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Covering one quarter of the Earth's surface, home to at least one in ten people and as fragile as they often are, mountain ecosystems are unique islands of cultural diversity and precious reservoirs of biological diversity, as well as the source of the world's great rivers and the providers of much-needed fresh water. However, mountain people are among the poorest and the hungriest, and mountain regions are among the most vulnerable to environmental degradation, urban development and climate change.

Despite their importance throughout human history and their wealth of resources, mountains have only recently begun to attract the attention of political decisionmakers and economic planners. National and international lawmakers similarly failed, until recently, to take an interest in mountain areas. It was not until 1991 that the Alpine Convention, the first transnational agreement relating to a mountain range, came into being, and the first national laws in this area were passed only a few years before that. Mountain law is, thus, still in its infancy: only a few mountain-specific legal instruments, national and international, are currently in place.

The present chapter looks at the development of this type of legislation. It broadly describes mountain-specific legal texts, first in the international sphere, then at the domestic level. Although there are many other laws which also affect the legal status of mountains, such as agricultural, forestry, soil, watershed, land use planning and environmental laws, this chapter focuses only on those legal frameworks that are specific to mountains.[12]


Because mountain ranges often cross national borders, the issues involving them are inherently transnational. Legislation supporting international cooperation or action may be required to take account of transnational or regional dimensions of mountain protection and development. However, with the exception of the Alpine Convention, this need has not prompted the shaping of legally binding, mountain-specific international instruments, either globally or regionally.

2.1. Treaty Law

2.1.1. Absence of a Worldwide Mountain-focused Convention

The fact that so far no global treaty has been created for mountain ecosystems is partly due to the existence of numerous conventions which, though not dealing directly with mountains as such, do have some bearing on mountain peoples and resources. Post-Rio examples include the Convention to Combat Desertification, whose preamble acknowledges the impacts of desertification on arid regions with mountain ecosystems in Africa, Central Asia and the Transcaucasus; the Convention on Biological Diversity, whose relevance stems from the fact that mountain ecosystems are frequently home to biodiversity-rich areas; and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, whose preamble notes the special vulnerability of “fragile mountain ecosystems” to climate change.[13] Other earlier conventions are also relevant to mountains in some respects, such as the 1972 World Heritage Convention, as many natural sites included in the World Heritage List are mountain areas of outstanding importance, or the 1968 African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which addresses some mountain-related issues such as soil erosion in connection with agriculture, and land use planning. The potential contribution of such conventions to sustainable mountain management is, however, limited to the specific aspects they cover in relation to mountain protection or development.

In addition to the mountain-related provisions of those conventions, there are some general principles of international environmental law which are applicable to mountain ecosystems. One is the obligation of states to manage their natural resources so as not to “cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”. (Principle 2 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development) Another is the duty to cooperate in a spirit of partnership (principle 7 of the same Declaration), which may apply to the management of transborder mountain ranges shared by two or more states. More broadly, the principle of sustainability, although not precisely defined in this context, is key to the management of mountain ecosystems. It implies a wise and equitable use of mountain resources in environmental, economic, social and cultural terms, taking due account of the interests of both present and future generations (Fodella and Pineschi, 2000).

2.1.2. A Regional Mountain-specific Accord: The Alpine Convention

The principles of sustainability are reflected in the only legally binding instrument in existence that specifically deals with a mountain range: the Convention on the Protection of the Alps. Adopted in Salzburg, Austria, in 1991, it entered into force in 1995. Its initial signatories - Austria, France, the European Union, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein and Switzerland - were later joined by Slovenia and Monaco. All nine parties had ratified the Convention by 1999.

The Convention provides for the protection and sustainable development of the Alps in their entirety as a uniform regional ecosystem. Parties agree to establish a comprehensive policy towards this end, and endeavour to cooperate in several areas of common interest, including agriculture, forestry, land use planning, protection of landscapes, culture and population, leisure activities and air pollution control. The Convention is designed as a framework-type agreement: its substantive provisions are set out in general terms, which need, for their effective implementation, to be specified through additional protocols.

