Mountains—Why We Need Them
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”—JOHN MUIR, AMERICAN WRITER AND NATURALIST.
AS John Muir discovered over a century ago, mountains have the power to move us. Their majesty impresses us, their wildlife enthralls us, and their peace relaxes us. Millions visit the mountains every year to enjoy the scenery and to uplift their spirits. “Mountains have been a source of wonder and inspiration for human societies and cultures since time immemorial,” notes Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.
But all is not well in the mountains. For generations their remoteness has largely protected them from excessive human exploitation. Now, however, they are under threat. “Some of these last wild areas are fast disappearing in the face of agriculture, infrastructure development and other creeping impacts,” explains a recent United Nations press release.
Mountain environments cover a large portion of the world’s land surface. Half the population of the world depends on their resources. And the mountains are also home to millions of people. Mountains are much more than breathtaking backdrops to a peaceful pastoral setting. Let us consider some of the contributions they make to the welfare of humankind.
Why the Mountains Matter
◼ WATER STORAGE. The mountains are the source of our largest rivers as well as the water for most of our water reservoirs. In North America the mighty Colorado River and the Rio Grande derive practically all their water from the Rocky Mountains. About half the population of the world lives in southern and eastern Asia. And most of these people depend on precipitation that falls on the huge mountain chains of the Himalaya-Karakoram-Pamirs-Tibet regions.
“Mountains, the water towers of the world, are vital to all life on earth and to the well-being of people everywhere,” explains Toepfer, adding: “What happens on the highest mountain peak affects life in the lowlands, in freshwaters and even in the seas.” In many lands, mountains conserve winter snow, slowly releasing its vital moisture during the spring and summer. In arid parts of the world, irrigation often depends on water provided by melting snows in faraway mountains. Many mountains have forested slopes that absorb the rain like a sponge, allowing it to run downhill gently to the rivers, rather than cause devastating floods.
◼ WILDLIFE HABITATS AND BIODIVERSITY. The remoteness of mountainous regions, together with their limited agricultural potential, has meant less human encroachment. As a result, mountains have become a sanctuary for fauna and flora that may have already disappeared in the lowlands. For example, Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia, a mountainous area smaller than New York City, is home to 4,500 species of plants—more than a quarter of the number of plant species found in the entire United States. The giant pandas of China, the condors of the Andes, and the snow leopards of central Asia all depend on mountain habitats, as do countless other species threatened with extinction.
According to National Geographic magazine, some ecologists have calculated that “over a third of known land plants and vertebrates are confined to less than 2 percent of the planet.” Large numbers of species are clustered in rich, unspoiled areas that scientists call biological hot spots. These hot spots—many of which are mountainous areas—contain biodiversity from which we have all benefited. Some of the most important food crops in the world come from wild plants that still grow in the mountains—corn in the highlands of Mexico, potatoes and tomatoes in the Peruvian Andes, and wheat in the Caucasus, to mention just a few.
◼ RECREATION AND BEAUTY. Mountains also conserve natural beauty. They boast impressive waterfalls, beautiful lakes, and much of the world’s most dramatic scenery. Not surprisingly, a third of all the world’s protected areas are found in mountainous regions. And they have become a favorite destination for tourists.
Even remote national parks receive millions of visitors from all over the world. People travel across the planet to Denali National Park in Alaska to see Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain. Many visit the Great Rift Valley to marvel at imposing Mounts Kilimanjaro and Meru or to observe the vast herds of wild animals that reside between these two majestic peaks. Many mountain communities benefit from this influx of tourists, although uncontrolled tourism can threaten the fragile ecosystems.
Knowledge Stored in the Mountains
Over the centuries, the people who live in the mountains have learned how to prosper in a harsh environment. Mountain people have carved out terraces that still support viable agriculture after two millenniums. They have domesticated local animals, such as the llama and the yak, which can cope with the rigors of high altitudes. And the traditional knowledge accumulated by mountain inhabitants may prove invaluable for protecting the mountains on which we all depend.
“Indigenous peoples are the sole guardians of vast, little-disturbed habitats in remote parts of every continent,” explains Alan Thein Durning of the Worldwatch Institute. “They possess a body of ecological knowledge . . . that rivals the libraries of modern science.” This storehouse of knowledge needs just as much protection as do other mountain assets.
The United Nations Environment Programme sponsored the International Year of Mountains 2002. To emphasize mankind’s dependence on the mountains, organizers coined the phrase “We Are All Mountain People.” They aimed to increase awareness of the problems facing the world’s mountains and seek solutions to protect them.
This concern certainly is a valid one. “Far too frequently, mountains are seen as providers of abundant natural resources, with insufficient attention paid to the plight of their inhabitants as well as the sustainability of their ecosystems,” stated a keynote speaker at the 2002 Bishkek Global Mountain Summit, organized in Kyrgyzstan.
What are some of the problems facing the mountains of the world and the people who dwell there? How do these problems affect all of us?