Mountains' new challenge: how to save their ecology
Before the middle of our century the mountain regions of the world and their peoples were isolated and often inaccessible. Because of this, mountains harbored a wealth of human tradition and culture more varied and more intricately related to the environment than anywhere else. They preserved an equally abundant flora and fauna. But with the recent massive development of communication systems, and the resulting worldwide population explosion, ruin and desolation have appearedon the immediate mountain horizon.Skip to next paragraph
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A few examples will illustrate the challenge.
* Nepal has lost half its forest cover in the last 30 years as a consequence of population pressure and tourist impact. If present trends continue, total deforestation will occur by the end of this century. Mountain slopes are increasingly prone to landslides and soil erosion. Cultivated terraces are being washed away. Roads are destroyed. Most injurious of all, soil, the basis of life in a subsistence farming economy, has become the country's No. 1 export. As a result of these processes, the adjacent rich and densely populated lowlands of the Gangetic Plain are being devastated by siltation and flooding.
* On the other side of the world in the Andes of South America, high-altitude population densities have been high since pre-Hispanic times. Traditional Indian and Spanish land-use patterns of community autonomy and the hacienda system have existed side by side until this century. Improper land management is now an obstacle to meeting the needs of both the local people and the national economies. Present large-scale population movement from the highland rural areas to lowland urban centers is intimately related to the social and political unrest that is rife today.
* Five thousand miles to the north, what was once a ghost town in the Rocky Mountains has become a mecca for skiers and tourists from across the continent. Roads have been built along valleys prone to avalanches. Hundreds of trails have been cut through publicly owned land. A resort town has grown up almost overnight. Furthermore, one of the world's largest deposits of molybdenum has been discovered nearby. A multifaceted conflict has arisen over such complex issues as wilderness preservation, resource development, and land-use legislation. The Colorado Rockies in general can be described as lagging about 20 years behind the much more heavily stressed European Alps in this respect.
Such are the kinds of problems facing mountain lands and peoples throughout the world.
They can be divided into two broad groups. There are problems of uncontrolled population growth, deforestation, and soil loss among the tropical and subtropical high mountains - problems principally affecting developing countries. Then there are two-season tourism and exploitation of both renewable and nonrenewable natural resources in the temperate-latitude mountain areas. These problems primarily affect the developed countries and affluent societies.
It has been estimated that 10 percent of the world's population lives in mountain lands. Five times that number are in some way dependent upon mountain resources - agriculture and forestry, water and energy, mining and recreation.
Can this degradation of mountain lands be arrested? Is it possible to reduce the pressures facing mountain people, to maintain or reestablish stable economies? In short, is it possible to achieve a better balance between mountain environments, exploitation of resources, and the well-being of mountain peoples?
Several attempts are being made.
In 1973, the United Nations Economic and Social Council initiated the Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB). Specifically, MAB Project 6 was established to study the effect of human activities on mountain ecosystems. This brought together an international group of scientists of many disciplines to develop within the natural and human sciences a basis for rational use and conservation of the earth's resources and for the improvement of the relationship between man and the environment.