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Mountain forests under threat

FAO urges increased attention to conservation of highland forest ecosystems

Photo: ©FAO/A. Odoul
Mountain people are key to maintaining healthy mountain forests.

9 December 2011, Rome - The integrity and resilience of mountain forests is under threat from increasing temperatures and wildfires, population growth and food and fuel insecurity, warns a new FAO publication released today.

Population pressures and the expansion of intensive agriculture have forced smallholder farmers to move higher towards marginal areas and steep slopes, sparking a loss of forests, warns Mountain Forests in a Changing World. It also notes that climate change is likely to facilitate more rapid expansion by pests and disease-causing organisms which may cause additional damage to mountain forests.

The report, jointly produced by the FAO-hosted Mountain Partnership Secretariat and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, was published in the lead up to the UN International Mountain Day on 11 December.

"Mountain forests protect local communities against natural disasters and they safeguard the natural resources and environmental services that billions of people rely on for their well-being and livelihoods," said Eduardo Rojas-Briales, FAO's Assistant Director General for Forestry. "Mountain forests are being affected by many global challenges, such as climate change, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity and desertification, but they also offer significant opportunities for solutions. Sustainable development of mountain forests requires and deserves a prominent place on the international agenda."

Source of fresh water


Mountains provide 60 percent of the world's freshwater resources despite covering only 12 percent of the Earth's surface, FAO's report says.  Mountain forests strongly influence both the quantity and quality of water supplies to mountain and lowland communities and industries.  When forests are removed from mountains and land is left unprotected, runoff and soil erosion increase, with water quality deteriorating in streams and rivers as a consequence.

Many cities depend heavily on mountain water — for example, 95 percent of Vienna's water is sourced from the mountain forests of Northern Alps, while 40 percent of the water for Tegucigalpa, Honduras, comes from the cloud forests of La Tigra National Park. In Kenya, water from Mount Kenya generates 97 percent of that country's hydroelectric power. In Asia, the Tibetan plateau acts as a water tower for around 3 billion people.

Integration in climate change policies


Mountain forests store a vast quantity of carbon and have an important role to play in climate change policies, FAO's report notes. The loss of mountain forests would release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, it says.

National policymakers should take into account the importance of protecting and conserving mountain forests and integrate these concerns into policies aimed at mitigating and adapting to climate change.

At the global level, the key services provided by mountain forests should be better reflected in international negotiations and meetings on climate change, water quality and environmental issues, in particular in light of the research findings on pollution and glacier melting presented at the Mountain Day held during the UNFCCC COP17 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa.

Empowerment of mountain people

Mountain people — who are among the world's poorest and hungriest — are key to maintaining mountain ecosystems, adds FAO's report. They should have a say in the management of the local forestry resources upon which they depend, and share the benefits from forest use and conservation.

Together with the report on mountain forests, FAO also released two more publications focusing on the important role of mountain ecosystems for improving rural livelihoods and poverty alleviation: Highlands and Drylands: Mountains, a Source of Resilience in Arid Regions, and Why Invest in Sustainable Mountain Development?

A ceremony will be held at FAO headquarters on 12 December to commemorate International Mountain Day 2011. This year, the focus of the Day is "Mountain forests - roots to our future."