By Katie Kamelamela & Tual Sawn Khai | Mountain Sentinels Fellows

Mountain communities from around the world gathered at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Innovation Center in Basalt, Colorado (USA) to participate in the Moving Mountains Summit. The Summit welcomed both in-person and online participation from Indigenous rights-holders, Elders, community knowledge holders, academics, practitioners, educators, and students.  Many insightful conversations were had around shared values, goals, challenges, and how to move forward together to build more sustainable mountain environments and communities worldwide.  

Below, Mountain Sentinels Fellows Katie Kamelamela and Tual Sawn Khai reflect on their experiences at the Summit and share the intricacies of approaches the Summit invoked and the potential impact on their mountain communities. Katie Kamelamela is an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Ocean Futures and Center for Global Discovery of Conservation in Science. Tual Sawn Khai is a PhD research fellow at the School of Graduate Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.


Katie’s Story: Where are Hawai‘i, Pacific Islands and high islands in the international mountain research and policy conversation?

Attending international, national, and local events can be frightening, though it is critical to connecting, conveying, and constructing our visions of better futures, especially as island peoples. Born and raised in Hawai‘i, we see natural impacts such as flooding in the mountains turn reefs and nearshore beaches brown in hours. The value of our mountains for water catchment, wild food resources, culture, and economic lifeways has been a focus of my research for at least 10 years. As an emerging assistant professor at Arizona State University in the School of Ocean Futures and Center for Global Discovery of Conservation in Science, my focus for engaging in the Mountain Sentinels Moving Mountains Summit and UN Sixth Global Meeting of the Mountain Partnership, Mountains Matter (UNMP) was to 1) identify what role Hawai‘i or other high island narratives are contributing to the conversation and 2) understand my place in the mountains research international movement. 

As a representative of the Pacific and Hawai‘i at the Moving Mountains Summit, what grabbed my attention were the conversation sketches that captured local values and gave life to key takeaways provided by attendees. The visuals were simple, striking in size, and allowed everyone present to reflect on previous conversations. Present at the summit were multiple generations, nationalities, and language backgrounds. The availability of interpreters in group activities and breakouts created an inclusive environment for all ages and backgrounds. This created rich exchanges when solution-finding and sharing stories. By the end of the Summit, ideas from Hawai‘i such as aloha ‘āina (love for the land) were included in the large conversation sketches alongside stories from Spain, Nepal, Honduras, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Myanmar.

Work done by Karina Branson with ConverSketch.

Work done by Karina Branson with ConverSketch.

Having the Moving Mountains Summit grounded with Elders and landscape visits provided a different experience from other gatherings. Indigenous relationships were centered not just during welcoming but throughout the programming. Meeting with community members, researchers, emerging academics, and organizers created a sense of purpose focused on mountain lifeways, which are experienced differently across the world. Listening to the challenges from around the world and knowing of solutions that have worked in Hawai‘i was encouraging. Sharing research, traditional knowledge, and ways of being so far from home is a way Hawai‘i contributes to solutions.

At the UN Mountains Matter panel on braiding traditional knowledge, presented with the Canadian Mountain Network and Mountain Sentinels Fellows, we focused on the importance of placing our mountain at the center of discussion – represented by an empty chair. Focusing on the needs of the mountain(s), we guided towards beneficial decision-making centered on resource health, regeneration, and cultural cleanliness for future ancestors. Attendance at the various panels highlighted the presence of government and corporate decision-makers who are collaborating for solutions to benefit their countries and consumers. To support cultural, economic, and natural resource justice, both shared lessons learned through experience and listening to people who live in mountain communities. 

My previous work with Mountain Sentinels was focused around COVID-19 and creating space for youth to express their experiences. This grew into an art competition that centered voices of Pacific Islander children and encouraged connection with health habit-building activities. As mountain people who live on islands, art entries included hiking, gardening, drawing, skateboarding, and hygiene upkeep. Many of the experiences shared by the artists highlighted cultural activities that also have recreational features, such as fishing, bodysurfing, and harvesting coconuts.  These cultural, economic, and recreational lifeways in mountains are an opportunity to cultivate supportive practices in these landscapes. I would like to further engage on how economic mountain lifeways in Hawai’i influence cultivation of culturally important plant species for ceremonial and/or market use. Possibly other locations have overcome challenges we face in our markets or mountains?

