World's mountains -- beset by development, erosion
Environmental pressures on the world's most populous mountains may be turning them into deserts, scientists and planners warned last week. Overuse of the forests and croplands and attendant erosion in the Himalayan countries of South Asia and in northeast Africa are causing the mountains to lose their ability to support life.Skip to next paragraph
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The warnings were heard at the first meeting of the International Mountain Society (IMS), an international organization of scientists, planners, and representatives of national and international organizations who work in development issues affecting mountain environments worldwide. They met last week in New Paltz, N.Y.
Nepal, situated in the Himalayas, is in danger of losing all its forests by the end of this century, and Ethiopia will be in similar straits within 20 years , the scientists said. Farmers in these and other countries are ''clinging to the hillsides with their fingernails, trying to make sense of a harsh environment,'' said John Cool, an associate with the Agricultural Development Council in Katmandu, Nepal.
''Mountain people are isolated. They have no access to markets, to technology , education, or political power. They're often a religious minority or speak a different language,'' said Mr. Cool. The Peruvian alpaca herders speak Quechua, their native language. The Ladakhis, natives of Ladakh, an area of northern India often called ''Little Tibet,'' are a Buddhist minority in a predominantly Muslim Indian state. Their communication with the political majority often founders upon misunderstanding. Yet, said Mr. Cool, ''the future of the mountains depends upon these people. The control of mountains resources is ultimately in their hands.''
''The magnitude of the environmental and economic problems has reached beyond the local peoples' capacity to respond,'' said Jack Ives, president of the IMS.
The group cited some important progress in local resource management. In the village of Thokarpa, in Nepal, the village leader started a tree nursery to grow seedlings in order to reforest dangerously unstable slopes. This was done ''just before too late,'' said K. K. Pandey, a development specialist in Katmandu. Thokarpa is now the model for a nationwide community forestry program in Nepal, sponsored partially by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In parts of Pakistan and India, a voluntary shift from agriculture to tree crops is taking place among the farmers. In the hills of Himachal Pradesh in India, said B. C. Negi, a forestry department official in that district, cultivation of apple trees has superseded grain farming, providing a cash crop and protecting the hills from erosion.
But while some resource management plans succeed, many more fail, and while local people get organized, the forces of gravity and water are taking their toll on the slopes. IMS president Ives said research into the economic, anthropological, and social issues of mountain locales, in addition to and combined with research into the natural sciences, can help circumvent many problems, and he offered the IMS as an ''information broker'' to achieve that end. He says he hopes that by working with organizations at all levels from local to international, the IMS will have a role in helping to stay the ecological disaster that he sees evolving in the mountains.