Mountains for life
“Great things happen when men and mountains meet.” This famous saying
by William Blake says it all. Mountains and Man have a relationship that
spans the history of mankind. Most of us will never climb a mountain but
they have a unique, almost romantic appeal. It is hardly surprising that
the UN has set aside a separate day to celebrate mountains and their
connection with our lives.
Mountains cover approximately one-quarter of the world’s surface and
are home to 12 percent of the human population. Mountains are
characterised by massive global diversity - from tropical rain forests
to permanent ice and snow, from climates with more than 12 m of annual
precipitation to high altitude deserts, and from sea level to almost 9
000 m in altitude. They are the water towers of the world - providing
freshwater to at least half of the world’s people. However, mountains
are also high-risk environments; avalanches, landslides, volcanic
eruptions, earthquakes and glacial lake outburst floods threaten life in
mountain regions and surrounding areas. Mountains play an important role
in influencing global and regional climates and weather conditions.
Mountain people are among the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged.
They frequently face political, social and economic marginalization and
lack access to such basic services as health and education. Moreover,
current global challenges such as climate change, economic developments
and population growth exacerbate the hardships they face. Sustainable
approaches to development are therefore particularly important in
mountain regions. Over the generations, mountain people have learned how
to live with the threat of natural hazards and have developed
well-adapted and risk-resilient land-use systems. However, there is
growing evidence that many mountain regions have become increasingly
disaster-prone over the past few decades. This was seen recently in Sri
Lanka, where a landslide buried an entire village, resulting in a great
Covering around 27 percent of the earth’s land surface, mountains
play a critical role in moving the world towards sustainable economic
growth. They not only provide sustenance and well-being to more than 720
million mountain people around the world (including many endangered
tribes), but indirectly benefit billions more living downstream.
Mountains provide freshwater, energy and food - resources that will be
increasingly scarce in coming decades. However, mountainous areas also
have a high incidence of poverty and are extremely vulnerable to climate
change, deforestation, land degradation and natural disasters.The
challenge is to identify new and sustainable opportunities that can
bring benefits to both highland and lowland communities and help to
eradicate poverty without contributing to the degradation of fragile
This year, the celebration of the International Mountain Day on
December 11 aims to highlight Mountain Farming. Here we have an
opportunity to raise awareness about how mountain agriculture, which is
predominantly family farming, has been a model for sustainable
development for centuries. The theme is also apt for Sri Lanka, where a
variety of crops are cultivated on and around mountain slopes.
Family farming in mountain regions is undergoing rapid transformation
due to population growth, economic globalization, urbanization and the
migration of men and youth to urban areas.
At the same time, these changes can provide opportunities for local
development. People who reside in mountain areas can diversify their
income by engaging activities such as tourism, high value mountain
products and handicrafts. An enabling policy environment that includes
tailored investments could improve farmers’ access to resources and
increase their capacity to generate income.
Commitment and will to advance this cause were strengthened during
the International Year of Mountains in 2002, and mountains have gained
an increasingly high profile since then. The Year also led to the
adoption of resolution 57/245, in which the General Assembly designated
December 11 as International Mountain Day, and encouraged the
international community to organise events at all levels on that day to
highlight the importance of sustainable mountain development.
According to the UN, to respond to the global challenges and threats,
holistic, participatory and integrated approaches that address all
aspects of sustainability are required. The specific needs and
inter-links of different aspects of sustainable mountain development,
such as water, biodiversity, tourism and infrastructure, must be taken
into account.To achieve sustainable mountain development, it is
essential that all concerned stakeholders are involved and that
awareness is raised about mountain ecosystems, their fragility and
prevalent problems, and about ways of addressing them.
The Kathmandu-based ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated
Mountain Development), recently held a series of seminars aimed at
highlighting the importance of mountain ecosystems especially in an
Asian and South Asian context. This is significant, since countries of
the SAARC bloc (with the exception of the Maldives) have mountainous
regions with significant populations. In fact, the world’s highest
mountain (Everest in the Himalayan range) and several other famous
mountain ranges are located in South Asia, where the people have a
special affinity with the mountains.
It is also well known that some of these mountains are economically
important to South Asian governments, given their role in tourism. For
example, thousands of tourists visit the Himalayan area in Nepal and
India every year, bringing much needed revenue and other facilities for
the local population. Even many affluent countries derive a fair share
of revenue from their mountain ranges.
It is important to protect our mountains while utilizing them for
various economic activities. Precisely for this purpose, the ICIMOD has
set up a Knowledge Park at Godavari , on the southern slopes of the
Kathmandu Valley in Nepal which is used to test, select, and demonstrate
different technologies and (farming and agro forestry) practices useful
for sustainable development and natural resource management. Research of
this nature is essential for the benefit of mountain populations. Sri
Lanka should have a similar institution which will conduct research
pertaining to our mountains.
The International Mountain day has given us a fine opportunity to
reflect on the need to protect the mountains and their fragile
ecosystems all over the world. It would be hard to imagine a world
without mountains, for they give us the necessities for life itself.
“Mountains are earth's undecaying monuments”.