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UNU Project on Sustainable Mountain and Forest Development
(formerly Mountain Ecology and Sustainable Development)

UNU contribution to the Agenda 21, Chapter 13:
Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Sustainable Mountain Development

1. Key Research Findings:

The degradation of mountain ecosystems - home to 600 million people and the source of water for more than half the world's population - threatens to seriously worsen global environmental problems including floods, landslides and famine, according to an analysis by the United Nations University. Climate change, pollution, armed conflict, population growth, deforestation and exploitative agricultural, mining and tourism practices are among a growing list of problems confronting the "water towers of the world," prompting warnings that catastrophic flooding, landslides, avalanches, fires and famines may become more frequent and that many rare animals and plants will disappear. While several of the world's mountain areas are in relatively good ecological shape, many face accelerating environmental and cultural decline brought on in part by government and multilateral agency policies too often founded on inadequate research. Mountains and highlands are found on every continent, cover about a quarter of the Earth's land surface and are home to 10% of the world's people. Another 40% live in adjacent lower watershed areas; thus more than half the global population is directly or indirectly dependent on mountain resources and services, the foremost being water for drinking and home use, irrigation, hydro power, industry and transportation.

The general conclusion is that the UNU's project, "Sustainable Mountain and Forest Development", enables us to continue to challenge conventional thought related to the environment, and to overturn strongly but inappropriately established paradigm. For example, it was demonstrated following many years of research in the Himalayas, in Thailand, and in the mountains of Yunnan (China), that the assumption that massive deforestation since the 1950s was the cause of extensive soil erosion and downstream flooding, and sediment transport with siltation was incorrect. Furthermore, the additional assumption that the minority subsistence farmers in mountains were the cause of environmental degradation, was also incorrect. Bangladesh experiences catastrophic flooding when torrential rains occur within the country (not in Himalayas). The mountain minority people world-wide, who are among the poorest of the poor, are extremely rich in environmental understanding. Their opinions and experiences need to be combined with scientific knowledge before a better understanding of mountain processes can be obtained. Cultural diversity, which is a prevailing feature of mountain life, must be considered as complementary to biodiversity if sustainable mountain development is to be achieved. The widespread conflict in mountain regions, including conventional warfare, terrorism, guerrilla insurgency and repression of minority peoples, must be tackled far more vigorously than hitherto. The management and utilization of the natural resources of mountains, especially water, must be undertaken in such way that mountain people share in the benefits. Achievement of the equality of access to resources for both men and women requires much greater attention.

2. Specific Policy Recommendations:

Each region features a complex array of strengths and problems, making it impossible to propose generalized approach to mountain-related issues. It is possible to generalize, however, about the lack of information needed for effective policy formulation. What data policy makers do rely on often relates to mountain ranges in the developed world, inappropriately applied to developing countries. Notions based on scant scientific data are often accepted as truths. For example, while there are serious problems in the Himalayas, massive deforestation has not occurred across the entire mountain system. Such misinformed assumptions have led to simplistic, and often counter-productive, remedies.

In addition to gathering and sharing more and better data and information worldwide, there is an urgent need to strengthen capacity in developing country mountain regions, such as in meteorology, hydrology, ecology and soil sciences. These also must be firmly linked as well to the human sciences - anthropology, social science and human geography. The management of mountain regions and watersheds in a way that embraces and integrates many sciences will be a key to success. Also important is the promotion of alternative livelihood opportunities for mountain people in developing countries. This should help to alleviate poverty at the root of so many of their health and environmental problems.

War and natural disasters have long plagued mountain regions. Researchers have determined that natural disasters in mountain regions worldwide were responsible for almost 1.6 million lives lost between 1900 to 1988, the foremost causes being floods and earthquakes. Other figures show that armed combat in mountain regions - some 105 wars and conflicts between 1945 and 1995 - resulted in 11.1 million casualties, including 7.8 million being civilians. While natural disasters are usually well reported, the world community has tended to ignore mountain warfare in all its forms, "including the atrocious treatment of mountain minorities." The transformation of mountain minority peoples into stateless refugees must be arrested.


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