In this International Year of Mountains let me share with you the remarkable story of the native people of the Andes who, over 3,000 years, have evolved a unique method of farming that respects the environment and helps produce bumper yields.
The waru-waru a system of terraces, canals and raised fields may appear primitive in the eyes of the developed world. But it has allowed native people to produce potatoes and quinoa at high altitudes in the face of floods, droughts and severe frosts.
The canals, filled with water, allow moisture to percolate through to the fields. During floods they help drain off the excess water.
Water in the canals absorbs sunlight during the day, radiating it back into the raised fields at night to protect the crops from frost. The fields can be several degrees warmer at night than the surrounding area.
Meanwhile the system maintains soil fertility. Organic matter, silt and algae build up in the canals and are dug out as a fertilizer. Studies indicate that potatoes, grown in this traditional farming system, yield about 10 tonnes a hectare compared to the regional average of 1-4 tonnes.
This underscores how humankind not only can but has evolved a close relationship with nature and, more specifically, with the worlds mountains, that benefits people and the environment.
Sadly this kind of harmony, this beacon of sustainable development, is becoming all too rare as the globalization of culture, and the excessive consumption patterns of the developed world, exterminate ancient cultures, languages, traditions, indigenous knowledge and life-styles.
Meanwhile insensitive mass tourism, urbanization and pollution are taking their toll. Nowhere is this seen more keenly than in the mountains.
In the Himalayas, rising temperatures linked with global warming and the burning of fossil fuels are melting the glaciers so rapidly that catastrophic events are looming.
Studies by UNEP and scientists with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development have pinpointed nearly 50 glacial lakes in Nepal and Bhutan that are filling so fast with water that they could burst their banks in as little as five years, sending millions of gallons of floodwaters down the valleys. Properties, hydro-electric installations, roads, trekking trails and bridges are at risk as well as lives.
This is an example of the early warning skills and science developed by UNEP and central to our work. But such assessments count for nought if governments, industry and the public at large fail to act on the findings both to protect those at risk and to tackle the root causes.
We abuse our mountains at our peril. They can react to human folly with awesome consequences. And unless they remain intact we risk droughts and water shortages; they are the water towers of the world from which spring the rivers and freshwaters upon which all human life depends.
Cities like this have helped China to deliver economic growth without a matched increase in emissions of greenhouse gases.
So we are delighted to be in China and to learn at first hand how its people are striving towards the goal of sustainable development which will be at the heart of the World Summit on Sustainable Development taking place in Johannesburg in September.
Ten years after the Rio Earth Summit we must take stock and chart a new course for planet Earth that respects people of all cultures and faiths, that respects the environment from the summits to the seas.
The time has come to make Rios promise a reality so that we can again look to the mountains with awe and reverence rather than fear and trepidation.
This issue of Our Planet includes the participation of Aveda, the global cosmetics company, which has integrated environmental responsibility into its business and recently generously gave $500,000 to a UNEP-supported project linking conservation and tourism in some of the worlds most beautiful, yet fragile environments
PHOTOGRAPH: B. Wahihia/UNEP
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