Mountains' new challenge: how to save their ecology

By , Jack Ives is president of the International Mountain Society.

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.

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.

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* 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.

The founding of the United Nations University in 1975 led to the development of a program on the use and management of renewable natural resources. This included a subproject on highland-lowland interactive systems. Many other UN and bilateral programs have focused increasing attention on the mountain crisis. The organizations involved, working sometimes independently and at other times cooperatively, have established pilot study projects in many areas.

One such approach was a joint venture undertaken by the United Nations University, UNESCO, and the Nepal National Committee for MAB. It was carried out in the Katmandu-Kakani area of Nepal and was soon to expand into the Khumbu Himal and the Terai. Scientists from the Universities of Bern and Colorado pooled the experience gained from mapping and studying mountain hazards, such as avalanches and landslides, in the Alps and Rockies.

They organized a series of integrated studies which included climate, surface geology and soils, hydrology, agriculture, and ethnography. Four young Nepali scientists were included. They traveled to the United States and Switzerland to facilitate their participation as team members. The maps of mountain hazards, land forms, and land use now are completed and the final write-up is under way; the most challenging task of the project, however, lies ahead - to convince both local farmers and government agencies that the results of the research can be integrated into more effective decisionmaking.

In mountainous northern Thailand, a sector of the Golden Triangle has been selected for a pilot study funded by the UN University and the government of Thailand. It is being carried out by scientists from Thailand, Australia, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and the US, based on Chiang Mai University. Here soil erosion on steep slopes under a variety of agricultural uses is measured, test plots of new and traditional crops are examined, the age-old swidden (slash-and-burn) system of agriculture is analyzed. Cash crops that would be an alternative to opium are being tested with a view to reducing soil losses while increasing productivity as the basis for a more balanced life.

The focus of such undertakings is necessarily sectional. One must ask to what extent the findings and recommendations from one region are applicable to another. But, as when considering many world issues today, the dictum is - act locally and think globally.With this in mind, a group of individuals involved in such projects met in 1980 and established the International Mountain Society. One of the important functions of the society is to publish, jointly with the UN University and with assistance from UNESCO, a quarterly journal, Mountain Research and Development.

It has become increasingly obvious during the last decade that a rational, worldwide coordinated approach to mountain problems is urgently needed. While large sections of the world from the Sahel to the Amazonian rain forest are also under such stress, mountain landscapes are doubly critical. Disturbance of mountain forests or of agricultural terraces harms more than the immediate environs. The destruction extends to lowlands, coasts, and even into the oceans. A fuller understanding of the complex of physical, socioeconomic, political, and psychological problems involved is needed. But enough is known already so that numerous constructive measures can be taken. In view of the resources, beauty, and inspiration that mountains have offered humanity throughout history, a coordinated effort of increasing magnitude is an imperative facing all peoples and all governments.

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