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Mountains evolved as havens of bio- and cultural diversity and have long been associated with indestructibility, ruggedness, and characteristics hostile to human endeavors. Until the U.N. designated 2002 the International Year of the Mountain, environmentalists ignored the fragility of mountain regions. Poor, indigenous mountain peoples, victimized by central governments, often have little choice but to overexploit their environment, and are threatened by warfare ubiquitous in many mountainous lands.
The word mountains may conjure up an image of gigantic rock precipices, sharp peaks, glaciers and snow—and a team of grim-faced mountaineers, roped together, risking avalanches, rock falls, and blizzards in their arduous upward progress—the sort of scene one might see in the upper sections of the Alps or the Himalayas, or in the many other dramatic high landscapes of the planet. But that scene represents only a small fraction of our mountain environment. While there has been much debate among academics over how to define mountain, no simple statement has evolved. The people of Wales and northwestern England would insist that they live among mountains, yet their highest summits barely exceed 1,000 meters (about 3,280 feet) above sea level. Nomads of Tibet or agricultural peasants of southern Peru who live 4,000 meters (more than 13,120 feet) above sea level would be classified as mountain folk, yet their local landscapes may be as flat as the North American prairies.
Nevertheless, a varying combination of high altitude and steepness of slope make for short growing seasons and slow soil formation processes. The variation in average annual temperature with altitude and latitude has combined to give the Lofoten Islands of North Norway, close to sea level and 70° north, and the upper reaches of the Swiss Alps, above 2,000 meters and 46° north, similar landscapes, referred to as “alpine.” Both are above the limits of tree growth (timberline) and have been molded by glaciers. In contrast, locations at high altitudes (above 3,500–4,000 meters, or roughly 11,500–13,120 feet) that are close to the equator, such as in Ethiopia, Kenya, or Ecuador, with rather rounded landforms, may support flourishing agriculture. Carl Troll (1900–1975), the famous German mountain geographer of the twentieth century, remarked that above 3,000 meters (about 9,850 feet) in Indonesia, for instance, there are high mountains without a high mountain (alpine) landscape.
In its efforts to ensure a critical assessment of the importance of mountains to sustainable human progress, the United Nations adopted a pragmatic approach in its declaration of 2002 as the International Year of Mountains (IYM), claiming that mountains occupy about 20 percent of the world’s terrestrial surface and provide the direct life-support base for about 10 percent of humankind. Indirectly, in terms of their resources, such as provision of more than half of all fresh water, forest products, minerals, grazing lands, and hydropower, mountains are vital to the survival of over 50 percent of the total population. Furthermore, mountains have provided the spiritual essence of all major and many minor religions. Second only to coastal areas, they are the major focus of tourism, the largest and most rapidly expanding industry in the world. Mountains shelter some of the world’s most important centers of biodiversity and a large share of its cultural diversity. Finally, climate change, especially the currently anticipated global warming, would have some of its earliest and most noticeable effects in mountain regions. It follows that mountains are becoming a serious object of concern.
Geographical Distribution of Mountains
Mountains are found on every continent, from the equator to the poles as far as land exists. Taken together as a single great landscape category or ecosystem, they encompass the most extensive known array of landforms, climates, flora, and fauna, as well as human cultural diversity. From a geological and tectonic point of view they comprise the most complex of the Earth’s underlying structures.
Mountains and uplands incorporate the inhuman and extremely cold and sterile high ice carapaces of Antarctica and Greenland as well as the high, dry, hypoxic, and almost uninhabitable ranges of Central Asia and the south central Andes. They also include richly varied and even luxuriant ridge and valley systems of the humid tropics and subtropics, such as the eastern Himalayas, the Hengduan Mountains (Yunnan, China), Mount Cameroon, sections of the northern Andes, and parts of New Guinea. In east Africa and Ethiopia, the flanks and valleys of the high mountains have long been the preferred human habitat compared with the arid lowlands that surround them. An enormous array of other mountains must be included—for instance, the high volcanoes of the Caribbean and Central America, Indonesia, Japan, and Hawaii, where humans have long benefited from access to rich soils regardless of exposure to extreme fiery hazards. So-called middle mountains (German: mittelgebirge) range from Tasmania to South Africa and from central and northern Europe to the Urals and Siberia. While the Urals contrast with the Alps (the epitome of “high mountains,” German: hochgebirge) because of their more subdued relief, their other mountain attributes warrant special policies to ensure sustainable resource use and preservation of their traditional landscapes.
