ADELBODEN, SWITZERLAND, 16 June 2002 -- A disproportionately high number of the world's hungriest and chronically malnourished people reside in mountain regions, Dr. Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said today.

In a statement delivered on his behalf by Jacques Eckebil, FAO Assistant Director-General for Sustainable Development, at the International Conference on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development in Mountains, held in Adelboden, Switzerland (16-20 June 2002), Dr Diouf said malnutrition and food insecurity in mountain regions contribute to increased disease and disability and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people who flee drought and famine.

Mountains are crucial to life. In addition to hosting more biodiversity than any other eco-region on earth, mountains provide most of the world's freshwater. More than 3 billion people rely on mountains for water to drink and to grow food, produce electricity and sustain industries. However, policies and decisions concerning the management of those resources are made often from afar, leaving those who live in mountain communities with the least amount of influence and power.

There are 815 million chronically undernourished people in the world, according to FAO. Although mountain people represent about 12 percent of the world's population, mountain communities may carry a much larger portion of the burden.

Millions of people in the Andes, Himalaya and other large mountain areas of the world suffer from goitre and cretinism, because glaciation, melting snow and heavy rainfall regularly leach fragile mountain soils of their iodine content. At the same time, in many mountain communities, Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, while raising the risk of disease and death from severe infections.

According to FAO, the high levels of malnutrition and hunger in mountain areas have much to do with the inaccessibility, complexity and fragility of mountain environments, and the extent to which mountain people are often marginalized.

In the Ethiopian highlands as well as in the Upper Rwaba watershed of Burundi, for example, inequities of land distribution coupled with population growth have increased poverty and food insecurity. In the Peruvian Andes, two of every three households don't possess enough arable land to grow the foods required to meet their nutritional needs.

Every day, mountain people face immense physical barriers -- rugged terrain, poor communications systems and inadequate roads.

Heads of State and Government attending the World Food Summit: five years later held in Rome from 10 to 13 June this year, renewed their global commitment to reduce the number of hungry in the world no later than 2015. The Summit's Declaration recognised in particular the extent of poverty in the mountain zones and emphasised the vital role of mountain zones and their potential for sustainable agriculture and rural development in order to achieve food security. The need to build partnerships between developing countries in this regard was stressed.

The United Nations declared 2002 the International Year of Mountains to increase awareness of the global importance of mountain ecosystems and the challenges faced by mountain people. The conference in Adelboden is one of a series of major global events scheduled for the Year.

The opportunity to address mountain issues evolved from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, where mountains became the singular focus of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development.

It is expected that the Adelboden conference will help set the stage for policies and laws meant to protect mountain ecosystems and to create the conditions in which mountain people can thrive. This Adelboden declaration will be presented at the World Summit on Sustainable Developmentto be held in Johannesburg at the end of August this year, as well as at the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit to be held in Kyrgyzstan in October.

FAO is the lead United Nations agency for the International Year of Mountains. FAO's partners include other United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, Mountain Forum, mountain people's organizations and more than 67 national committees representing countries around the world, with many more countries preparing to join. FAO's priority is to stimulate long-term, on-the-ground action by supporting the creation and ongoing efforts of national committees dedicated to the International Year of Mountains.