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Mountain hiking with Kofi Annan

Last August, member of the GRID-Arendal Board of Directors; Øystein Dahle accompanied UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on a hike in the Norwegian Mountains. This is a reprint of the interview made during that trip.
Last August, DNT's chairman and member of the GRID-Arendal Board of Directors, Øystein Dahle accompanied UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on a hike in the Norwegian Mountains. This is a reprint of the interview made during that trip, which was first published in Fjell og Vidde, the magazine of The Norwegian Mountain Touring Association (DNT).

Text and photos: Øystein Dahle

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and his wife Nane

- One of the most important tasks in life is to let children experience nature - whether one is a parent, a teacher, a politician or the Secretary General of the United Nations.

We are sitting surrounded by beautiful mountain flowers in late summer and gazing past Omnsvatnet Lake towards Såtedalen and Såta in the west, a route from Finse to the Geiteryggen mountain lodge.

- Children are the future, he continues - it is our responsibility to hand over a healthy planet to them, and today we do not take this challenge very seriously. Kofi Annan lets his eyes roam in all directions, interested in what we are seeing, interested in where we are going. About a mile away we catch sight of a flock of wild reindeer on a patch of snow. The animals amble slowly onwards without seeming to be troubled that the hunting season begins next week. - Nature gives children - and adults for that matter - the possibility of gaining insight into the basic character of environmental problems without unnecessary complications, and without needing unnecessarily difficult words and concepts. Kofi Annan's lively face becomes even more expressive. - If one learns to love nature then one will do one's best to take care of it. Nature speaks to the heart and it is that language which in the last instance will have to convince us all about what has to be done.

It is safe to say that Kofi Annan is an environmentalist, and it is reassuring that a man of his insight, his vision, his experience and his ambitions occupies a position which most of us, I believe, consider to be the world's most important. In 1977 he was elected as the 7th Secretary General of the United Nations, and some months ago he was unanimously elected by the UN General Assembly to his second term from 1 January 2002 to 31 December 2006. His wisdom, his electric personality and his human warmth have given the UN a face, and the world a new hope.

Kofi and Nane agree that this is quality of life

And here we now sit on the grass on our way to the Geiteryggen mountain lodge and philosophise about nature, the future and the challenges facing us. His wife Nane is also with us, Swedish by birth and 1/8 Norwegian by ancestry. She is a lawyer and artist, and vitally interested in everything from mountain flowers to the building of cairns. At the moment she is working on a children's book about life-essential water and the water drops Tipp and Topp, and their tasks and natural cycle. We sit and look towards the north-west where the Varg Glacier is located, and towards the meeting-place of the three mountain counties of Buskerud, Hordaland and Sogn and Fjordane. Mountains behind mountains, experiences for life.

I expect that you know, says Kofi, that the UN each year has a theme year, and I can confirm that I was aware that 2001 has been the year of voluntary action. Since DNT is an organisation working through volunteer efforts, I think I can safely say that we have met this challenge in 2001. But what I did not know is that the UN has decided that 2002 should be the "International Year of the Mountains".

Kofi Annan was accompanied by Øystein Dahle, member of the GRID-Arendal Board of Directors.
Kofi Annan's personality and human warmth have given a face to the UN and a hope to the world, says Dahle.

This suits us well, and we are prepared: In its Resolution the UN challenges the world community to use this opportunity, this year, to protect the unique nature of mountains, their special characteristics, and their role in the lives of rural and urban populations. Here we are speaking of both nature and culture, and national and local governments in all mountainous countries are being challenged to make their citizens more aware of the vulnerable ecosystems in the mountains, of responsibilities and possibilities. I know that Kofi Anna will be meeting the Norwegian government, and I suggest to him that this challenge should be included in his speech.

DNT, The Norwegian Mountain Touring Association, is a nation-wide organisation for hikers. Founded in 1868, it is now Norway's largest association for outdoor activities with some 193 000 members. The 47 regional member associations of DNT operate more than 370 staffed and unstaffed lodges linked by 20 000 km of marked paths, constituting an extraordinary network throughout the mountain regions of Norway. A unique feature of the DNT are the self-service chalets, which are fully stocked and offer provisions for sale on the basis of mutual trust.

DNT works to promote a healthy, active and natural outdoor life by simple means, and offers a range of guided tours and courses related to outdoor life summer and winter. Enjoying a strong position in Norwegian society, DNT is an influential actor in the protection of nature and the promotion of sustainable development at large.
The cairns and the red T, known by every Norwegian and and increasing number of most welcome foreign mountain hikers, are the landmarks of DNT.

