Mountains: vital for human survival

Posted: May 2008

The International Year of the Mountains was celebrated in 2002. First recognised as a critical issue at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the deterioration of mountain eco-systems and the poverty of their people has assumed added urgency in the face of war and other conflicts. Mountain forests, in particular, are vanishing across the globe.

Indeed, the future security of the planet's growing human population rests in great measure on mountain watersheds. Mountains make up a quarter of the world's landscape and are home to at least 12 per cent of the world's people. A further 14 per cent live adjacent or very close to mountain areas. Well over half the global population depends on mountains for water, food, hydro-electricity, timber, and mineral resources. Over 50 per cent of the world's mountain areas are essential for providing fresh surface water for the billions of people who live downstream. In an era of increasing water scarcity, perhaps no category of the earth's major biomes has greater value for geopolitical - not to mention environmental - security.

Sherpani women porters, Himalaya
Sherpani women porters resting below Namche Bazar, Khumbu Himal. © UN University Mountain Programme

In the deliberations of governments and organizations worldwide, the fate of the mountains was largely ignored until the 1990s. Unlike the oceans or tropical rain forests, mountains have never had their own scientific discipline, or even a movement to broadcast the grave threats facing them and their peoples, such as Jacques Cousteau fostered for the oceans.

However, today mountains have been moving in from the far horizon of political agendas. In 1992, they were given their own Chapter in 'Agenda 21' the plan for action from the Rio Earth Summit, and in 1998, a resolution of the UN General Assembly declared that 2002 would be the International Year of Mountains (IYM). This resolution was supported by 130 countries - the largest number to have ever supported the declaration of an International Year.

During the IYM, 78 countries established national committees to work towards the sustainable development of the mountains of their countries. In the same year, in Johannesburg, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) devoted Paragraph 42 of its Plan of Implementation to Mountains, and a global 'Mountain Partnership' was established. At the end of the year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling all stakeholders to further strengthen their involvement in mountain issues. In 2004, the seventh Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a wide-ranging programme on mountain biological diversity. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published in 2005, included a chapter on mountains that emphasised their global significance.

Global assets

These actions underline the importance of mountain ecosystems and cultures, not just for themselves, but in relation to their surrounding lowlands. In these, millennia of intensive human use have led to steadily increasing biological impoverishment and cultural homogenization.

Mountain peoples, in their vertical archipelagos of human and natural variety, have become the guardians of irreplaceable global assets. All over the world, expanding economic pressures are degrading mountain ecosystems, while confronting mountain peoples with increasing cultural assimilation, debilitating poverty, and political disempowerment.

Mountains and high plateaux occur on every altitude and terrestrial latitude. Mountains occupy 24 per cent of the earth's landscape. Of the world's current roster of 185 countries, only 46 have no mountains or high plateaux - and most of those are small island nations.

About half of the world's mountain peoples are concentrated in the Andes, the Hengduan-Himalaya-Hindu Kush system, and dispersed African mountains. In contrast with the sparse populations of Northern mountains, portions of some tropical ranges - such as parts of Mount Kenya, the highlands of Papua New Guinea, the Vale of Peshawar in northern Pakistan, and the Virunga volcano region of Rwanda - have more than 400 people per square kilometre.

Whether in cloud forests or alpine grasslands, on windswept promontories or along glacier-fed streams, what mountain ecosystems have in common is the combined effects of rapid changes in altitude, climate, soil, and vegetation over short distances. Biologically, their high diversity - including remarkable concentrations of species found nowhere else - leaves them vulnerable to losses of whole plant or animal communities. And culturally, the fact that many mountain peoples are ethnic minorities, outside the dominant cultures of the plains, leaves their regions poorly represented in the centres of political or commercial power where much of their fate is determined.

The complexity of mountain topography leads to comparable variety in vegetation and animal life. In fact, one of the most defining ecological characteristics of mountains is that the rise in elevation is sufficient to produce belts, or zones, of differing climates, soils, and vegetation. Within the numerous altitudinal belts of ecosystems in California's Sierra Nevada range, for example, are found an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 species of plants and animals.

Mountains also rank high by another indicator of biodiversity: endemism, the occurrence of species only within narrow ranges, typically after centuries or longer of isolation. Birds are excellent biological indicators because they occur in all regions, respond swiftly to environmental change, and are among the best monitored and understood creatures. Birds with restricted habitats tend to occur together in isolated patches of habitat, particularly montane forests. Of the world's 247 endemic bird areas, 131 occur in tropical mountains.

birdWall Creeper. A mountain bird of the Swiss Alps© Eugene Huettenmoser/WWF

Because mountains tend to be challenging environments in which to produce a living, and parts are often inaccessible, they have provided sanctuary to refugees, indigenous peoples, and ethnic minorities. Particularly in developing countries, many mountain people typically live on the economic margins as nomads, part-time hunters and foragers, traders, small farmers and herders, loggers, miners, wage workers, or in households headed by women while men pursue seasonal work elsewhere.

