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Mountain Wildernesses: Increasingly Threatened by Farms, Roads, Fires and Wars

New UNEP Report to be Key Contribution for Bishkek Mountain Summit

LONDON/NAIROBI, 23 October 2002 - The world's mountain regions, considered indomitable and unchanging, are gradually being tamed as more and more land is converted to farming and grazing, a new survey shows.

Almost half of Africa's mountain regions are estimated to now be under the plough or the hoof, followed by South America. In Africa, an estimated ten per cent of mountain areas have been converted to cropland and 34 per cent turned over to grazing, the survey shows.

Apart from Greenland, the region whose mountains appear to be the most pristine is North and Central America. Here only an estimated 14 per cent has been converted of which nine per cent is for cattle, sheep and other domestic livestock and five per cent for crops.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said: "Mountains have been a source of wonder and inspiration for human societies and cultures since time immemorial. Mountains, from Mount Fuji in Japan to Mount Olympus in Greece, play key roles in many religions. Indeed they have often been seen as the homes of the Gods. Legends abound, from the fabled Yeti of the Himalayas, to Big Foot in the United States".

"Our reverence for these unique, wilderness, areas has been partly based on their remoteness, their inaccessibility. But this new report highlights how, like so many parts of the world, some of these last wild areas are fast disappearing in the face of agriculture, infrastructure development and other creeping impacts. Behind all these is the spectre of climate change, which is already taking its toll on the glaciers and changing plant and animal communities in high altitude areas," he said.

"These impacts, these losses, are not just regrettable but threaten the health and well-being of us all. Mountains are the water towers of the world, from where the world's mighty rivers spring. We must act to conserve them for the benefit of mountain people, for the benefit of human-kind," he said.

The findings on agricultural intensification in mountain areas forms part of a unique report called Mountain Watch.

It notes that traditional agricultural systems, such as terracing, can have a healthy impact on mountain areas by, for example, helping to stabilize soils.

But the report, which will be presented to heads of state, ministers and other delegates attending the Global Mountain Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which runs from 29 October to 1 November, indicates that much of the conversion to crop or grazing land is leading to loss of forests and other land cover which can accelerate erosion and soil loss as well as have impacts on wildlife and water resources.

The report, the first map-based assessment of environmental change in mountain areas and the implications for sustainable development, has been compiled by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) as a contribution to the International Year of the Mountains.

Mark Collins, Director of UNEP-WCMC, said the report graphically illustrated seven pressures or causes of environmental change in mountains: natural hazards, fire, climate change, infrastructure growth, violent human conflict, changes in land cover and agricultural intensification.

He added: "To identify the priority areas for global mountain conservation, maps of ecosystem and indicator species groups were overlaid with information about the various pressures. The result was stunning. We could clearly see which areas are suffering most due to a combination of pressures or impacts. So for the first time we have a global snapshot of the threats and vulnerability of different mountain regions".

"Mountain environments cover some 24 per cent of the world's land surface and deserve the level of concern afforded to other global ecosystems," said Andrei Iatsenia, UNEP's Mountain Programme Coordinator. "To this end, UNEP, with support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is promoting a more strategic approach to tackling mountain problems. The Mountain Watch process will provide accessible and accurate information for policy makers and all involved in mountain issues," he said.

Other highlights from the report.

  • South America's mountain areas appear particularly vulnerable to "destructive earthquakes" with approximately 88 per cent of the mountain land area deemed at risk.
  • Parts of the Caucasus, California and the North-West Andes, (in particular the forest ecosystems of the Magdalena Valley in Colombia), are amongst the most threatened, bio-diversity rich, mountain areas in the world. They should be made conservation priorities.
  • Almost a quarter of mountain areas globally could be "highly impacted" by infrastructure development including roads, mining and power and pipelines by 2035.
  • The mountains of Greenland are likely to be the hardest hit by global warming. 98 per cent of its mountain areas could be suffering severe climate change by 2055.
  • Africa's mountain regions are being hardest hit by multiple pressures including conversion of forests and other mountain terrain to grazing land, fire and violent human conflict.
  • The risk of serious violent conflict is higher in mountain regions. The highest level of mountain land that has witnessed war is in Africa. Here 67 per cent has been impacted by "high intensity conflict".

Adrian Newton, lead author of the Mountain Watch report, said: The report shows that globally approximately 41 per cent of mountain land has fallen within the radius of a high intensity human conflict between 1946 and 2001, compared with 26 per cent of non-mountain land".

The report shows that, despite the intensification of agriculture in mountain regions, these lands are less suitable for growing crops than more low land areas. This, said Mr Newton, allied to environmental degradation may play a role in increasing the risk of armed conflict in mountain regions.

Notes to Editors The Mountain Watch report was compiled by UNEP-WCMC and the UNEP Mountain Programme in collaboration with the GEF and other partners.

The report, photographs and other information is available on the Web at:

Broadcast footage is available from the Television Trust for the Environment (TVE). Contact TVE on Tel: +44 (0) 20 7586 5526,

For information on the Bishkek Summit see

For more information please contact: Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP Division of Communications, on Tel: 254 2 623292, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 682656, E-mail:, or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 2 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail:

Robert Bisset, UNEP press officer and Bishkek conference spokesperson on Tel: +331 44 37 76 13; Mobile: +336 22 72 58 42, E-mail: From October 25, c/o Hyatt Regency Bishkek, Tel: +996 312 66 12 34, Fax: +996 312 66 57 44.

UNEP News Release 2002/75

Saturday 23 Nov 2002
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