We continue our hike. Cheerful hikers meet us on our way, some catch up with us. Friendly greetings which are normal between mountaingoers. Kofi Annan is having a good time. After all, he is a member of DNT. During an earlier visit in 1997 we had the opportunity to arrange a pleasant meeting where he was appointed a life member of the Norwegian Mountain Touring Association. At that time we also discussed the self-service system. To begin with he could not believe that such a system could work, but when he did realise that the system works - and works well - I remember he said: -This restores my faith in human beings, and that is very useful in my present job. Kofi Annan has had many jobs in a long and exciting life. His education was technologically oriented, with supplementary training in economics in Geneva and in management in Boston. Since 1962 he has worked in the UN system, in Geneva, in Ethiopia and in New York,
with responsibilities in a number of challenging areas.

But now he is on his way to the Geiteryggen mountain lodge, with boots on his feet and a raincoat in his rucksack. Surprisingly strong. On the hills leading upwards from Finse towards St. Paul he set out like a mountain goat, and yesterday's hike to Blåisen with balancing manoeuvers on suspension bridges presented
no problems. How do you manage to keep in shape? Walks in Central Park in New York are not enough, but Kofi gets his inspiration and strength from long walks. When crises in the world community get really tough he goes for up to 12 mile walks in order to be able to think, and often the solutions present themselves during the walk.

But now it is wonderful to be on vacation. While waiting on the platform at Finse Station a Prime Minister called and wanted advice and at the same time said that he was envious of Kofi Annan for his mountain trip.
- There is room for you too in the Norwegian mountains, answered the UN Secretary General.Today is a magnificent day for the Secretary General because his mobile phone doesn't work. So Presidents and Prime Ministers must wait until we reach Steinbergdalen tomorrow.

Kofi and Nane were fascinated by the cairns along the T-marked paths

His enthusiasm for the mountains is genuine, small things are just as important as large things, and when he kneels to photograph a tussock of moss campton, then I feel there is hope for the world. - This is quality of life, says Kofi Annan, when he lies down to drink water from the cheerful mountain stream without thinking of where the stream comes from. - You Norwegians don't realise how well off you are. Remember that lack of clean water is probably the most critical problem in the world today. Maybe Norwegian mountain water one day will be more important than oil.
Environmental issues are important for Kofi Annan. The climate change issue is absolutely central in our modern society and the risk dimension is underestimated. He talks with enthusiasm about the preparations for the Millenium Summit in New York last year, which he and his colleagues had been preparing for 18 months. He had been surprised to see how far down environmental issues came on the list of priorities for the various government representatives. But when environmental issues in the final instance filled one third of the final report it was not least due to the fact that the Secretary-General himself had taken control. The final report which was entitled "We the People" contains important visions for the Millenium we have started upon. The next major task will be the preparations for the important environmental conference in Johannesburg next year, Rio + 10. Strangely enough, we are already at the point of celebrating a 10 year jubileum for the Rio Conference on Environment and Development. The conclusions next year will probably be that we have done far too little with environmental issues during these last 10 years, and the challenge will be to do far, far more!
Kofi Annan's own initiative for next year has been entitled the Global Compact, by which he has taken an initiative towards a number of sectors such as industry, trade unions and independent organisations. Now once again environmental questions are in focus, in addition to human rights and labour standards. Kofi's undertone in this part of the conversation is that priviledges cannot be expected without being linked to a clear feeling of responsibility and commitment. - It is our consumption in the industrialised world which is the problem, he says, and his voice is more serious. Consumption must be changed. Today's patterns of behaviour are not sustainable.

Kofi and Nane Annan both love mountains. They are
here on their way from Finse to Geiteryggen mountain lodge

We have arrived at the Geiteryggen mountain lodge and said hello to the reindeer belonging to Manager Jan Eira, which is under the strange misapprehension that it is a sheep, we have photographed his mountain fox and we have had a shower in the cellar. And regardless of whether one is Secretary General of the United Nations or a student in Oslo, one has to wait in the same queue when the outdoor toilet is occupied?. But we are having a fine time in the mountains. - This is harmony, says Kofi Annan - this is peace and quiet, this is beautiful and it is good to be here. Tomorrow we go to Steinbergdalen, then to Østerbø on Friday and down Aurlandsdalen on Saturday. There await Nesbøgalden and Sinjarheim, there await waterfalls and roaring watercourses, there await pyramidal and starry saxifraga , but above all there await experiences of nature which will last a lifetime.

Wednesday 06 Mar 2002
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