Along a
steep pathway

Jack D. Ives traces the history of concern about mountains and provides perspectives on their present and future

Mountains and Ecotourism have, appropriately, both been given the designation of an ‘international year’ by the United Nations. For both this represents a considerable challenge. For ecotourism, it signals the urgent need to make much of the tourist industry more sensitive to the well-being of mountain peoples and their environment. For mountains, it represents their transfer – in barely a decade – to centre-stage on the world’s political agenda after being backstage prior to the 1992 Earth Summit. This has been reflected in the increasing attention paid to them by the news media, often with enhanced overtones of crisis and ecological destruction.

As mountain regions have become more accessible, they have been progressively swamped by mass tourism, reputedly the world’s fastest growing industry. The increase in media coverage of both the impacts of tourism and of the spread of the new globalization into the remotest mountain regions has resulted in misconceptions and misrepresentations of the problems actually faced by the mountains and their extremely diverse peoples. The International Year of Mountains must clarify the issues and lay the foundations for more effective development and conservation. The International Year of Ecotourism must move toward a more appropriate balance between economic initiatives and the aspirations of the predominantly poor people of the mountains.

Mountains occupy about 20 per cent of the world’s land area and are home to about 10 per cent of its population. They rise on every continent and extend from the equator almost to the poles, from humid coasts to the dry interior. They encompass a wide range of micro-climates and ecosystems: monsoon rainforests; temperate forest belts to upper treeline; grasslands; steppe; desert; alpine meadow; tundra; bare rock; glaciers and permanent snow. Climatic processes – global, regional and local – are influenced by altitude. More than half of our freshwater originates in the mountains: they have been called the ‘water towers of the world’.

Up to the last decade, they were often seen as the preserve of mountaineers and tourists – especially winter sports enthusiasts and warmer season trekkers – and of a relatively small number of scientists. The people who lived and made their livelihood in them were largely ignored.

Let us try to picture the mountain landscapes of 30 or 40 years ago. Their physical characteristics, together with their relative inaccessibility and remoteness from the mainstreams of world society, conjure up visions of indestructibility, ruggedness, hostility to most human endeavour and, thus, lack of general interest. Yet these same characteristics have led to unparalleled biodiversity and a correspondingly large share of the world’s cultural diversity. Biodiversity can only be conserved when equal attention is given to cultural diversity.

Awareness was growing by the 1970s and 1980s – initially over the ‘preservation of the Alps’ and over the need to avert a perceived imminent environmental catastrophe facing the Himalaya. In the Alps, uncontrolled growth of two-season tourism threatened the beauty of the traditional mountain landscape. In the Himalaya, it was assumed that massive deforestation was being caused by so-called ‘ignorant’ mountain subsistence farmers. Their rapid population growth (at 2.7 per cent a year in Nepal, for example) and their dependency on forests for construction materials, fuel and fodder, as well as for more land to extend supposedly unstable agricultural terraces, led to the assumption that the perceived impending environmental collapse was entirely due to imprudent indigenous land use. The acceleration of landslides and soil erosion, influenced by gravity and torrential monsoon downpours, was widely believed to cause downstream siltation and an increase in severe flooding in India and Bangladesh, adding the potential for dangerous international dispute to the environmental threat. Nevertheless, interest in the mountains, though increasing, remained very limited up to 1992.

Why were mountains, only 10 to 20 years ago, not afforded a more prominent place on the world’s political agenda? Desertification, encroachments on tropical rainforests, the endangered oceans, wetlands, Antarctica – all had their determined activists. Concern also developed over air pollution, the ‘ozone holes’, climate warming, rising sea levels – all threats to ‘Western civilization’.

A partial answer is that mountains had not yet attracted an effective constituency. Great strides were made during the 1972 Stockholm Conference in recognizing the dangers of the growing North-South gap and by establishing many Ministries of the Environment. Yet mountains did not even warrant a footnote. Nevertheless, UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, established the Study of the impact of human activities on mountain ecosystems as the sixth of its 14 projects. From this arose the Obergurgl Model – one of the first attempts to study the interrelations between tourism, resource use in general, and the functioning of mountain ecosystems in a small Tyrolean community. MAB-6 flourished as a series of ever more sophisticated national mountain research programmes: Austrian, French, Swiss, German. Research was also initiated in the former USSR, Chile, Spain, China and Nepal, to mention only a few.