The high mountains of the world are associated with the most recent, or Tertiary to present, geological period of mountain building resulting from movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates. This has established two great systems of mountain ranges: the circum-Pacific and the transverse Atlas-Pyrenees- Alps-Caucasus-Hindu Kush-Himalaya-Indonesian arc. Collectively they form the loci of most of the world’s active volcanoes and the majority of seismic epicenters (earthquakes). Mountains are dangerous places to live, given the combination of gravity, steep slopes, often very high levels of precipitation, tectonic disturbance, and volcanic activity. Many mountain regions are also dangerous because of the actions of people.
Changing Attitudes Toward Mountains
Try to picture the classical image of a mountainous landscape: the physical characteristics, together with relative inaccessibility and remoteness from the mainstreams of world society, provide images of indestructibility, ruggedness, and hostility to most human endeavor. Yet these same characteristics over a long timeframe have led to unparalleled biodiversity and cultural diversity. Mountain communities evolved in semi-isolation, developing and preserving local languages, costumes, customs, and intricately adapted farming and grazing practices. They frequently retained high levels of independence. The independence of mountain communities, however, was bought at a price: hard physical labor for survival, the risk of natural hazards, and periodic forced out-migration as population growth depleted local resources.
Many mountain communities became famous as providers of fiercely effective mercenaries for the national armies of lowland powers. For example, the Swiss mountain contingents contributed to many premodern European armies, a surviving remnant being the Vatican’s Swiss Guard. More recently, during two world wars and the Falkland Islands campaign, the Gurkhas of Nepal won international fame. They continue to supply contingents to the Indian and British armies.
Prior to the early twentieth century, remoteness, lack of “modern” communication links, and low population densities led to mountain regions being established as buffer zones with only roughly surveyed frontiers between powerful lowland-based empires. Those imperial conflicts and compromises left many present-day states with irrational frontiers, such as those possessed by Afghanistan—a nineteenth-century product of the rivalry between the British Empire and imperial Russia. This has frequently led to major political and military problems and insurgencies for which the world as a whole is paying a disastrous price today.
As far as the affluent West was concerned, until the last decades of the twentieth century, mountains were virtually the preserve of mountaineers and tourists, especially winter-sport enthusiasts and warmer-season trekkers, and a relatively small number of scientists. The people who lived and made their livelihood in the mountains were largely ignored.
In Europe, as nations industrialized and modernized during the nineteenth century, roads and railways were built, and the first waves of affluent tourists and mountaineers began to penetrate the Alps, bringing with them money. In the twenty-first century we think of Switzerland and Austria as regions of great wealth, but national government policy recognizes that mountain agriculture, essential to the conservation of the beauty that makes the mountains a tourist attraction, depends upon heavy subsidy. In this sense a broad division can be made between the development of mountain regions in the industrialized countries and those of the developing world—the difference being that industrialized countries have money to help preserve the scenic nature of the mountains whereas developing countries focus on exploitation. A further subdivision must be made between mountain regions of the Old World (Europe) and those of the New World (the North American West, New Zealand, and Australia). In contrast to the European Alps, for example, that have a very long history (pre-Roman) of settlement and environmental adaptation, mountain regions of the New World have experienced colonization and development only very recently (from about the mid-nineteenth century).
Globalization has spread mass tourism from industrial countries into selected areas of the mountain regions of developing countries. Where tourism, especially mountaineering and trekking, has selectively penetrated parts of the developing world’s mountain regions, it has brought about significant change. Tourism does bring increased wealth, but very selectively, and most of the commercial profits go back to the industrialized countries as investment profits. The recent, similar “moneyed” approach of nouveau riche Chinese entrepreneurs is having a parallel impact on “within-country” regions, such as northern Yunnan Province in China’s scenic southwest.
Tourism can and has caused serious disruption to local cultures. (The outstanding example is the Mount Everest region of Nepal, whose inhabitants, the Sherpas, have become relatively affluent.) The 1970s and 1980s recognized the growing need to preserve the Alps and to avert (perceived) imminent environmental catastrophe in the Himalayas. In the Alps, uncontrolled growth of two-season tourism threatened the traditional mountain landscape, although staunch Swiss and Austrian democratic processes have tempered that threat. In the Himalayas massive deforestation was blamed on “ignorant” mountain subsistence farmers; their rapid population growth (Nepal, for instance, at 2.7 percent per year) and their dependency on the forests for construction materials, firewood, and fodder, led to the assumption that the (perceived) impending environmental collapse was due entirely to imprudent indigenous land use on the mountain slopes. Furthermore, increased numbers of landslides and acceleration of soil erosion, influenced by gravity and torrential monsoon downpours, was widely believed to cause downstream siltation and an increase in severe flooding in Gangetic India (the region formed by alluvial deposits of three great river systems, including the Ganges), and in Bangladesh. Thus the potential for international dispute was added to the threat of environmental disaster. Regardless, prior to 1992 concern remained limited.