These international gatherings can be intimidating, as you are learning about the organization while at the meeting. Both the Mountain Sentinels and UNMP meetings were welcoming to teach and train as we build a governance structure or draft a declaration. Providing similar opportunities or amplifying experiences at home in preparation for international meetings would be valuable for our communities, in order to have a reference that our words are as powerful as our actions, and to uphold and advocate for them. 

Attendance at these gatherings provides hope for me that momentum is building with regard to our mountains and people who live there. I am learning about networking opportunities to apply lessons from others who have similar circumstances, budgets, and climate change challenges. The opportunity to learn from community representatives and dignitaries on how to advocate for the needs and requests of your people was eye-opening. I did leave with potential to collaborate on high islands mountain research, though it is now my homework to see what mountain networks exist in Hawai‘i and Pacific, then how (if helpful) do we loop into global mountain networks?

Khai’s Story: Mountain People and ‘No one should be left behind.’

Attending the Moving Mountains Summit in Basalt, Colorado, USA from Chin State, Myanmar was one of the most memorable experiences in my life. I met people from diverse backgrounds, including academics, NGO workers, and individuals who work to improve the livelihoods of mountain communities. Their efforts in empowering the community and improving their livelihood, as well as the challenges they faced in doing their work, have inspired me to keep going with my passion for helping my community. A group discussion among the participants on identifying a shared problem and various solutions in the mountain community was essential. Through such forums, I had the opportunity to learn about the challenges that people in other mountains face and what lessons may be learned to apply to my own community. On the other hand, the success of such forum discussions could be enhanced if there was more financial and technical support to enable practical implementation on the ground. For example, in my case, I come from Chin State, which is one of the poorest states in Myanmar. I must struggle to survive on a daily basis, and only then can I carry my idea or project to help my community.

From the left: Jill Stein, Geanna Capitan, Tual Sawn Khai, Shelly Valdez, David Garcia Del Amo, and Robin Reid at Maroon Bells.

The event is extremely relevant, as the discussion places a great deal of importance on climate action and water issues. My mountain community is not exempt from climate disasters. It is highly susceptible to landslides and mudslides during the rainy season. In 2015, my community faced significant displacement and relocation due to a landslide that affected over 43 villages. Furthermore, while the Summit was taking place, the world witnessed flooding in Pakistan, which caused the displacement of over half the population. Thus, the outcomes of this Summit, as well as its impact on the ground in terms of replanting trees, distributing climate education to the community in local languages, and conducting research, are extremely critical. It is irrefutable that a disaster of this magnitude could destroy the entire infrastructure and livelihood of a million people within a matter of minutes. It is also important to note that there will be no sustainable development unless we reforest our mountainous community and maintain the biodiversity of the environment.

Moreover, over half of my mountain population lives in poverty due to climate change, which destroys farmland and causes drought, leading to inadequate agricultural products for livelihood and a decade-long exclusion by the central government from social and economic development. This has resulted in a massive migration to neighboring countries in search of prospective livelihood opportunities. This vulnerability has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the military coup in February 2021. Specifically, the ongoing conflict and the indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population by the Myanmar military have forced over 20% of my mountain community to leave their villages. Their livelihood and children’s education have been disrupted for at least two years by the political turmoil and COVID-19, but world leaders and international community organizations still ignored their plight and further consequences. My community’s situation illustrates why we, the Mountain Sentinels community, must work together to voice our plight and concern at the United Nations. Every individual is human, whether he or she lives in the mountains or the cities, and the mountain people’s plight and concerns should be considered in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development principle “No one should be left behind.”


Mountain communities defy borders in their common issues faced particularly in the wake of climate change. Whether in the Chin State of Myanmar or the Hawaiian Islands, folks are Moving Mountains and building sustainable communities internationally. 

The Moving Mountains Summit catalyzed and synthesized these international voices and provided a space to develop shared experiences. From these conversations and processes, the new Alliance can share, craft, and engage sustainable practices for mountain communities, by mountain communities.