December 11th International Mountain Day: and a fresh call for action
Today, December 11th, is the tenth annual celebration of International Mountain Day, as designated by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2003. This is a day for both mountaineers and flatlanders to celebrate the benefits that mountains provide in terms of natural beauty, priceless environmental services, and cultural and historic riches. It is also a day to recall the diverse and severe threats these ecosystems and their people face – threats that, unattended, will bring severe repercussions for all of us. This is a day to remember that mountains need our help.
Freshwater is the crown jewel of gifts from mountains. Fully half of humanity depends on mountain sources for drinking, irrigation, and industry. Here in Washington, DC our tap water comes from the Appalachians via the Potomac River watershed. Across the globe, the Hindu-Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges are the source of water for well over a billion people in China, India, and Southeast Asia. Mountains are also critical to food security, with six of the globe’s twenty most important food crops originating in high altitude regions. The world would be a hungrier place without apples, barley, maize (corn), potatoes, sorghum, and tomatoes.
In terms of other natural riches, half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, geographies containing exceptional concentrations of plant and animal species, are in mountains. A thousand varieties of orchid can be found on the slopes of the Andes or Himalayas alone. Mountains are also home to such inspiring wildlife as snow leopards, giant pandas, and condors; but, also such charming and bizarre creatures as Appalachia’s Hellbender, one of the planet’s largest salamanders.
Extraordinary native cultures — Tibetan monks, Quechua speaking descendants of the Incas, and Tyrolean mountaineers — make the high country their homes. Even today, more than a thousand languages are spoken in peaks, ranges, and high valleys around the world. Historically, the Alps challenged Hannibal’s elephants, but mountains also contain an abundance of historically important cultural sites from temples and monasteries across Asia, to Machu Picchu in South America. On a higher plain, mountains have been a source of spiritual inspiration for all major religions – with individual mountains considered sacred by many cultures around the world. Worryingly, ten of the thirty-eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Danger are located in mountain regions.
With the northern hemisphere skiing season underway I am reminded of the importance of mountains for sports and recreation. The uplifting beauty of mountain summits, waterfalls, and steep misty valleys combined with their wildlife and historic sites attract millions of visitors annually. Today, a quarter of all tourism dollars are earned from such high altitude attractions.
All these riches and the apparent immutability and permanence of mountains mask extreme environmental and social fragility. Mountains today are at the epicenter of a host of daunting, but interlinked challenges.
Unquestionably, the greatest threat is climate change. The inconclusive end last week to the Climate Change Conference in Doha, the 18th under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, bodes poorly for the steps that global human society must take with increasing urgency. With temperatures increasing two to three times faster at higher altitudes than at lower elevations, mountains are already severely impacted. Fewer and fewer ranges are maintaining snow cover year round. This is far from a matter of aesthetics, as it has severe repercussions for the snowmelt that extends water flow during critical dry seasons, affecting people, agriculture, and industry. Most alarmingly, as glaciers recede and snowpack melts, unstable lakes are rapidly forming in mountain ranges around the world. These lakes threaten to burst through their natural dams, which along with landslides, have the potential to kill thousands of people as they have done in the past. Finally, mountain ecosystems face stresses like never before as the climate warms and invasive species move uphill. Already the tree composition of forests in the high Rocky Mountains in the US is changing. Also, animal and plant diseases are occurring at ever higher altitude, threatening vulnerable populations.
Poverty is chronic in many mountain regions, made so by isolation, limited economic options, and weak or absent government services. Twenty of the fifty poorest countries outside Africa are mountainous. Belts of poverty span the ranges of Southwest, Central, South, and East Asia including such impoverished countries as Yemen, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Burma, and Papua New Guinea. In Latin America the mountain peoples of Ecuador and Bolivia are among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Extreme poverty is endemic in the mountainous regions of the counties of the Albertine Rift in Africa. Moreover, within countries, the worst human welfare is often associated with isolated mountain regions, be it in high western Nepal where malnutrition is endemic, or in Appalachia here at home. This poverty is also often associated with deforestation, habitat degradation, and poaching and trade in endangered species.
Across the mountain world such economic conditions have led to migration, particularly by young men. They leave shrinking communities of women and the elderly to manage the farms and tend the children – as well as fraying native traditions and cultures. As a consequence, mountain urban areas are forming, stressing the environment and job markets. However, many leave the regions altogether for menial jobs, for instance in the Middle East. Particularly troubling is trafficking in young women migrants for prostitution, for instance from Nepal to India or from Bolivia to Argentina, where HIV/Aids and abuse awaits.
This lack of economic opportunity, combined with isolation and weak rule of law, has opened the door to opium production in the mountain belts of Asia and cocaine in the cloud forests of South America. Coupled with these, and other geopolitical issues, mountain regions today host more than half of the world’s wars and insurgencies. A small sampling includes the Kachin rebellion in northern Burma, Uighur unrest in west China, the Siachen Glacier battleground of Kashmir, and Kurdish unrest in the mountain borderlands between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. In South America, the FARC has long grappled with the government of Colombia from mountain refuges, and border skirmishes were fought between Ecuador and Peru as recently as 1995 in the foothills of the Andes.
This is just a sampling of the challenges that mountain regions face. The frustration to me is that solutions exist. The United Nations, since at least the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, has recognized the important of sustainable mountain development and conservation. New solutions, innovations, and approaches are appearing all the time. Here at The Mountain Institute we are working with local communities to generate solutions for glacial lake outbursts, and our work to bolster livelihoods has resulted in a six-fold increase in household income in some of the poorest communities in Asia. I dream of new transnational peace parks, say in the Siachen Glacier of Kashmir, to both conserve mountain environments and reset relations between neighboring countries.
Further, a warming climate may bring new opportunities for agriculture, albeit with considerable environmental risks. Mountains, with their huge diversity of microhabitats are likely to provide critical refuge to thousands of species preventing extinctions. The challenge is to develop a full systems approach to mountain conservation and sustainable development which will take reinvigoration of the mountain research and development communities, business, government, and above all the isolated mountain communities that throughout history have shown extraordinary resilience and adaptability.
The challenges tropical forests face have captured global attention in recent years, as have marine conservation issues. This attention has led to increasing action, much research, and improved policies to meet the threats. Although much remains to be done, the world is paying attention to their needs. Mountains, covering a quarter of our planet’s land surface and containing some 750 million people, need at least the same attention. So today, let us celebrate mountains, and tomorrow let us do something about it.