Mountain people

Mountain peopleGiven the imperative to survive, mountain people have acquired unique knowledge and skills by adapting to the specific constraints and advantages of their fragile, inhospitable environments. They possess millennia of experience in the use of mountain land and resources, such as shifting cultivation, terraced fields, medicinal use of native plants, migratory grazing, and sustainable harvesting of food, fodder, and fuel from forests. In India's Garhwal Himalaya, for example, local women can identify 145 species of plants destroyed by commercial logging and limestone mining in the area, whereas national foresters could list only 25.

With human survival so closely dependent on knowledge of local ecology, the existence of sharp differences in the kinds of native foods, fuels, or medicines that can be found or grown in different parts of a single mountain range can result in similarly sharp differences in the knowledge - and hence the culture - of that range's human inhabitants. "Cultural diversity is not an historical accident. It is the direct outcome of the local people learning to live in harmony with the mountains' extraordinary biological diversity," said the late Anil Agarwal, founder of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

These two types of diversity - biological and cultural - are inextricably linked. For instance, more than 10 million Quechua peasants, descendants of the Incas, now reside in the central Andes of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, one of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth in terms of both wild and cultivated species. Altogether, the world's mountains are home to several thousand different tribes or ethnic groups.

For all their differences, however, one attribute that very many mountain people share is material poverty. More than 60 per cent of the rural Andean population lives in extreme poverty, and most of the 98 million Chinese considered to be among the world's "absolute poor" are ethnic minorities who live in mountains. (However, these statistics fail to reflect the value of two institutions common to mountain villages - barter trade and communal property, such as forests and pastures.)

The forceful combination of political marginalization and poverty has subjected mountain peoples to widespread discrimination by powerful lowlanders, who refer to them with such pejoratives as "hillbillies" (United States), "oberwalder" (Austria), "kohestani" (Afghanistan), and "bhotias" (India). This discrimination can extend to violent human rights abuses - especially of ethnic minorities resisting political control by national governments. Prominent recent examples include Tibetans, Kashmiris, Kurds, Irian Jayans, and other minorities in Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Guatemala, Kosovo, Peru, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

Damaging policies

In many developing countries, development policies have actually undermined peasant agriculture rather than aiding it, and have left mountain farming communities enmeshed in interlocked webs of growing populations, declining resources, and increasing poverty and environmental degradation. This degradation has become visible in several trends over the last half century: landslides have become larger and more frequent; water flows in traditional irrigation systems have fallen; and yields of major crops have not kept pace with the gains typically achieved in the plains. The genetic diversity of crops and livestock has been diminished, as has the diversity of flora in forests and pastures. The regenerative capability of the land, based on intricate linkages between various land uses, has been weakened. The periods of hunger between harvests have lengthened; more time is spent collecting fodder and fuel; and the rates of poverty, unemployment, and migration out of the hills have generally increased.

Highly concentrated ownership of the more fertile and productive arable land in the plains, often to produce crops for export, creates pressures for growing populations to migrate and clear more marginal land on hillsides. In the mountainous countries of Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru, nearly 90 per cent of the farms are minifundios, often too small to provide an adequate income. At the other end of the spectrum, latifundios (large land holdings) control over 80 per cent of the occupied land in Chile and 40 to 50 per cent in Colombia, Ecuador, and Guatemala. Lack of secure access to natural resources continues to drive mountain peasants throughout the world uphill onto less stable soils, or downhill to the cities and lowlands. In most mountain countries, economic development policies have led to the expropriation of customary land rights and their redistribution to a range of vested commercial interests. With the help of roads, bridges, and tunnels, these industries have transformed mountains into steep storehouses of timber, water, hydroelectricity, minerals, and meat for export to the plains. Extractive industries, commercial operations, and large-scale interventions - especially large mines and hydropower projects - often cause exceptional damage in mountains because they ignore the fragility of ecosystems and the rights of local communities.

clearcuttingClearcutting near Seattle, USA, is putting pressure on timber resources in the adjoining national forest.© Daniel Dancer/Still Pictures

Forest destruction is moving up mountain slopes in most tropical countries. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has found that, of all types of forests, tropical mountain forests have had the fastest rates of both annual population growth and deforestation. The Guatemalan Highlands and the Bolivian Altiplano are two clear examples of the causal linkage between high population growth and severe deforestation.