Nine such protocols were concluded: (i) in 1994 three protocols: on mountain agriculture; nature protection and landscape conservation; and land use planning and sustainable development; (ii) in 1996 two protocols: on mountain forests; and tourism; (iii) in 1998 two protocols: on soil conservation; and energy; and (iv) in 2000 two protocols: on transport; and dispute settlement. Four other protocols are foreseen by the Convention but have not yet been prepared: on population and culture; water; air quality; and waste management. Some of the protocols, especially the one on transport, have been hard to negotiate and to agree upon. Although they were signed by most parties, only Liechtenstein had ratified them as of June 2002, but other parties are now taking steps toward their ratification. The Alpine Convention is therefore yet to be fully implemented.

Nonetheless, as a good basis for transboundary collaboration, this convention is viewed as a model for the development of mountain accords in other regions of the world. Similar range-wide agreements are currently in the making, at varying stages of preparation or design. They include proposed conventions for: (i) the Altai Range, involving China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the Russian Federation; (ii) the Caucasus Range, involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Russian Federation; and (iii) the Carpathian Range, involving the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Similarly, in the framework of the Council of Europe (CE), a draft European Convention of Mountain Regions, covering most aspects of mountain development and protection, was developed in 2000 based on an earlier draft European Charter of Mountain Regions. The proposed convention was recently considered by the CE Committee of Ministers but has not yet been endorsed.

2.2. Soft Law

Soft law instruments - declarations or resolutions, plans of action and codes of conduct - generally shaped and adopted through international fora and conferences, have often been used in the recent past to promote norm-creating processes that, in turn, help lead to the development of hard law agreements. A number of such instruments concern mountain peoples and ecosystems, such as Chapter 13 of Agenda 21 and various other post-Rio declaratory documents, some of which are briefly outlined below.

2.2.1. A Global Mountain Platform: Chapter 13 of Agenda 21

“Managing fragile ecosystems: sustainable mountain development” is the title of the Chapter that was devoted to mountains under Agenda 21. Endorsing this chapter at the highest political level in such a global forum - the Rio Conference, which assembled 180 UN member countries - the international community, for the first time, clearly and formally signaled its common concern for the world's mountains as essential preserves of natural and human resources, which need to be protected, restored and developed.

Chapter 13 is a policy tool geared towards action at the national and international levels. It identifies rural development, food security, fresh water, biological diversity, forests, climate change, culture, traditional knowledge and tourism, among others, as the main mountain issues. Sustainable mountain development can be achieved notably through: (i) raising the awareness and supporting the efforts of mountain peoples to reverse the trend of degradation; and (ii) creating effective mountain constituencies and building networks of national, regional and global mountain institutions.

Assessing the progress made in implementing Chapter 13 since Rio, the Commission on Sustainable Development concluded in 2001 that the level of economic development in most mountain regions of the world “remains unacceptably low”. However, it also found that significant results have been achieved, particularly in the creation of innovative mechanisms that foster collaboration among the sectors involved in mountain issues, as well as in the adoption of approaches that increasingly balance development needs and environmental concerns.

2.2.2. A Draft World Charter for Mountain Populations

In the final declaration of the World Mountain Forum, held in June 2000, more than 800 persons representing 70 mountain countries endorsed a draft world charter designed to represent the needs and aspirations of mountain peoples. (WMF, 2000a and 2000b) According to the draft, three conditions are crucial to meeting mountain populations' requirements: (i) mountain peoples must find a place in society while retaining their identity; (ii) mountain peoples must face economic competition while changing the conditions of trade to their advantage; and (iii) mountain peoples need to retain control of their environment and the development of their natural resources, managing them for their own needs as well as on behalf of the national and world community.

The draft charter foresees the establishment of a worldwide organization to be called “Mountains of the World”, which would speak for mountain areas, and whose membership would be open to local authorities, associations and groups representing mountain dwellers. Alongside this organization, there should be a financial mechanism, possibly in the form of a foundation, which would mobilize the resources needed to strengthen cooperation and build partnerships among mountain regions and countries.

