The height of trouble

Yolanda Kakabadse charts the decline of biological and cultural diversity in the mountains and calls for urgent action

What is special about the biodiversity of mountains? It depends whom you ask. Botanists may answer in the loudest voice, because so many centres of plant diversity are in mountains. They will point to the amazing species richness of tropical mountain forests, the variety of wild plants that grace alpine meadows in spring and summer, and the remarkable adaptations of rock-dwelling species to their harsh environment. Zoologists will note the unusually high levels of speciation and endemism among mountain fauna – especially the insects and birds, which have been the most studied. Conservationists will highlight the many mountain ‘flagship species’, from giant pandas and snow leopards to mountain gorillas and spectacled bears. Food scientists and mountain farmers will focus on the disproportionate number of food crops that originated in the highlands.

Anthropologists will praise the diversity of human cultures in mountainous regions, whose languages, gods, traditions and artistic expression seem to vary from valley to valley. All will agree that mountain ecosystems are priceless repositories of genetic, species, ecosystem and human cultural diversity.

Ecologists tell us that the high biodiversity of mountain ecosystems results from the sheer variety of micro-environments on the steep and varied terrain – habitats that demand new adaptations and favour the evolution of new species and varieties. They also point to the frequent natural upheavals that can suddenly send even the most solidly-rooted tree or graceful chamois tumbling down a precipice. Yet another factor is the geographical isolation of mountain species which (with a few mobile exceptions), are unlikely to mingle their genes with their neighbours across the valley – one reason so many mountain plants are self-pollinating. Human communities follow the same pattern, divided as they are by physical barriers into small ethnic groups with a variety of cultural adaptations to life in difficult conditions.
‘They used to plant trees, and different varieties too, and potato, and coca. Now there aren’t any trees, just four or five little stumps’

Adela, Mountain Voices

In popular literature we repeatedly come across the phrase ‘fragile mountain ecosystems’. This seems an oxymoron in the light of the resilience and robustness of mountain plants and animals, which seem able to withstand nearly anything nature throws at them. But harsh and variable conditions are a constant in mountains, as dependable as the opposite condition – lack of change – is in the deep sea. Rockfalls, snow avalanches, extremes of light intensity, temperature and humidity – even volcanic activity – are nothing new to mountain species. Given enough time they adapt, turning adversity to their competitive advantage. Unfortunately, the increasing vulnerability of mountain ecosystems is a result of change that is too rapid and severe to allow such adaptation to take place. This change is imposed directly and indirectly by human activities.

Unprecedented change
After millennia of more-or-less successful human adaptation to mountain conditions, we are now witnessing unprecedentedly rapid change. Tropical mountain forests are being lost faster than those of any other biome, even lowland tropical rainforests according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Air pollution transported long distances from urban centres is causing the death of forests from the Giant Mountains in Central Europe to the Adirondacks in the United States. The mining industry is developing ever more efficient methods of removing mountaintops, while the lucrative and intense cultivation of drugs is replacing traditional agriculture and forestry in highlands from Central Asia to South America. Most of the major armed conflicts in the world are fought in mountain regions, with predictably devastating effects.

The implications for mountain biodiversity are widely apparent. Sixteen of the 25 ‘hot-spots’ for species extinction, on which the conservation community is now focusing, are wholly or mainly in mountains. They include the uplands of Madagascar, the Andean slopes of Western Amazonia, the Eastern Himalayas (Nepal, Bhutan, and neighbouring Indian states, plus China’s Yunnan), the uplands of the Philippines, the Eastern Arc montane forests of Tanzania, the mountains of Central America, and Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.

The effect on human cultural diversity is just as profound. Research and technology intended for the lowlands have been applied to mountain environments, ignoring and eroding the sustainable practices so painstakingly developed by their communities. Societal influences are pushing mountain people toward consumerism and cash economies for which they are often ill-prepared, eroding their cultural and spiritual values along with their once-abundant natural resources.

And now an even greater and more pervasive threat looms. Global warming will adversely affect mountain ecosystems more than others, shifting vegetation zones, melting glaciers and altering rainfall patterns. As ecosystems move higher, suitable habitat will be compressed into ever smaller areas; and populations of animals and plants will be stranded and isolated. Increasing competition for space and food can cause populations to decline below the point of viability, as loss of genetic diversity undermines their ability to adapt to the new conditions.

Human needs
The loss of mountain biodiversity – and of the time-tested models for sustainable use of biological resources developed by mountain people – will affect us all. Humanity depends on the natural resources of mountains: their forests, fields and pastures, and especially the water they deliver to our rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. We depend on the medicinal materials derived from mountain wildlands and the genetic diversity of their rare or unique species, from Andean potatoes to the coffee of the Ethiopian highlands. We need the wild relatives of our mass-produced crops, from the primitive relatives of corn or maize on a mountain in Sierra de Manantlán, Mexico, to the wild relatives of wheat and fruit trees high in the Caucasus.

The International Year of Mountains comes none too soon. Mountain resources are increasingly subjected to outside economic and political pressures, with biodiversity often the first sacrifice. The environmental community, guided by the partners in Mountain Agenda, must quickly come to terms with the threats to the Earth’s mountain ecosystems and cultures before even more is lost.

We invite them to make full use of the wide network of natural and social scientists that make up the IUCN family, including its Biodiversity Policy Coordination Division, its Species Survival Commission, and its World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). The WCPA Mountain Theme Programme is showing the way, working hard under the inspiring leadership of Larry Hamilton to strengthen the management of the 500 mountain protected areas whose biodiversity is still relatively intact. We need to bring to bear every last bit of expertise we have on mountain ecosystems if we are to preserve what remains of them, and secure the livelihoods of the billions of people who depend directly or indirectly on mountain resources

Yolanda Kakabadse, a former environment minister of Ecuador, is President of IUCN-The World Conservation Union.


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:
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and biodiversity
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources: Freshwater

Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report