Summit warns of human threats to mountain regions

Posted: 4 November 2002

When delegates met in Kyrgyzstan earlier this month (November 2002) for the Bishkek Mountain Summit - the final global event of the International Year of Mountains ) - they were faced with a new report, showing just how far the planet's mountains are under stress from human activity.

Considered indomitable and unchanging, the world's mountain regions are gradually being tamed as more and more land is converted to farming and grazing, says the report, Mountain Watch, by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Glacier, Himalayas© DEP Kumar/UNEP/TophamAlmost half of Africa's mountain regions are now under the plough or the hoof - around ten per cent has been converted to cropland and 34 per cent turned over to grazing - says the report.

The regions whose mountains appear to be the most pristine include Greenland, North and Central America.

Soil loss

The report notes that while traditional agricultural systems, such as terracing, can have a healthy impact on mountain areas by helping to stabilize soils, much of the conversion to crop or grazing land is leading to loss of forests and other land cover. This can accelerate erosion and soil loss as well as have impacts on wildlife and water resources. conflictConflict, India© Rosemary A. Holt/UNEP/TophamIn addition, war has taken its toll on mountain regions. According to Adrian Newton, lead author of Mountain Watch, "globally approximately 41 per cent of mountain land has fallen within the radius of a high intensity human conflict between 1946 and 2001, compared with 26 per cent of non-mountain land".

"This new report highlights how, like so many parts of the world, some of these last wild areas are fast disappearing in the face of agriculture, infrastructure development and other creeping impacts. Behind all these is the spectre of climate change, which is already taking its toll on the glaciers and changing plant and animal communities in high altitude areas," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP.

"These impacts, these losses, are not just regrettable but threaten the health and well-being of us all. Mountains are the water towers of the world, from where the world's mighty rivers spring. We must act to conserve them for the benefit of mountain people, for the benefit of human-kind," he said.

Mountain pressures

The report, the first map-based assessment of environmental change in mountain areas and the implications for sustainable development, has been compiled by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) as a contribution to the International Year of the Mountains.

Mark Collins, Director of UNEP-WCMC, said the report graphically illustrated seven pressures or causes of environmental change in mountains: natural hazards, fire, climate change, infrastructure growth, violent human conflict, changes in land cover and agricultural intensification.

To identify priority areas for conservation, "maps of ecosystem and indicator species groups were overlaid with information about the various pressures. The result was stunning. We could clearly see which areas are suffering most due to a combination of pressures or impacts. So for the first time we have a global snapshot of the threats and vulnerability of different mountain regions," said Collins.

Conservation priorities

The report warns that:

  • South America's mountain areas appear particularly vulnerable to "destructive earthquakes" with approximately 88 per cent of the mountain land area deemed at risk.

  • Parts of the Caucasus, California and the North-West Andes, (in particular the forest ecosystems of the Magdalena Valley in Colombia), are amongst the most threatened, bio-diversity rich, mountain areas in the world. They should be made conservation priorities.

  • Almost a quarter of mountain areas globally could be "highly impacted" by infrastructure development including roads, mining and power and pipelines by 2035.

  • The mountains of Greenland are likely to be the hardest hit by global warming. 98 per cent of its mountain areas could be suffering severe climate change by 2055.

  • Africa's mountain regions are being hardest hit by multiple pressures including conversion of forests and other mountain terrain to grazing land, fire and violent human conflict.

  • The risk of serious violent conflict is higher in mountain regions. The highest level of mountain land that has witnessed war is in Africa. Here 67 per cent has been impacted by "high intensity conflict".

"Mountain environments cover some 24 per cent of the world's land surface and deserve the level of concern afforded to other global ecosystems," said Andrei Iatsenia, UNEP's Mountain Programme Co-ordinator.

Related links:

Bishkek Summit

Click here for Mountain Watch report, photographs and other information.