The draft charter is undergoing a review and revision process with a view to its adoption at the second World Meeting of Mountain Populations in Quito, Ecuador, in September 2002. A new version of the text was issued in May 2002, with additional inputs from a recently established non-governmental organization, the Association of Mountain Populations of the World. It should be further discussed and amended at six regional preparatory meetings prior to its finalization for the Quito event.

2.2.3. Other Non-binding Instruments: Some Illustrations

In the aftermath of Rio, a flurry of soft law instruments on mountain ecosystems, often inspired by Chapter 13, were developed in governmental and non-governmental fora in many regions of the world. Some are:


The international instruments reviewed above reflect states' common concerns for the protection and development of major mountain ecosystems at regional and sub-regional levels. As noted, because many mountain areas cross national borders, international agreements and actions are often required to articulate and formalize international mountain policy goals. However, practical mountain conservation and development measures take place mainly within state borders through national legislation.

So far, a dozen or so states have passed exhaustive or sectoral mountain-specific laws, including Cuba, France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Switzerland and Ukraine. Other states, such as the Russian Federation (including Siberia), Kyrgyzstan, Morocco and Romania, are about to draw up or to enact similar laws. For instance, Bulgaria has fully completed the preparation of a bill on mountain areas. Furthermore, in some countries mountain legislation has been developed at the sub-national level. An example is the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania in the Russian Federation, with its Act of 30 December 1998 relating to mountain territories. In Italy, most mountainous regions enacted mountain laws between 1996 and 2000. The main examples of national and sub-national legislation are listed in the Annex 1.

An analysis of these domestic legal texts dealing with mountains reveals a number of similarities: in their objectives and scope; in their institutional frameworks; and in the economic, social and environmental policies they reflect.

3.1. Scope and Objectives

National laws generally define “mountains” in order to delineate the scope of the law. Of the currently used definition criteria, altitude is the most meaningful, for at certain altitudes living conditions become much more difficult and precarious than in the lowlands. Thus it is often the altitude factor that makes it necessary to adopt specific laws. Other specific natural characteristics such as climate, vegetation and topography are also used to determine a mountain's boundaries. Box 1 gives some examples of legal definitions.

Promoting the protection and sustainable development of mountain areas is the first aim of most laws relating to mountains. Within this general objective, the emphasis is adjusted to fit national contexts. Respecting the cultural identity of mountain communities is a further aim pursued by a number of laws. Insofar as locally enacted laws meet the special needs of the mountain peoples and the mountain areas they cover, they are best suited to fulfil their regulatory role efficiently. (Lynch and Maggio, 2000) For example, in the Georgian law, a stated objective is to meet the needs of today's mountain peoples as well as those of future generations. Likewise, one of the aims of the Swiss law on aid to investment is the promotion of sustainable development of mountain regions through the allocation of funding for infrastructure development.

Box 1 - Examples of Criteria Used in the Definition of Mountain Areas

France - 1985 Act (sects. 3 and 4)

  • altitude and the presence of steep slopes indicating significant handicaps are the general criteria used to describe a mountain area

  • the country's various mountain ranges are specifically identified and, to some extent, come under different regimes

Georgia - 1999 Act (sect. 4)

  • areas located at altitudes above 1 500 m are considered mountainous

  • certain areas located between 800 m and 1 000 m may also be described as mountain areas, with additional factors taken into account (gradient, soil quality, economic and ecological condition, demographic situation, etc.)

Italy - 1971 Act, amended in 1990

  • initially, altitude (600 m), adjusted according to socio-economic factors, was the main criterion

  • the 1990 amendment removed definition criteria, which practically implied a confirmation of previously identified mountain areas (Maglia and Santoloci, 1998)

Switzerland - 1998 Ordinance on Cadastral Surveys (sect. 2)

  • mountain regions are defined on the basis of three criteria which are, in declining order of importance, climate, transport links and topography

3.2. Institutional Frameworks

The administrative organization of mountain areas usually leads to the creation of specialized institutions with support, advisory, coordination or management powers. For example, in France, the 1985 Act established such structures at two levels: at the central level, the National Board for Mountain Development, Management and Protection coordinates government action in mountain areas; and for each mountain range - there are seven altogether - a committee provides advice and makes proposals on management, protection and development measures. In addition, local inhabitants are involved in decisionmaking processes. (Decree 85-994) In Cuba, an interministerial commission was established to promote socio-economic development in mountain areas. (1995 Decree) The Bulgarian bill makes provision for the establishment of a National Board for Mountain Regions whose role will be to supervise the implementation of the law and to coordinate actions taken by the state, by mountain district authorities and by mountain commune associations.