In industrial countries, mass tourism and recreation are now fast overtaking the extractive industries as the greatest threat to mountain communities and environments. Since 1945, visits to the 10 most popular mountainous national parks in the United States have increased twelvefold. In the European Alps, tourism now exceeds 100 million visitor-days. The phenomenon of rapid growth in tourism is found in mountain regions all over the world. For instance, every year in the Indian Himalaya, more than 250,000 Hindu pilgrims, 25,000 trekkers, and 75 mountaineering expeditions climb to the sacred source of the Ganges River, the Gangotri Glacier. They deplete local forests for firewood, trample riparian vegetation, and strew litter. Even worse, this tourism frequently induces poorly planned, land-intensive development.

Parks and projects

More than a century ago in New Zealand, Maori people feared exploitation of sacred peaks by European sheep farmers and other colonists. They devised an ingenious solution: the Tongariro Mountains were given to Queen Victoria, and New Zealand's first national park was created.

Globally, approximately 11 per cent of all mountains are protected in some form. But this total figure distorts the actual level of protection because it includes the 97 million-hectare Greenland National Park - if Greenland and Antarctica are excluded the proportion rises to 14 per cent.

On average, mountain protected areas are larger than those found in the lowlands, but there are wide variations in the degree of protection. For example, 70 per cent of New Zealand's Southern Alps is protected, making them the most fully protected range in the world. By contrast, only 15 per cent of the Alps is protected. Other under-represented areas include the Atlas range, the Hindu Kush, Papua New Guinea, the Sredinnyi Ridge in Kamchatka, and the mountains of Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Vietnam.

In response to the complex threats to mountain communities and environments, non-governmental organizations and, increasingly, international organizations, have developed integrated approaches to conservation and development that combine the goals of biological conservation with equity, empowerment, indigenous rights, and local control of natural resources. These projects typically return control of local mountain forests, fields, and ranges to local communities, while giving them the incentives and means to achieve resource management practices that are sustainable.

Local approaches

A common lesson from all of these community projects is that the great diversity of mountain ecosystems, cultures, and adaptive strategies requires the long-term commitment of personnel in order to develop effective programmes. Project staff need time and training to understand local ecosystems and stresses, existing natural resource management strategies, cultural mores, community structure, and gender roles. Far from a panacea for their intended beneficiaries, these projects are best characterized as complex and time-consuming experiments in reconciling the fundamentally distinct - and often conflicting - goals of conservation and development.

Many projects have failed to focus on the critical linkage between these two goals. But by valuing the tremendous diversity, limited production scale, and vulnerability of mountain environments, these community-based initiatives have established viable prototypes for integrating economic vitality and ecological resiliency. The key will be an array of local approaches, implemented as much as possible by local people, and informed by lessons learned in other places and supported by the right policies at higher levels.

To elevate the status of mountain peoples and conserve their ecosystems, national governments and international development agencies need to focus on policy reform in seven areas: promoting efforts to secure land tenure or control over local resources; ensuring that mountain people are compensated for the careful management of mountain ecosystems in the interests of society at large; reducing the impacts of livestock, timber, hydropower, and minerals production in mountains; creating regional networks of conservation areas; improving knowledge about mountains through integrated research, social and environmental monitoring, and public education; establishing institutions and cooperative agreements for each major range; and integrating mountains into the projects and policies of development agencies.

To help move mountain issues from our mental margins to the mainstream, the Mountain Forum was created in 1995 through the international collaboration of NGOs, universities, multilateral agencies and the private sector. It is a global network for information exchange, mutual support, and advocacy for equitable and ecologically sustainable mountain development and conservation. This rapidly-growing structure now links thousands of individual and organizational members in over 100 countries, primarily through the Internet, which is expanding fast in mountain areas.

The challenges confronting mountain communities and ecosystems are immense. Surmounting them will require decades of sustained resolve. If the world's highest mountains have been able to inspire extraordinary fortitude and ingenuity within the climbers drawn to their summits, then the fragile ecosystems and endangered cultures from which these pinnacles rise now merit no lesser commitment.

This overview is based on an article prepared by Derek Denniston for People & the Planet in 1996, and has been updated by Professor Martin Price.

Derek Denniston is author of High Priorities: Conserving Mountain Ecosystems and Cultures, Worldwatch Paper 123 and co-author of State of the World 1995, W.W. Norton, New York.

Professor Martin Price is Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College, within University of the Highlands and Islands. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Mountain Forum.

Related links:

Mountain Forum

Mountain Institute

Mountain Partnership