Mohamed T. El-Ashry describes initiatives to sustain mountain ecosystems, protect biodiversity and enable mountain communities to improve their quality of life

Regarded by many as home of the gods and abode of the ancestors, mountains hold a special spiritual meaning for most religions and cultures around the world. As biological ‘hotspots’, mountains host thousands of endemic species. Environmental scientists refer to them as ‘water towers’ because they originate more than half of the world’s freshwater reserves. Despite these natural riches, mountain communities are among the world’s poorest. The condition of mountain ecosystems could mean enrichment or impoverishment to more than half of humanity.

In 2002, as we observe the United Nations’ International Year of Mountains, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) continues to champion initiatives that enable mountain communities to improve their quality of life while protecting globally important biodiversity.

Leveraging funding
Over ten years, GEF has committed nearly $500 million and leveraged additional funding of more than $1.33 billion to fund more than 70 mountain-related projects in 44 nations. These projects are implemented by UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank.

GEF’s mountain projects mainly focus on land that is protected by the governments of developing nations. Using GEF funding, governments have been able to create the infrastructure and provide the training needed to manage these areas sustainably. GEF projects have helped to conserve species in their own habitats. The Upper Mustang Biodiversity Project in Nepal, for example, will develop a natural resource management plan that will help preserve the area’s rangelands and protect endangered species such as the Tibetan wolf and the Tibetan argali: it is ranked by scientists as one of the most biologically important areas in the world as the land is home to so many rare and endemic species.

Creating income
Working directly with communities, GEF projects identify activities that promote the sustainable use of resources. Projects also encourage the cultivation of non-timber forest products such as shade-grown coffee, mushrooms and medicinal plants. In the Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan, local residents are using GEF funding to create a system that protects endangered medicinal plants while creating new sources of income. Revenues from controlled hunting, for example, are being directed to village development funds.

Projects also create other environmentally sustainable economic opportunities. One, focused on the binational basin of the Bermejo River in Argentina and Bolivia, addresses soil erosion in the Andes. The project will promote alternative income sources from ecotourism as well as educate local communities about the importance of environmental protection.

As a contribution to the International Year of Mountains, GEF is funding a UNEP-managed project that will create a comprehensive mountain atlas with information on the status of all mountain ecosystems. This will be used as a tool in sustainable mountain development. The project will also explore opportunities for building private-public partnerships, and promote the fair economic compensation of people who preserve mountain land that provides such crucial environmental services as water purification.

‘Mountain ecosystems’ will be one of the priority themes at the seventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Beyond the International Year of Mountains, GEF continues to facilitate the conservation and sustainable use of mountain ecosystems for global environmental benefit in response to the guidance of the Conference of the Parties and mountain communities.

Forging partnerships
As the designated financial mechanism of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, GEF’s role is to serve as a catalyst. It works to forge true partnerships with and among governments, bilateral and multilateral organizations, non-governmental organizations, indigenous communities, private enterprises, grassroots organizations and other groups. We hope to deepen and broaden these partnerships even further in GEF’s second decade. Such collaboration will be crucial for creating a policy setting that cuts across sectors and ensures that future – as well as present – generations will benefit sustainably from the bounty of our natural systems

Mohamed T. El-Ashry is Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Global Environment Facility.

PHOTOGRAPH: Steen Wren/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:
Issue on Water 1996
Issue on The Way Ahead 1997
Issue on Fresh Water 1998
Issue on Climate and Action 1998
Issue on Small Islands 1999
Mohamed T. El-Ashry: Global environmental benefits
through local action: the GEF

(Fresh Water) 1998
Mohamed T. El-Ashry: Energizing change
(Climate and Action) 1998

Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report