Establishing MAB-6 was a turning point. It led to the United Nations University’s (UNU) project on Highland-Lowland Interactive Systems (1978), the founding of the International Mountain Society (1980), the quarterly journal Mountain Research and Development (1981), and the establishment of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu (1983). The UNU mountain work progressively demonstrated the over-simplification, even the dangers, of the popular view of environmental catastrophe and its causes in the Himalaya. Gradually it became recognized that mountain minority people were not ‘the problem’, but an essential part of the solution(s). It was also realized that the majority of Himalayan farmers were women and that every effort should be taken to include them in decision-making.

Attracting a constituency
All this laid the foundation for forming the hitherto lacking mountain constituency. The real breakthrough for action came with the inclusion of Chapter 13 (managing fragile ecosystems – sustainable mountain development) in Agenda 21 during the Earth Summit. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) became the Focal Point for Chapter 13 and the Mountain Forum was initiated in 1994. These developments formed the springboard for the General Assembly’s acceptance of the resolution of Kyrgyzstan for designation of an International Year of Mountains. Within weeks an International Year of Ecotourism was also approved.

What problems face the world’s mountains? Over-use and misuse of natural resources – water, forests, grasslands and minerals – can lead to soil erosion, water and air pollution, and downstream damage. This is particularly serious on the steep slopes of mountain landscapes. Unregulated mass tourism can also lead to environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, disruption of mountain cultures, and an augmented sense of deprivation among many poor mountain people. These topics hit the news headlines, but they are frequently over-dramatized. Too often the causes, as in the case of the Himalaya, are misunderstood, over-simplified or even falsified.
‘Terraces are built to reduce soil erosion. Springs are developed and maintained regularly to provide safe drinking water. Schools are expanding in the rural areas and people are becoming literate’

Belay, Mountain Voices

The entire complex of mountain problems has been further exacerbated by an apparent unwillingness (at least until recently, especially after 11 September, 2001) to publicize the single most devastating process occurring in mountains – warfare in all its forms: conventional armed conflict; guerrilla insurgencies; drug wars; terrorism. Mistreatment of mountain people has greatly increased the number of internal and international refugees – Jacques Diouf, Director General of FAO, points out that of the 27 current wars, 23 are located in mountain regions. This disproportionate burden, carried by the mountains and their people, signals real and unprecedented disaster – human, economic, environmental, political. Mountain peoples, usually ethnic minorities, are frequently victimized by central governments. They are often blamed for catastrophic degradation, and regulations such as logging bans are imposed by the bureaucracies in the lowlands. This cannot lead to successful solutions, and may exacerbate mountain poverty and generate further unrest.

Better balance
Mountain regions in industrial countries are certainly beset by excessive tourism. However, the tourist industry – especially the ski resort operators in the North American West, in the Alps, and in the Japanese mountains – are beginning to recognize the need for a better balance between development and the environment. There have been some commendable successes. The Alpine Convention provides a vital starting point. The significant recent recognition of Switzerland’s Aletsch region – which includes the Aletsch Forest and the well-known peaks of the Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger – as a candidate for World Heritage status should provide a model for other regions. Remarkably, agreement on this was reached between three levels of government: federal, cantonal and commune. Similarly, there are encouraging adaptations to changing conditions in developing countries: the Sherpa of Khumbu near Mt. Everest, for example, have made a significant and profitable adjustment to the tourist invasion, although some serious concerns remain.

Momentous year
What should we expect from this momentous year of the mountains? We need a much more accurate portrayal of the complex of problems facing mountain lands and we must discredit the over-dramatic simplifications of the past. The only generalization we can make about mountains is that any generalization is hazardous because they are the most complex landscapes on Earth. Each of the many problems, their causes, and potential solutions must be examined, range by range, valley by valley. This approach may appear too academic and impractical, especially for the large donor bureaucracies. But the alternative – the search for a simple panacea that has typified so many previous efforts – may be much more costly; probably counterproductive.

Mountain peoples must be afforded better treatment for the sake both of their extensive environmental knowledge and of their inherent rights as human beings. The full potential of their contributions must be realized, and they deserve adequate benefit from the development and/or conservation of their local resources. They must therefore be part of any management strategy as principal stakeholders. The inspirational, spiritual and religious endowments of mountains must also be used to greater advantage in the pursuit of an ideal – to achieve a better balance between mountain environments, development of resources, and the well-being of mountain peoples. The year 2002 is a great opportunity to advance far along this steep and difficult path

Professor Jack D. Ives is Senior Advisor on Mountains for the United Nations University and Honorary Research Professor, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.


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:
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and biodiversity

Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report