where she once worked is dotted with cyber cafés, and people there exchange e-mail with people in the remote Andes. The cyber cafés were inevitable, perhaps, but chalk the Himalaya-Andes dialogue up to the Mountain Forum.

Visit the Mountain Forum and what will strike you is how plain it is: few graphics, straightforward fonts. It's designed for the lowest common technological denominator, because it's geared for people in the hills. Literally, people back in the hills, with high elevations and low bandwidth. It's run from the hills, too, started on one of West Virginia's first T-1 lines. Now it has a global membership.

Although founded by a group of geographers concerned by threats to mountain cultures and natural resources, the forum is not an academic discussion list. About two-thirds of Forum members are professionals who work in mountains or on mountain issues; more than a quarter are just plain mountain dwellers. Many are die-hards, like Miriam Torres, who, in the Peruvian Andes, checks her Forum e-mail even before getting her morning coffee. These people don't just lurk. They share their mountain-living experiences with others to help solve common problems.

Take, for example, the Forum's role in creating a park for mountain bikers. San Nicolas Totolapan in the Sierra Madre lies just ten miles south of Mexico City's teeming streets, right in the path of its gargantuan hunger for land. But the community's public land is still beautiful, with footpaths leading through woods to farmers' upper fields. Locals teamed up with Antonio "Febo" Suarez at Consultoria Balam, a consulting group on nature-based tourism, to turn the paths and community land into a park for mountain bikers. They figured that mountain-biking fees would make the land at least as profitable as a park as it would be under a housing development. The problem was, they didn't know anything about mountain biking. Suarez e-mailed the Mountain Forum and they put him in touch with the International Mountain Biking Association, in Boulder, Colorado. After an exchange confirmed that IMBA had experience that San Nicolas could use, the Forum helped arrange for a preliminary IMBA assessment of the paths in San Nicolas and of how they should be maintained. A reciprocal visit by Suarez and others from San Nicolas to see trail maintenance efforts in Colorado capped the exchange.

Through other connections, the Forum has taken mountain wisdom even further afield. A nature preserve in Sikkim, in northern India, developed a travelers' code of conduct for tour operators. This intrigued Miriam Torres and the rest of the staff of the Huascaran preserve, the highest park in Peru. They translated the code into Spanish and adopted it wholesale (with some adjustments for llama packers). Many other exchanges have started from the Forum's e-conferences, which gather hundreds of members online over several days to discuss key topics like "rural agro-industries," mountain forests, and education.

The Forum's membership is relatively small -- around 1,500 -- and without ad sales, the site relies on funding from the Swiss government's development agency. The Swiss government supports the Forum's growth as part of its foreign aid program, to help other mountain cultures in sustainable development. (About 45 percent of the Forum's current members live in the Americas, 28 percent in Asia, another quarter in Europe, and the rest in Africa.) The Forum hopes to top 10,000 members in a couple of years, helped by an international mountain summit in France this June, and a U.N.-sponsored Year of the Mountains in 2002.

For all that, there was no recognized constituency for mountain folks just a few years ago. They were by definition remote, and often insulated from outsiders. "This is a constituency that had never met," says Jane Pratt, head of the Mountain Institute, based in West Virginia, which helped launch the Mountain Forum. The Forum's roots go back to a slim chapter about mountains in Agenda 21, the blueprint that came out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Pratt says the chapter was almost a fluke, plopped in at the last minute as Chapter 13, allegedly because nobody else wanted that unlucky number.
In 1994, the Mountain Institute hosted several planning meetings at its rustic retreat in West Virginia to brainstorm about what a mountain agenda would look like. The Swiss donated funds for a larger meeting. In early 1995, 123 people from more than fifty countries gathered in Lima to hammer out a real mountain agenda. The discussions were difficult, owing to the widely scattered viewpoints of the participants, and the newness of the idea of a forum. What they ultimately called for was a loose network of networks. No bylaws, no legal structure. A cyber forum. And so the Mountain Forum was born. The Mountain Institute agreed to host the Forum's e-mail discussion lists and server, with Swiss support.

The Forum has helped people realize that mountain communities share other features besides the obvious topographic ones. For one thing, they often have a second-class status that keeps them at the margin of national agendas; terms like "hillbilly" aren't limited to Appalachia. Thai hill tribes and Ecuadorian highlanders, among others, face the same prejudice. Infrastructural improvements like roads, not to mention communications, lag in mountain areas, and so do investments in education and jobs. (Still, flatlanders appropriate mountain resources in the name of "everyone," as in, "Mountain forests and streams and energy belong to everyone.") Mountains also have half the world's hotspots of biodiversity. Hills have long been for plant and animal life what they are for dissidents and religious minorities: sanctuaries for survival. These are all issues that have been talked about on the Forum's discussion lists.

It was a lucky stroke that the Internet boom came right when the Forum started. "We're riding the wave of the Internet just like everyone else," says Elizabeth Byers. At the Mountain Institute's West Virginia base, Byers has co-managed the Forum's discussion lists and programs from the start. Internet access to hill communities is growing. The Forum's worldwide network server has moved out of West Virginia, but it's still in the Appalachians, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Soon it's due to move again: to Nepal.

Will anything get diluted as the Forum grows? Its discussion lists now stick close to hands-on experience, and are imbued with remarkable cordiality (there have been only two flames since the Forum began). Will there be more university types, and fewer honest-to-God mountain die-hards? Hard to say. The forum members aim to keep the proportion of mountain-dwelling members above 25 percent. What you can say is that eulogies for the Internet as a progressive tool may be premature. Looking beyond the bright lights of Amazon.com and its ilk, there are still some high points.

--David A. Taylor

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

David A. Taylor writes about people and the environment for magazines and documentaries.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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