Mountains and highlands have always played an important role in the history of humankind. They have been sources of valuable resources - freshwater arguably the most important, refuges, natural barriers, spiritual sanctuaries, and so on. Yet, for the most part, they have been viewed as peripheral to the rest of the global ecosystem, with an associated paucity of attention to their sustainable development. The fragile natural resources of the mountains have been mined rather than managed for the benefit of the low-lying areas, and the one-tenth of the population that derives its sustenance directly from mountains has tended to be among the world's poorest.
At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, world leaders endorsed Agenda 21, the global blueprint for action on environment and development issues. Chapter 13 of this document, entitled Managing fragile ecosystems: sustainable mountain development, helped raise the prominence of mountains as a priority for environment and development initiatives. Chapter 13 has two programme areas: generating and strengthening knowledge about the ecology and sustainable development of mountain ecosystems; and promoting integrated watershed development and alternative livelihood opportunities.
In part, Chapter 13 states, "Mountains are an important source of water, energy and biological diversity. Furthermore, they are a source of such key resources as minerals, forest products and agricultural products, and of recreation. As a major ecosystem representing the complex and interrelated ecology of our planet, mountain environments are essential to the survival of the global ecosystem."
Inclusion of a separate chapter on mountain development in Agenda 21 was already a significant achievement - there had been counter arguments that all of the elements of mountain development were included in other chapters or conventions of Agenda 21. The hard work of many organizations - coordinated by FAO - to this end led to an appreciation that sustainable mountain development required a comprehensive, holistic approach.
FAO was charged with coordinating the follow-up to the mountain chapter of Agenda 21 - through its Departments of Forestry and Sustainable Development. Since Rio, knowledge and information have improved about various aspects of mountain development and the opportunities, constraints and challenges that face the sector.
This issue of Unasylva focuses on the challenges facing mountain development into the twenty-first century. As a measure of the interest in the topic, the response to a call for articles was so enthusiastic that it has been impossible to include all of them in a single issue; additional articles will be included in the next issue of Unasylva.
The lead article, by M.F. Price, presents an overview of the importance of mountains in sustainable development and their place on the global political agenda.
E.A. Byers focuses on the Mountain Forum, a network of networks, established in 1996, aimed at linking mountain peoples. In a companion article, K. Pradhan discusses the work of the Asia Pacific Mountain Network, a Mountain Forum partner organization.
O. Bennett presents excerpts of oral testimony from local people in highland areas, gleaned from more than 300 interviews conducted through Panos Institute, a London-based organization specializing in information and communication for rural development.
D.J. Pratt and L. Preston consider opportunities for innovative financial mechanisms for conservation and sustainable development initiatives in mountains, based on the results of an electronic conference, entitled Investing in Mountains: Innovative Mechanisms and Promising Examples for Financing Conservation and Sustainable Development, hosted by the Mountain Forum in 1996.
H. Liniger and R. Weingartner in their article make the essential link between mountains, forests and water.
A. Chaverri-Polini considers the factors leading to high species diversity and biological diversity in mountains, with a focus on the highlands of Latin America.
P.-C. Zingari documents the evolution of and recent institutional developments in management of upland forest resources as common property in France.
Concluding the issue, J.D. Ives provides a personal reflection on his nearly two decades as founder and editor of Mountain Research and Development, the leading scholarly journal focusing on mountain research.
Since UNCED, mountains have moved from the periphery to centre-stage of the global debate on development and environment. But even more mountains remain to be moved if the aim of sustainable development of the world's uplands is to be achieved.