Mighty,
but fragile

 
Dr. Jacques Diouf outlines the importance of mountains and describes what the international community is doing to protect them

The world’s mountains are far more important to life on Earth than many of us previously imagined. In fact, they are as alive as the oceans and as important to our well-being as lowland tropical rainforests. Home to one in ten people and a sanctuary for an extraordinary web of plant and animal life, mountains are also the source of water for all of the world’s major rivers.

Each day, one of every two people on the planet quenches his or her thirst with water that originates from mountains. A billion Chinese, Indians and Bangladeshis, 250 million people in Africa, and the entire population of California, United States, are among the 3 billion people who rely on the continuous flow of fresh, clean water from mountains. It is not surprising that mountains are called ‘the water towers of the world’.

With water there is life. And in mountains, scientists are only just beginning to understand the scope and variety of that life. Mountain biodiversity is among the highest of all ecoregions in the world, including tropical rainforests, because of the extraordinary range of elevations and climates in vertical environments. Of the 20 plant species that supply 80 per cent of the world’s food, for example, six originated in mountains. Among them, the potato first appeared in the Peruvian Andes, corn in the Sierra of Mexico and sorghum in the Ethiopian highlands. The very remoteness of mountain landscapes protects many crop varieties from depletion and extinction. In the Andes, for example, as many as 200 different varieties of indigenous potatoes exist. In Nepal, approximately 2,000 varieties of rice can be found. And in the Mexican Sierra de Manantlán, the only known stands of the most primitive wild relative of corn grow undisturbed.

Widespread degradation
But as diverse as mountain ecosystems might be, they are also exceedingly fragile. In many parts of the world, climate change, pollution, exploitative mining, unsustainable agriculture and tourism are all taking a toll on mountain environments, leading to widespread degradation and an increased risk of calamities such as floods, landslides, avalanches and famine.

Mountain people – the guardians of these valuable mountain resources – are the most vulnerable to these changes. Already, they are among the world’s poorest, hungriest and most marginalized populations. It is a sobering fact that many of the more than 800 million chronically undernourished people live in mountain areas. In some cases, their food insecurity is a consequence of population growth. In others, periods of hunger arise as mountain farmers abandon traditional farming practices for methods that are unsustainable on fragile mountain terrain.

Conflict and war
However, one of the greatest causes of hunger in mountain regions is the chaos created by conflict and war. In 1999, 23 of the 27 major armed conflicts in the world were being fought in mountain regions. Where there is armed conflict, people cannot carry out fundamental life-sustaining tasks, such as planting and harvesting crops. Often, what little food exists is claimed by soldiers or those who dominate the conflict. In some cases, agricultural lands may be seeded with land mines, making the recovery from war a prolonged fight for survival.
‘...now we cultivate crops three times a year because we have more facilities, such as irrigation’

Ram, Mountain Voices

The number of hungry and undernourished in the world could be dramatically reduced if we all worked to promote peace and stability in mountain regions. By taking concerted action now to alleviate food insecurity in mountain regions, we can make a significant contribution towards meeting the 1996 World Food Summit goal of reducing by half the numbers of hungry in the world by 2015.

The United Nations declared 2002 as the International Year of Mountains in recognition of the crucial role that mountains play in all our lives. This Year is an unprecedented opportunity for all – individually, nationally and internationally – to work to safeguard mountain ecosystems and help mountain people achieve their goals and aspirations.

Coordinating role
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has a long history of working in sustainable mountain development, so it is fitting that FAO was asked to be the United Nations’ lead coordinating agency for the International Year of Mountains. This complements FAO’s existing responsibility as task manager of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, the global blueprint for sustainable development that evolved from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In collaboration with national governments, United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), FAO is convening an Inter-agency Group on Mountains that is applying a wide range of capabilities to solving problems in mountain regions. It is implementing a global communications programme to raise awareness of the importance of mountain ecosystems and the need to improve the well-being of mountain people. FAO is also supporting the establishment and development of national committees that are leading country-level observance of the International Year of Mountains.

National committees are the primary catalysts for change in mountain areas. They have the power to develop and implement sustainable development strategies and to create mountain-friendly policies and laws tailored to their countries’ needs, priorities and conditions. Already, more than 50 countries around the world have established a national committee. Many have members from government, civil society, NGOs and the private sector. These committees are approaching mountain development issues from a holistic, long-term perspective – often for the first time – and together are mobilizing support to implement programmes and projects. At FAO, we believe these national committees will play an integral role in mountain development now and in years to come.

Mountain environments require different approaches to development from those of lowland areas – a fact that is often overlooked by governments. They need mountain-specific policies and laws based on mountain-specific research and knowledge. Several promising global research programmes are already under way that will help countries build strategic plans for their mountain areas and develop mountain-friendly policies. Notable too is the Mountain Forum, a global network of people and organizations, which is helping to bridge the knowledge gap by enhancing research partnerships and providing channels for sharing information and perspectives across disciplines, geographic boundaries and cultures.

Many United Nations agencies and NGOs are also adapting their programmes to include mountain-specific aspects in their research activities. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), for example, has launched a system-wide Global Mountain Programme, whose activities range from empowering mountain inhabitants through the use of new tools and methods to preserving indigenous knowledge for future generations.

Long-term needs
At FAO, we are ensuring that programmes respond to the long-term needs of mountain communities and foster the protection of mountain ecosystems. This on-going work encompasses watershed management, livestock production, women’s role in development, food security, education, policy and many other issues crucial to mountain ecosystems and life.

Our future well-being and the health of the planet depend on mountains. Although the International Year of Mountains concludes at the end of 2002, our determination to protect mountain ecosystems and to improve the well-being of mountain people must continue for years to come


Dr. Jacques Diouf is Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

PHOTOGRAPH: UNEP/Topham


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Saving the common land | Aiming high | Mighty, but fragile | Walking the talk | Regreening the slopes | For the people | High priorities | Natural beauty | Prospects for WSSD: Towards Johannesburg | Along a steep pathway | The height of trouble | Disneyland or diversity? | Path to discovery | On top of the issue | Peak condition | Swimming upstream | Cloudy future


Complementary articles in other issues:
Richard Jolly: Nutrition (Poverty, Health and the Environment) 2001
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources: Foodcrops


Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report