28 May 2003, Rome -- Around 270 million rural mountain people in developing and transition countries are threatened by food insecurity. Where these vulnerable populations live, how they earn their livelihoods and possible solutions to the problems that confront them are the subject of a new FAO report, which was prepared using the latest geographic information system (GIS) technology and many newly available GIS maps and databases.

The report, Towards a GIS-based analysis of mountain environments and populations, contains preliminary results from an ongoing research project on the use of GIS for mapping poverty and food insecurity - a collaborative initiative funded by the Government of Norway. Two FAO units - the Environment and Natural Resources Service and the Food Security and Agricultural Projects Analysis Service - joined forces with Italy's National Institute for Mountain Research (INRM) to carry out the research for the report.

Prepared in conjunction with the International Year of Mountains in 2002, the report breaks new methodological ground and provides important insights into mountain vulnerability.

New tools, more information

"With this publication, FAO seeks to apply GIS technology to deepen understanding of conditions underlying poverty and hunger in the world, with special reference to mountain environments and populations," says Dietrich Leihner, Director of FAO's Research, Extension and Training Division.

Because of the unique characteristics of mountain environments, highland development requires a different approach - mountain-specific strategies, based on mountain-specific research and knowledge. The findings presented in this report represent a valuable start towards assembling that body of knowledge.

Computer-based GIS technology enabled researchers to organize, combine and analyse vast amounts of geophysical and demographic information. The FAO study provides a comprehensive snapshot of environmental conditions, land use patterns and farming systems in six internationally defined mountain area classes. Making use of newly released population density data, it estimates the number of mountain people in each of the six classes and gives detailed information regarding the various factors that affect their vulnerability to food insecurity - information that until now has not been available.

Vital insights into mountain communities

The report provides new insights into how rural mountain families secure their livelihoods, highlighting in particular the importance of livestock as a generally reliable source of income and a cushion against hard times.

According to the study, some 78 percent of the world's mountain area is considered not suitable, or only marginally suitable, for crop agriculture. In developing and transition countries, only 7 percent of mountain area is currently classified as cropland, whereas grazing is practised on nearly 70 percent of the area. In all, some 336 million people inhabit mountain grazing lands and depend on livestock for their livelihood.

"Although most mountain farmers grow some cereals, raising of livestock and sale of livestock products such as wool, meat or cheese is often the main economic activity," notes Barbara Huddleston, one of the FAO researchers who conducted the study. When the animals are healthy and the livestock economy is strong, mountain herders are not vulnerable to food insecurity. But if their herds are depleted due to poor pastures or disease, their livelihoods are at risk.

As populations and livestock numbers increase, the danger of overgrazing presents an increasingly serious challenge, especially in the lower hills below 2 500 metres above sea level, where most mountain people live.

Vulnerable mountain people in developing and transition countries are largely rural, and 88 percent of them - around 213 million people - live below 2 500 metres above sea level. In high mountain areas, some 70 percent of the inhabitants are vulnerable, but their numbers are small. For the far larger number living at lower altitudes, where livelihood systems are more and more at risk, "considerations of human equity and environmental sustainability both call for greater policy attention to their needs," says the report.

A roadmap for the future

Now, building off the information contained in the report, policy-makers can tailor development strategies to address these needs - for example, by providing training for vulnerable mountain communities in sustainable forest and rangeland management and by better integration of crop agriculture, livestock, forestry, aquaculture and local processing.

The report also suggests that mountain people might be able to benefit from sustainably harnessing local water resources. Mountains play a central role in collecting, storing and distributing water - each day, in fact, an estimated one of every two people on the planet consumes water that originated in mountains. But at present, the economic value of this important resource is not adequately captured by the people who control access to it. Similarly, the great natural beauty of many mountain areas represents a largely untapped resource that could be sustainably exploited through development of conservation-based tourism.

The UN's designation of 2002 as the International Year of Mountains focused global attention on the need to protect mountain ecosystems and improve the well-being of mountain people. This new report represents an important step in charting out a future course of action for international work on mountain development.

It lays the groundwork for similar studies of other places and topics.

"The geospatial analysis techniques that FAO's technical staff used for mountains are also applicable on global and regional scales and can be used to study other environments where poverty and food insecurity are affecting communities, including coastal areas and drylands," notes Jeff Tschirley, Chief of FAO's Environment and Natural Resources Service. Further analysis of issues raised by the study is planned.

George Kourous
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53168