Some countries, on the other hand, have not found it appropriate to establish institutions to deal specifically with mountains. Nevertheless, they have mechanisms to ensure that central and local bodies which exercise some authority with respect to mountains can consult and share responsibilities. This is the situation in Switzerland, a federal state where powers are shared between the Confederation and the cantons. The law on aid to investment in mountain regions sets out their respective powers, namely, that the cantons are responsible for implementing the law, whereas the Confederation monitors the actions they take; and whereas funding is provided by the Confederation, the cantons determine the loan allocations.

3.3. Economic Incentives

3.3.1. Mountain Funds

Because of the characteristically harsh conditions of mountain areas, legislators have often seen the necessity of designing economic measures to meet some of the law's objectives. In particular, special funds are often set up to support investment and development in mountain regions, with the accrued resources being used or redistributed in the form of subsidies, investment loans, research funding and other support. Examples of such funds are given in Box 2.

Box 2 - Examples of Mountain Funds


Chapter V of the 1993 Bill, which deals with the development fund for mountain regions, states that its accrued resources will be redistributed in the form of subsidies, investment loans, research funding, etc.


The national mountain fund established under the 1994 Act is funded by contributions from the state and the municipalities. The funds are distributed between the regions and the autonomous provinces. The latter establish their own regional mountain funds and decide how they are to be allocated.


Initially, section 80 of the 1985 Act made provision for an intervention fund for mountain self-development. This fund was later absorbed by the national land use planning and development fund, designed to pool credits ear-marked, inter alia, for mountain development (1995 Act).


Section 14 of the 1997 Act provides for a fund designed to finance aid to investment in mountain areas, including loans for the establishment of new mountain infrastructure.

3.3.2. Mountain Agriculture

Many mountain people depend on agriculture, which not only meets their food requirements directly, but also helps to create jobs and contributes to economic development. Hence the pride of place that agriculture occupies in many mountain laws. In France, agriculture is acknowledged as being of public interest inasmuch as it is essential for mountain peoples. (Sec. 18, 1985 Act, incorporated in sec. L.113-1, Rural Code) In Georgia, agri-food industries are considered to be one of the cornerstones for the socio-economic development of mountain regions. In Switzerland, general legislation dealing with agricultural development (the 1998 Federal Law on Agriculture and the 1998 Ordinance on Direct Payments to Agriculture) contains provisions for the promotion of mountain agriculture. An example is financial aid for crops grown on sloping land (section 75 of the 1998 Ordinance).

3.3.3. Mountain Tourism

The growing attraction of mountain areas as tourist destinations has led to an expansion of leisure activities, with an increase in accommodation facilities, amenities and infrastructures that can undermine the natural and cultural environment of mountain ecosystems. In an effort to remedy this situation, legislators have placed certain restrictions on mountain tourism. In France, the 1985 Act devotes an entire chapter to the running of tourism facilities and the management of ski lifts and ski runs, which must be operated under the supervision of the local authorities. For all new operations, contracts must be drawn up between the promoters and the local authorities, thereby allowing for some control over tourism development. The Georgian law provides for aid to investment and subsidized loans for mountain tourism that respects historical monuments and nature sites. The Ukrainian law also makes provision for subsidies and loans for tourism development.

3.3.4. Local Products

Some laws deal with local products, usually crafts, from mountain areas. France awards a special label to such products as a guarantee of their quality and to promote local production (1985 Act). Awarding of the “mountain” label is subject to conditions set out in Decree 2000-1231. In Italy, a similar label is awarded to products made in mountain areas (1994 Act). The Georgian law, too, promotes local crafts by providing loans on preferential terms.

