Big role for mountain people

Posted: 21 March 2003

Author: Elizabeth Byers

The importance of helping local people to preserve the biological diversity of mountains and reduce the pressures on them, was a central theme of the March meeting in Montreal of the 187 Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Elizabeth Byers reports.

"Mountain people live in areas rich in biodiversity, but they are amongst the world's poorest and most food insecure" Thomas Hofer of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), told the meeting.

"Despite the fact that these mountain people are the primary managers of this biodiversity, they rarely profit from the resources being extracted or the services they provide. Marginalised and living in isolated landscapes, far from centres of commerce and power, many mountain people have little influence over the policies and decisions that affect their lives," he said.

And yet mountains harbour a significant portion of the earth's biodiversity. They cover a quarter of the Earth's surface, provide a home to an eighth of the world's people, and provide half of the fresh water on which humanity relies.

As Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), told the meeting: "Many species that have become extinct in lowlands due to human activities are now surviving in mountain regions; others exist only in mountain areas, which harbour a richness of plant and animal species adaptable to various altitudes and climates."

Most delegates agreed that one way to move forward, was to tap mountain people's traditional knowledge, experience, and expertise in mountain biodiversity, much of which is held by women. And this could be done by developing policies that acknowledge, support and compensate mountain people in their roles as the primary guardians and providers of mountain biodiversity.

Some countries are already moving forward with this agenda. The Alpine Convention provides legal support to mountain communities and ecosystems in the eight countries of the European Alps. Similar conventions are under consideration in the Altai, Carpathian and Caucasus mountain ranges.

Mountain laws that recognize the special management needs of fragile upland environments and economically disadvantaged populations are in force in 12 countries, and new legislation to safeguard mountain people and environments has been drafted in five more.

One example is the Swiss mountain law which provides direct payments to mountain farmers who manage their steeplands according to sustainable uses as defined by slope and land classification. In North Ossetia-Alania, part of the Russian Federation located in the Caucasus mountains, a 50 per cent tax reduction is granted to public enterprises that choose to establish themselves in mountain regions. In Australia, land use planning is based on 60 catchment areas that cover the entire continent, bringing upland-lowland interests within each watershed into immediate negotiation.

This eighth meeting of the Convention's advisory body proposed a detailed programme of work on mountain biological diversity. This included five key areas of work:

  • Protecting fragile mountain ecosystems and identifying ways of restoring them.

  • Emphasizing ecological and human connections with lowland areas, with particular reference to water resources.

  • Promoting high levels of crop genetic diversity.

  • Supporting cultural self-determination and improvement of local livelihoods, in recognition of exceptional levels of cultural diversity.

  • Countering the higher susceptibility to climate change compared to lowland areas.
The Convention on Biological Diversity is the main international instrument for policy-making and implementation and is the first global agreement to cover all aspects of biological diversity - genetic resources, species and ecosystems. It is also the first to recognize that the conservation of biological diversity is a common concern of humankind and an integral part of efforts to achieve sustainable development.

Related links:

Meeting documents are available from the website of the Convention on Biological Diversity

Information on mountain biodiversity is available from the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment

General information about mountain issues and action is available on thefollowing websites: International Year of Mountains

The Mountain Forum