The World Mountain Forum held in Bishkek last year met on the theme, 'Mountains in a Changing World: Strengthening Partnerships and Pathways towards a Thriving Mountain Future'. It brought together the global sustainable mountain development community to identify and develop solutions for mountain areas globally.
When one takes a look at any satellite image of the Earth's surface, the very first thing that one notices — besides all the water, of course — are the mountains. There is a good reason for that — mountainous landscape covers 27% of the planet's surface. Mountains with elevation characteristics above sea level and steep slopes support 20% of the world's population at their edges.
Mountains are more diverse than lowlands as they support habitat diversity due to different topoclimates. With an understanding of how critical ecosystem services are to human society, it would not be difficult to equate mountain conservation with the well-being of humankind. Mountain ecosystems are essential for providing clean water, healthy vegetation cover, food and fibre, medicinal plants, prevention of soil erosion, and flood control among others. They exemplify high cultural diversity, including traditional agricultural practices and languages, as well as indigenous and traditional knowledge.
The high biological and sociocultural diversity makes the mountain ecosystems extremely vulnerable. Apart from being subjected to different natural and anthropogenic drivers of change such as logging and subsequent erosion, flooding events, climate change, acid deposition through snow and rainfall, and other unsuitable farming practices, they also get affected by earthquakes, volcanic activity, cloudburst, and landslides. The fact remains that greater altitudes are so cold that it takes longer for plants and animals to grow and regions to recover from decline, whether of natural or human origin.
Mountains — Biodiversity Hotspots
Alongside supporting one-third of terrestrial species and numerous ecosystem services, mountains have a strong impact on global climate. Mountains with both the capacity to hold a significant portion of noticeable cultural groups, varied fragments of cultural practices, ecological awareness and ecosystem adaptations are crucial to survival in a changing world. However, unplanned pasture systems, inefficient animal breeding for food, milk or wool processing, steep mineral extraction, industrialization, exacerbation of agriculture, tourism, population pressure among others pose severe threat on the mountain ecosystems. This scenario calls for forging and honing mountain communities and their capability to guard mountain environment, conserve, and manage resources for local consumption and the downstream communities. A review of scientific literature shows that mountains are responding to increasing land-use pressure and climate change. Thus, collecting, consolidating, and standardizing data on biodiversity in mountain regions are vital to advance scientific perspective of the actual trend.
Looking at pressures, such as the growing human population and climate change, managing resources efficiently and safeguarding them from these plausible threats are important and valuable. This will pave the way for intensive research and monitoring in fragile mountainous ecosystems.
Strengthening Linkages between Upland and Lowland Communities
Against the given backdrop and existing challenges, there is a need for adoption of a coherent and multipronged approach to study the impacts of the changing climate regimes both in uplands and in lowlands. The geographical and social linkages between the uplands and the lowlands drive various ecological processes. Due to these connections, the occurrence of extreme events in one region can have far-reaching consequences on the other. However, there is a vital need to view both the landscapes in an integrated manner, which assists the consideration of issues spanning upland and lowland regions in totality. With this, there arises a need for improving the resilience and adaptive capacity of mountain societies in the face of potential stressors to achieve sustainable development, reduce poverty, and enhance food security. More importantly, given that young people are most affected by environmental changes, there is a need for thorough developmental approaches that plug into the demands, ambitions, and perspectives of youth living in mountain communities.
Identifying need-based shift: Recent developments in the past few decades have seen a shift in the basic environmental philosophy, entailing a nature-focused perspective to people-centric approaches and communities. Strong cultural values, indigenous as well as traditional knowledge, and social values have all substantially contributed towards meeting broader conservation goals. Participatory and community-focused strategies have had encouraging and worthwhile ecological, economic, and social effects in the Indian scenario. With this, there is a need to create organizational spaces for local communities to deliberate on questions related to land, forest, livelihoods, and equality.
Identifying mountain development indicators: While addressing the inter- and trans-disciplinary actions leading to an environmental transformation in the mountains, it is extremely important that all natural and human factors involved in leading to that alteration are taken into account. Therefore, the development of viable and robust indicators can help indicate the effectiveness of policy measures. Indicators not only present past and current regional and global trends, but also help identify sectors and regions which are most critical in the current scenario along with highlighting the gaps in data collection, monitoring, and dissemination of information. This exercise, coupled with knowledge of environmental conditions with the endurance strategies of individuals and local communities that aim at an improved and sustainable future, presents a challenge to everyone involved in the region's policy formulation and developmental practice.
Climate change affecting water in mountain areas: Alteration of water supply due to climate change, leading to shifting precipitation trends and shrinking glaciers, poses significant challenges for mountain and downstream societies, particularly in the longer run. Patterns of declining peak-water-related water flow are compounded by frequently increasing water demands from various economic sectors with increasing environmental footprints, which could also lead to conflicting competition over water. These trends and growing complexities urgently require climate action with the goal of keeping global warming under 1.5°C. At the same time, it also calls for adopting adaptation measures that might include a multitude of steps, which integrate water management as a primary concern, and other needs that must be established and enforced. For mountain communities to develop socio-ecological systems, there is a need to create local-based social, environmental, and economic adaptation measures. This can be achieved by building connectivity and physical access across the mountainous landscapes, developing and improving communication facilities, creating useful governance structures, etc. Inclusive growth for communities would, in turn, reflect local realities and adaptive strength. The issue at hand that the world is deliberating upon is on creating adaptation strategies for resources being severely hit by climate change impacts, namely water, food, and other ecosystem services. The growing effect of frequent extreme weather events on life and property underlines the urgency of the situation and the necessity to ramp up adaptation actions. Policymakers across the globe are aware and working towards adopting various adaptation measures for vulnerable sectors like agriculture, water, and livelihoods. This requires collecting adequate data on the impact of climate change in the mountainous context, finding ways of improving institutional capacity at various governance levels, identifying socio-economic barriers to intervention uptake, and retrofitting infrastructure for development and adaptation purposes.
