Coming soon - The International Year of Mountains
Despite their imposing presence, mountains are very fragile environments. Mountain soil and vegetation are easily, and sometimes permanently, lost to erosion when natural resources are exploited in an unsustainable manner. The degradation of mountain ecosystems directly affects nearly half the world's population, including both highland and lowland communities.
Mountains: the world's water towers
"Given the world's ever increasing demand for fresh water, we have to make sure that sustainable mountain development remains high on the global development agenda," says Tage Michaelsen, Chief of FAO's Forest Conservation, Research and Education Service. Research indicates that mountains provide 30 to 60 percent of downstream fresh water in humid areas and up to 70 to 95 percent in semi-arid to arid environments. This water is essential not just for drinking and domestic uses but for agriculture, industry and hydroelecticity.
Issues relating to fresh water have brought into sharp focus the complex interactions that exist between highland and lowland regions and the potential flashpoints for conflict. "As we prepare for the International Year of Mountains, we want to emphasize how important the careful management of mountain water is for promoting peace," adds Mr Michaelsen.
For example, the Nile basin represents an immense challenge for international mountain water management. Both Egypt and Sudan rely heavily on water flowing from mountainous and highland areas of eight countries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
Within countries, governments often find it extremely difficult to satisfy the water requirements of different interest groups. In the Atacama desert in the Andes of northern Chile, one of the driest places on earth, the expansion of the mining industry and the growth of cities has put extreme pressure on the region's water supplies. The Government of Chile must reconcile these needs with those of indigenous communities that have relied on this water for thousands of years.
Protecting biological and cultural diversity
The degradation of mountain environments poses a serious threat to the world's biodiversity and food security. Specially adapted to a wide range of altitudes and climates, mountain ecosystems have produced a wealth of plant and animal species. For example, potatoes originated in the Andes and the Hindu Kush/Himalaya region, which stretches from Afghanistan through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China into Myanmar, is home to a rich variety of native fruits and cereals. Mountains continue to be important reservoirs for nutritious and underutilized crops - genetic resources that offer tremendous potential for agriculture and medicine.
"Sustainable mountain development isn't just about natural resources, it's about people," says Mr Michaelsen. The same factors that have inhibited economic development of mountain communities - their isolation and relative inaccessibility - have helped to preserve strong cultural traditions. But times are changing. As pressure increases to develop mountain resources and global communications become more sophisticated, mountain communities are becoming less insulated from the rest of the world. These developments have opened up new possibilities for economic growth, but they also represent a potential threat to the social and cultural identity of mountain communities. Mr Michaelsen stresses that one of the key objectives of the International Year of Mountains is to promote and defend the cultural heritage of mountain communities.
Investing in mountain communities
"Part of our goal is to make governments aware of the social and economic benefits of investing in mountain areas," says Mr Michaelsen. In the past, governments in most mountain regions have tended to concentrate services in lowland areas, which have been the principal centres of economic production. It is partly due to these policies, that mountain regions remain some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the world. Government neglect has often created resentment in mountain communities. When these tensions are compounded by ethnic differences, the potential for conflict is high.
The conservation and sustainable development of mountain areas requires political commitment at international and local levels. "When mountain communities have a sense of at least partial ownership or control over local natural resources they are more inclined to help protect them," he says. The International Year of Mountains will therefore encourage governments to consider ways of giving mountain communities greater say in decisions that affect the management of local resources.
A team approach
The International Year of Mountains represents another phase in the UN's ongoing commitment to protect mountain ecosystems. Sustainable mountain development is the focus of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, the strategy that emerged from the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). FAO was appointed task manager for Chapter 13 and in 1994, the Organization established the Inter-agency Group on Mountains. This collaborative, informal group, which includes not just UN agencies but non-government agencies (NGOs), research centres and other organizations, provides guidance and support to FAO in its role as task manager for Chapter 13 and lead agency for the International Year of Mountains.
As part of the preparations for the International Year of Mountains a new Web site has been launched, accessible from the FAO home page. Designed to inform governments, NGOs, civil society organizations and other concerned individuals about issues relating to sustainable mountain development, it will also link users to other related Internet sites.
19 July 2000