Why, as recently as the 1970s or even the 1980s, were mountains not afforded a more prominent place on the world’s political agenda, when environmental movements had been in full swing for some time? A partial answer is that mountains had not yet attracted an effective constituency. During the 1972 U.N. Stockholm Conference on the Environment, great strides were made in recognizing the growing gap between the have and have-not regions of the world and by the establishment of ministries of the environment in numerous member countries. Yet mountains did not even merit a footnote. It was not until the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED; the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit) that a real breakthrough appeared possible with the inclusion of a special chapter for mountains in Agenda for the 21st Century (Agenda 21), the summit’s plan for fostering governmental and individual sustainable action. Chapter 13 (which deals with managing fragile ecosystems and sustainable mountain development) of Agenda 21 led ten years later to the U.N. General Assembly’s designation of 2002 as the “International Year of Mountains.”
Problems Facing the World’s Mountains
Undoubtedly, mountains are threatened by general overuse of natural resources—water, forests, grasslands, and minerals—that can lead to soil erosion, water and air pollution, and downstream damage. This is particularly severe on steep slopes (as compared with regions of gentle relief). Indiscriminate road construction on unstable slopes and erection of high dams, usually for the sole benefit of downslope communities, are aggravating factors. Unregulated mass tourism can also lead to environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, disruption of mountain cultures, and an augmented sense of deprivation as well as actual deprivation on the part of many poor mountain people. These are the topics that hit the news headlines. But they are frequently overdramatized. Too often the causes, as outlined in the case of the Himalayas, are misunderstood, oversimplified, or even falsified for political advantage. In any case, mountain communities, whether they are in the Alps or in the Himalayas, are in economically marginal positions compared with their lowland counterparts. A large proportion of the world’s poverty, especially in Asia and South America, is located in mountain regions. It is difficult to make a precise statement because demographic and related data are usually aggregated by their inclusion into larger political survey units, so that specific information is unobtainable.
The entire complex of mountain problems has been further exacerbated by an apparent unwillingness, until very recently (principally after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001), to publicize the single most devastating process that is occurring within mountains: warfare in all its forms. This includes conventional armed conflict, guerrilla insurgencies, drug wars, and terrorism. Moreover, mistreatment of mountain peoples has caused a great increase in the number of internal and international refugees. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) claimed during the launch of the IYM on 11 December 2001 that of the twenty-seven wars affecting the world at that time, twenty-three were located in mountains regions. This disproportionate burden that the mountains and their people carry signals real disaster—human, economic, environmental, political—on an unprecedented scale.
In terms of overall conflict, mountain peoples are frequently victimized by the central governments. In northern Thailand, western China, and the Himalayan countries, they are unfairly and wrongly blamed for catastrophic environmental degradation. The real culprits are frequently large commercial interests intent on resource exploitation and central governments seeking access to resources at the expense of the local people who are often marginalized minorities with little political clout. Nevertheless, poverty often leaves the local mountain people with little alternative but to overexploit their own environment. Regulations, such as logging bans, are imposed by the bureaucracies in the lowlands, and they often lead to unsatisfactory solutions that may further exacerbate mountain poverty, thus generating further unrest. This acute dissatisfaction has erupted over the last decade into widespread insurrections in many of the world’s mountain regions, from Pakistan, Nepal, and northeast India to Colombia and Bolivia.
The vast extent of the world’s mountainous territory, together with its extreme complexity, both in terms of the inherent natural phenomena and the innumerable ways in which human communities have adapted to them, are a challenge indeed to sustainable development. Mountains as a whole are among the least known and least understood areas of the world. The International Year of Mountains has provided an unprecedented opportunity for expanding research and for rapid growth in communication. This has combined with the growing awareness that many of the forecasted negative aspects of global warming will have early major and accelerating impacts in mountain regions. Such concern has resulted in an enormous upsurge in interdisciplinary and international research collaboration, the expected results of which await future application. The first task, however, is to reduce the burden of conflict and, related to this, to facilitate involvement of mountain people in management of their local resources and in development of relations with society at large.
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