Creating awareness of mountain resources: Knowledge-sharing and capacity-building forums like World Mountain Forum are ways of training young minds to ensure their potential is augmented and enhanced, and that their energies are meaningfully tapped. To deal with a myriad of socio-environmental challenges alongside development, there is a dire need for adopting and practising comprehensive development approaches that tap into the needs, aspirations, and experiences of young people researching and living in mountain societies. The training of individuals should also lead to the deconstruction of scientific jargons to help spread the message and research to the common man. Association with and cross-learning from organizations like G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment & Sustainable Development (GBPNIHESD), Uttarakhand, the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology, Himachal Pradesh, the Centre for Climate Change Research (CCCR), the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Delhi, etc., should be explored and supported to drive technical and ecological knowledge for conserving mountain resources. It is equally essential to have multi-disciplinary international organizations, such as The Mountain Institute (TMI), Washington DC, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Italy, etc., that can contribute and communicate knowledge for policy formulation and development for the mountains.
The conversations at the World Mountain Forum resulted in suggestions for real global actions. Given that the climate and Sustainable Development Goals of 2030 illustrate the role of natural capital accounting in acknowledging the value of the mountains and the ecosystem services they provide, the actions discussed included initiatives to broaden knowledge and research-based tools. To work towards this, environmental stewardship and sustainable landuse planning in the world's mountains are not just prerequisites for providing viable livelihood options but are key to human welfare for nearly half the planet's population living downstream, dependent on mountain resources.
A few thought-provoking studies presented at the Mountain Forum included a study on ‘Evidence-Based Adaptation Planning for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Early Warning System in Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh, India' by Nadine Salzmann from the University of Fribourg. This study identified potentially vulnerable areas (hotpots) in the Kullu district. In collaboration between Indian and Swiss scientists, the research team worked around the mapping of Indian institutions.
They worked on developing a systematic long-term monitoring network and data provision for effective, knowledge-based climate change adaptation and DRR. Another stimulating study by A. Dunets, from Altai State University, Russian Federation, focused on ‘Sustainable Tourist Projects for Economic Development of the Altai Mountains'. The study flagged the issues around the development of tourism projects in and around the Altai Mountains. The Altai Mountains are one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Russian Federation. Issues such as intensive use of natural resources, water pollution, growth of waste, and loss of agricultural land among others hinder developing tourism projects in the area, which otherwise have a vast potential to develop socially, ecologically, and economically in a sustainable fashion.
A study presented at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) defined mountain priorities for the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. The study identified suitable indicators, derived from a list of Sustainable Development Goals, to enable the HKH countries (China, Myanmar, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan) to monitor their progress towards achieving SDGs localized to mountains at the HKH regional level.
The high-end research work presented at the forum coupled with enthusiasm and determination from all the relevant stakeholders strengthened the idea of community participation through cross-learning.
Mountain Conservation — Understand, Adopt, and Adapt
The attempt to bridge conservation of the mountains with food, water, and environmental protection presents many challenges. One issue is how to preserve and protect dwindling mountain resources in a sea of different resource usage and land-use procedures. Agriculture, forestry, and tourism are both concerns and alternatives. How can conventional techniques and cultural norms be incorporated into modern conservation ideology and market-driven systems? How can the demands of all stakeholders be met when all desire favourable treatment? The cost of preserving the mountain ecosystem has most often been borne by on-site stakeholders, while much of the advantages of environmental services provided by the mountains are accumulated by offsite stakeholders, and the global society as a whole. However, insulating on-site users' needs from offsite consumers' vested interests will be neither politically rational nor without consequences in a viable programme.
It would, therefore, be in everyone's interest to provide mountain people with incentives to judiciously preserve and maintain their natural resources. The second challenge is to internalize the benefits and costs of ecosystem services, which the mountains provide to both highland on-site users and lowland offsite consumers in ways or through interventions that they will understand and appreciate. Modalities introduced in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and many developed countries in Europe, provide examples of good practice.
The main difficulty is – how to integrate biological and cultural heritage into actual income which can provide food, shelter, and satisfy other necessities? Ecologically and culturally appropriate tourism could provide income for the poor and is, therefore, key to food and environmental protection. With the volume of resources humanity derives from the mountains, it becomes necessary that collective action be taken. The notion that individual steps are just a few drops in the ocean and do not make a measurable difference needs serious thought.
Also, pioneering policies and instruments are needed to craft thoughts for more reasonable and efficient livelihood options and environmental safekeeping. Amplified regional cooperation on water resource management, fair business in natural resources, new means of payment for environmental services provided by mountain-dwellers, improved equity of access to mountain resources among mountain people and stakeholders, and better ways for mountain people to share information among themselves provide us with a demanding programme for action for the forthcoming years.
The management of mountain resources involves regional and international collaboration, and accumulation of resources and knowledge at both national and global levels. Increasing the scientific and technological information base, applying the latest technologies and know-how, and introducing alternative and suitable strategies are other aspects that must be worked around and highlighted. The greatest need, of course, is a strong political will at both the state and the national levels including an active people's participation. Given this scenario, the Himalayan communities, in particular, and India, as a whole, could benefit immensely.
(The author is a Fulbright-Nehru scholar, who majored in sustainable development and conservation biology from the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. She is currently working on a GoI-GEF-UNDP project; the article first appeared in the December issue of TerraGreen)