3.4. Social Policies

National and sub-national laws seek to improve the living standards of mountain communities. The Northern Ossetia law, for example, states that mountain peoples can expect the same socio-economic benefits as lowland inhabitants. Recommended measures include the improvement and development of infrastructure and the enhancement of public services in mountain areas.

3.4.1. Infrastructure and Communications

The isolation of mountain populations is often due to the lack or weakness of means of communication - hence the measures put in place by legislators. Switzerland's 1997 Act on aid to investment makes provision for loans for mountain infrastructure development. To be eligible for these loans, projects must aim at enhancing living standards, economic potential and industrial competitiveness in the region. The Georgian law provides for a change in mountain road construction standards. In Ukraine, subsidies and loans may be granted for the development of public transport, roads and telecommunication and broadcasting facilities. In France, the 1985 Act provides for improving the efficiency of radio and television broadcasting techniques. In Italy, local public services in mountain communities must open information offices to remedy communication shortcomings and must give their inhabitants free access to non-confidential information (1994 Act).

3.4.2. Culture, Education and Health

Mountain people have an unrivaled knowledge of their environment. However, they must be in a position to capitalize on and transmit that knowledge using the appropriate tools. To this end, Northern Ossetia's law states that mountain people have priority rights to use the natural resources in the mountain area, and the law also makes provision for public financing of scientific research and teaching activities in mountainous regions. The Ukraine law provides for state loans and subsidies for health and education in mountain areas. In France, school and university education and teaching programmes must take into consideration the specific environmental, economic and social conditions of mountain ranges (1985 Act).

3.5. Environmental Protection

Fragile mountain ecosystems need to be protected against damage from forest clearing and soil erosion. Thus, provisions to protect the environment are commonly included in laws pertaining to mountains, as well as in related texts (laws governing forests, water, soils, the environment, land use planning, etc.). The Northern Ossetia law prescribes rational use of mountain natural resources, with provision for liability of users who damage those resources (secs. 15 and 16). In Italy, water management, reforestation and erosion control measures may be adopted for environmental protection purposes, including expropriation of lands for which conservation is necessary (1971 and 1994 Acts). Like-wise, mountain soil improvement is one of the priorities of the Ukrainian law, while the Georgian law seeks more broadly to provide protection for mountain ecosystems, including adequate management of their natural resources and rehabilitation of their arid areas (sect. 1).


After nearly a decade of implementation of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, only a few countries, such as France, Georgia, Italy, Switzerland and Ukraine, have adopted legal instruments focusing specifically on mountain areas.

In most countries, there are no laws to address the particular conditions and needs of mountain regions and peoples. Existing legislation tends to have a bias towards lowland priorities, thereby undermining the interests of mountain ecosystems and inhabitants.

It is therefore desirable to develop mountain-specific laws, as well as appropriate institutional structures such as national mountain committees, in order to provide normative tools that are supportive of sustainable mountain development, as well as to facilitate coordination with other mountain-related laws and institutions. To be effective and efficient, mountain-specific legal frameworks should:

Such legal frameworks should be based on and supported by comprehensive national policies and strategies for the sustainable management of mountain ecosystems. They should also be supplemented, where appropriate, by regional agreements such as the Alpine Convention, which provide for transfrontier collaboration among countries sharing mountain ranges.


African Mountains Association. 1997. African Mountains and Highlands - Declaration of Antananarivo. International Workshop of the African Mountains Association, 26 May - 1 June 1997, Antananarivo, Madagascar,

Commission on Sustainable Development. 2001. Sustainable Mountain Development, Report of the Secretary-General. E/CN.17/2001/PC/14.

Conseil International Associatif pour la Protection des Pyrénées. 1995. Charter for the Protection of the Pyrénées. English Summary,

Euromontana. 2000. Final Declaration for the Second European Mountain Conference. Trento, Italy, 17 and 18 March 2000,

Fodella, A. & Pineschi, L. 2000. Environment Protection and Sustainable Development of Mountain Areas - Preliminary Report. Mountains and the Environment: Ten Years after Rio, Courmayeur, 16 and 17 June 2000.

