UVU speaks to UN

Samuel Elzinga, president of UVU's Utah International Mountain Forum, addresses United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in 2018. He was invited to return and speak again this year.

Like many organizations, the United Nations is looking to younger generations for guidance into the future. And some of those youth are at Utah Valley University.

Samuel Elzinga, president of the Utah International Mountain Forum, a coalition of clubs at UVU, in 2018 addressed a United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development that supports mountain communities. He was invited to present again this month.

“This year’s theme for International Mountain Day is ‘Mountains Made for Youth,’” he said prior to leaving for the event. “They want me to speak for 10 minutes. There will be a wide range of people from all over the United Nations System. I will probably be the only young person presenting.”

Mountainous regions throughout the world face similar challenges, even though they are physically widespread.

“They are, of course, at high altitude,” Elzinga said. “They are physically remote and often have a dry climate.” Those traits are not all.

“Mountain communities are often forgotten in state, national and international discussions,” he added. “Yet they play such a vital role. Sixty to 80% of the world’s (drinking) water originates in the mountains. Over one-fourth of the world’s diversity resides there. Mountains make up one-fourth of the earth’s total land area. They are home to 1.1 billion people, one-eighth to one-seventh of the world’s population.”

Many of those individuals face extreme challenges.

“More than 90% of the world’s mountain dwellers live in developing countries, including 634 million people living in rural areas where the vast majority live below the poverty line, and more than one in two faces food insecurity,” Elzinga said in his presentation to the U.N. group. “Modern challenges, such as climate change and migration, make their situation even worse.”

Baktybek Abdrisaev, a distinguished visiting professor who oversees the UIMF at UVU, said the U.N. looks to the delegation from Utah as a role model to help other mountain communities.

“They have a lot of problems because of nature,” he said. “They can talk about the challenges they have. In Utah, people came here 150 years ago and have been able to create the best economy. This is a great experience to spread through United Nations channels.”

Not only is the U.N. recognizing Utah, its members have also touted Utah Valley University for its example.

“UVU provides services to students who might be a little more financially challenged,” Elzinga said. “The university has done a very good job helping provide economic assistance for students, including housing and food scholarships. It is great we also have a food pantry on campus. UVU has a plethora of services on campus. It is a very different university. We experience some of the struggles that come with youth not being able to find economic viability.”

Lacee Myer is the vice president of the UIMF and focuses on its efforts in the local area.

“I like to take a holistic approach,” she said. “I like to pull in experts and stakeholders from both rural and urban places. We are creating a team, a partnership, where all parties are going to benefit.”

She said she tries to look where the issues and strengths are in order to formulate plans to help the students provide assistance to those in mountainous regions. One example is in areas facing economic downturns.

“One of the major problems we are trying to overcome is helping those in rural parts of Utah shift their economies,” she said. “They could have been relying on energy such as coal or oil for their economy. We help them become more diversified and have their economy sustainable for at least 50 years. That could be by providing access to education in subjects including coding, other STEM fields, or nursing.”

UVU served as one of the hosts at the United Nations Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City in August. It was the first time the U.N. hosted such a meeting in the United States outside of New York City since it was formed in San Francisco in 1945. The conference specifically promoted sustainable mountain development.

Another step toward those goals is the relationship established as the United Nations Association of the United States of America established a chapter at UVU. The UIMF will be its official partner.

“We thank the UNA-USA for designating UIMF as its chapter on the UVU campus,” Elzinga said. “This will allow us to involve our students in the implementation of the 17 sustainable development goals and sustainable mountain development in Utah as well.”