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Study reveals disturbing hunger trends in world's highland areas

Mountain people under double pressure of climate change and growing food insecurity

Photo: ©FAO/Roberto Faidutti
Mountain populations of Asia are particularly prone to vulnerability. A woman in traditional dress performs a prayer ritual in the Himalayas, Namche Bazar, Nepal.

11 December 2015, Rome - While global hunger figures are decreasing, the number of food insecure people in mountain areas rose 30 percent between 2000 and 2012, according to a new study, released today by FAO and the Mountain Partnership on International Mountain Day.

Mapping the vulnerability of mountain peoples to food insecurity found that the number of food insecure people living in mountain regions in developing countries grew to nearly 329 million in 2012, up from 253 million in 2000, even though the overall population of the world's mountain peoples increased only by 16 percent during that same time.

That means that one in three mountain people, both urban and rural, in developing countries faced hunger and malnutrition, compared to one out of nine people globally.

And focusing on only rural mountain populations, which depend on natural resources such as land, water and forests for their livelihoods, the numbers get even starker: almost half of them are food insecure.

Mountain zones cover 22 percent of the earth's land surface and are home to 13 percent of the human population.

"The living conditions of mountain peoples have deteriorated and their vulnerability to hunger has increased. Harsh climates and the difficult, often inaccessible terrain, combined with political and social marginality certainly contribute to making mountain peoples particularly vulnerable to food shortages", said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva in the foreword to the study. "As we now endeavour to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, the international community and resource partners are hereby called upon to invest in mountain areas and reinforce the efforts of FAO and the Mountain Partnership."

Highlands threatened by climate change

The growing profile of hunger is not the only challenge that mountain-dwellers face.

Ninety percent of them live in developing countries where most are dependent on subsistence agriculture, working in fragile ecosystems that are easily affected by climate change.

"What that means for mountain peoples is an unfortunate injustice: communities with one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world are among the first to bear the brunt of climate change", said Mountain Partnership Secretariat Coordinator Thomas Hofer.

"For example, higher temperatures allow pests and diseases to make their way further up the mountain slopes. Crop failure and loss of livestock are an increasing reality. In addition, greater incidences of storms, avalanches, landslides and floods from glacial lakes are taking lives and destroying infrastructures, disrupting mountain communities' access to roads, schools, markets and health services", he added.

Regional differences

Almost 59 million mountain people in Africa were identified as vulnerable to food insecurity in 2000, a number that increased 46 percent to 86 million by 2012 - in part a reflection of increases in the region's overall population of mountain dwellers. The majority of vulnerable people on the continent are located in eastern Africa, which accounts for 65 percent of the total number of food insecure mountain people in Africa.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the total number of vulnerable mountain people increased by 22 percent from more than 39 million in 2000 to nearly 48 million in 2012. However, the proportion of vulnerable mountain populations remained quite stable, passing from 30 to 31 percent in 12 years.

Mountain populations of Asia are particularly prone to vulnerability. Results of the study show that more than 192 million people were considered vulnerable to food insecurity in 2012, an increase of over 40 million people, or 26 percent, from 2000.  The study also found the proportion of vulnerable people among mountain populations grew from 35 to 41 percent between 2000 and 2012.

Political support

According to FAO, strong political commitment and effective actions are necessary to invert the hunger trend and address the roots of food insecurity in mountains, filling the hunger gap between lowland and upland people.

For mountain peoples, the key factor is inclusive growth, meaning growth that promotes access for everyone to food, assets and resources, particularly for poor people and women so they can develop their potential.

In mountain areas, where family farming and smallholder agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry are the prevailing farming systems, it is key to create a supportive, enabling institutional and political environment in which mountain people can have access to services such as training, information, credit and healthcare, and adequate infrastructure.

Investments and technical support are also needed to diversify and boost mountain production systems through, for example, integrating indigenous knowledge and traditions with modern techniques.

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