Fourth International Conference on Sustainable Mountain Development. 2001. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Sustainable Mountain Development: Regional and Transboundary Cooperation and Policy Issues. Vladikavkaz, Russian Federation, 23-26 September 2001.

International Union of Alpinist Associations (UIAA). 1997. UIAA Kathmandu Declaration,

International Workshop on Sustainable Mountain Development. 2001. Cusco Declaration. International Workshop on Mountain Ecosystems: A Vision of the Future, Cusco, Peru, 25-27 April 2001,

Lynch, O. & Maggio, G. 2000. Mountain Laws and Peoples: Moving Towards Sustainable Development and Recognition of Community-based Property Rights. Center for International Environmental Law, Washington, D.C.

Maglia, S. & Santoloci, M. 1998. Il codice dell'ambiente (9th ed.). Editrice La Tribuna, Piacenza.

Servon, F. 1997. La Convention alpine (la montagne et la souris). Revue Juridique de l'Environnement, No. 3.

United Nations. 1997. Natural Resource Aspects of Sustainable Development in Greece. Agenda 21 - National Information,

UNEP. 2001. European Mountain Initiative - News,

Villeneuve, A., Talla P. & Mekouar M.A. 2002. The Legal Framework for Sustainable Mountain Management: An Overview of Mountain-specific Instruments. UNASYLVA 208.

World Mountain Forum. 2000a. Draft World Charter for Mountain Populations,

World Mountain Forum. 2000b. Final Declaration,

Zakrevsky, A. 1995. Status of Mountain Human Settlements [Ukraine]. Letter to Mountain Forum,

Annex 1 - Main Examples of Domestic Legislation Specific to Mountains


Mountain-specific Legal Texts



· Bill on the development of mountain regions, 1993


· Decree No. 197 of 17 January 1995 on the Commissions of the Turquino-Manati Plan


· Act No. 85-30 of 9 January 1985 on mountain development and protection

· Framework Law No. 95-115 of 4 February 1995 on land use planning and development

· Framework Law No. 99-533 of 25 June 1999 on sustainable land use planning and development, amending Law No. 95-115

· Decree No. 85-994 of 20 September 1985 on the membership and the operation of the National Mountain Board

· Decrees Nos. 85-995 to 85-1001 of 20 September 1985 on the membership and the operation of the committees covering the seven mountain ranges in France (Central Range, Northern Alps, Southern Alps, Corsica, Pyrénées, Jura, Vosges)

· Decree No. 2000-1231 of 15 December 2000 on the use of the term “mountain”


· Act of 8 June 1999 on the socio-economic and cultural development of mountain regions


· Act No. 1892/90 encouraging the economy and development of mountain regions, amended by Act 2234/94


· Act 991 of 25 July 1952 on woods, forests and mountain areas

· Act 1102 of 3 December 1971 on woods, forests and mountain areas (amended by Act 142 of 6 June 1990 on Local Autonomous Authorities)

· Act 97 of 31 January 1994 on woods, forests and mountain areas

· Regional Laws of Abruzzi, Basilicata, Calabria, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Latium, Liguria, Lombardy, Marches, Molise, Piedmont, Tuscany and Umbria

· Law of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano

Russian Federation

· Act of 30 December 1998 on mountain territories of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania


· Federal Act of 21 March 1997 on aid to investment in mountain regions

· Ordinance of 7 December 1998 on the cadastral survey of agricultural production and area demarcation


· 1995 Act on the status of human mountain settlements

Annex 2 - Status of Signatures and Ratifications of the Alpine Convention and its Additional Protocols

Annex 2 - Status of Signatures and Ratifications of the Alpine Convention and its Additional Protocols [S = year of signature - R = year of ratification]

[12] This chapter is based on an earlier paper published in UNASYLVA 208 (2002).
[13] For a discussion of these and other conventions with mountain relevance, see Fodella and Pineschi (2000) and Lynch and Maggio (2000).

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