Mountain cover a quarter of the earth’s surface area, which is home to almost 20 per cent of the world’s population, and provide goods and ecosystem services vital for the wellbeing of downstream populations-about half of humanity-and for sustaining our planet and its ecosystem. Providing habitat for unique species and for indigenous people of distinct cultures, mountains are a global common and natural capital whose heritage value must be recognized and valued. The green economy model presents this opportunity.
The Green Economy Agenda
The green economy, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP 2011), is one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. The green economy agenda seeks to promote an economic system which increases human wellbeing over the long term while maintaining natural capital and environmental resources so that future generations do not face significant environmental risks and ecological scarcities.
While the green economy may bring new opportunities for investment in ecosystem services e.g. freshwater, biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration, renewable energy and creation of jobs, it also creates challenges. It must be pursued with a balanced approach of economic, environmental and social development and appropriate policy and is necessary to revisit the mountain agenda.
Mountain ecosystem services
Mountain is an important source of vital ecosystem servics on which the regional and global environments and global economy largely depend and harbour a wide range of important natural resources. They make important contribution to economic development, environmental protection, ecological sustainability and human wellbeing as well as to economic and ecological resilience in the downstream regions.
About half of the world’s population depends on mountains for fresh water, clean energy, irrigation water, flood control, mineral, timber and non-timber forest products, recreation and genetic resources. Half of the global biodiversity hotspots and one-third of all protected areas are in the mountains.
Mountains are also home to more than a billion people, a substantial proportion of who are indigenous ethnic communities whose livelihood largely depends on natural resources available in mountain areas. Mountains are also source of cultural, spiritual and recreational resources for urban populations.
Mountain ecosystem plays a significant role in regulating water quantity and quality. Almost all of the world’s major rivers and many of the minor ones, begin in mountainous regions, which supply a large percentage of the water resources of the entire globe. The high-altitude cryosphere stores huge amounts of water as snow and ice. These are unique reservoir of fresh water which is released year round in perennial rivers serving as a lifeline for billions of people downstream. For this reason mountain are often referred as the ‘’water tower of the world’’.
More than half of the humanity relies on freshwater from mountains to grow food, produce electricity, sustain industries and provide drinking water. Mountain hydrological services are also essential for groundwater recharge and related functions that maintain hydrological balance in downstream areas. Thus water availability downstream-whether for domestic consumption or agriculture- is an essential service provided by mountain systems.
Hydropower and other forms of clean energy, such as wind and solar energy are becoming increasingly important all over the world to meet growing energy needs, particularly those of countries with developing economies such as China and India. Clean energy is needed to maintain economic growth in a sustainable way and to improve the living standards of the vast number of people who still depends on wood fuels.
Mountains are important source of hydropower-which provides more than 15 per cent of the world’s energy and other forms of clean energy. Swift flowing rivers of mountains are cost-effective sources of hydropower all over the world. However, this source of energy is not fully exploited. Mountain ecosystems contribute in regulating global climate through biogeochemical and biophysical processes that mediate the carbon, energy and water balance at the land surface.
Mountain climate regulation services extend beyond their geographical boundaries and affect all continental main lands. Mountain ecosystems also have a significant role in carbon storage and carbon sequestration.
Mountain regions contain many different ecosystems and have among the world’s highest species richness. Mountain communities have long been custodians of agro biodiversity. Six of the 20 plant crop species that supply 80 per cent of the world’s food (maize, potatoes, barley, sorghum, tomatoes and apples) originated in the mountains.
A number of domestic animals such as sheep, goats, domestic yaks, lianas and alpacas also originated in mountain regions. The genetic diversity in mountains is particularly high, in part because of mountains’ geographic isolation and in part because the many diverse mountain cultures have long traditions of protecting certain plants and animals. While plant species diversity decreases with altitude, genetic diversity increases. Remote mountain regions serve as the last sanctuaries of many species and their populations, facilitating speciation.
Mountains also serve as a bridge between continents and provide a refuge for species migrating under the influence of global temperature change. Biodiversity is globally and temporally significant. Species that at present have little human use might be important in the future. As an integral component of ecosystem, biodiversity affects most ecosystem services. Thus, biodiversity conservation is important for a green economy and sustainable development.
Mountain provides a setting for cultural, religious and recreational activities such as hiking, wildlife viewing, bird watching, experiencing the beauty of the landscape and observing and enjoying the unique lifestyle and culture of mountain communities. Mountain harbors a high degree of ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. In mountain ranges throughout the world, traditional cultures and natural resource conservation have evolved together over the ages.
Sustainable natural resource management is driven by the beliefs and behaviors of human communities and local cultures and strengthened by their intimate connections to the natural environment that sustains them. Mountain populations also conserve vast indigenous knowledge about such subjects as agriculture, botany, medicine and ecology. Sacred and spiritual values are thus integral to mountain culture; more than 1 billion people consider mountain sacred. The spiritual values of local mountain culture today have an important role in the continuing stewardship of watershed and other mountain ecosystem.
Downstream livelihood and economy
Mountain ecosystem services provide both direct and indirect contributions to mountain and downstream livelihoods and economy. In terms of direct contributions, mountain provides a large share of the world’s resources for mining, forestry, water for drinking and irrigation and hydropower and generates an increasing amount of wind power as well. Mountain product and services form the basis for much economic sector- food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic, agriculture, forestry and range load production; hydropower generation, tourism and others.
Mountain rangeland and forest provide economic benefits to local and global communities through medicinal plants, nuts, fruits, timber, fuel wood and minerals. Mountain vegetation plays a significant role in reducing or mitigating risks from natural hazards- for example in protecting against erosion, landslides and local flooding. Mountain forest, for instance protect people and property from avalanches and rock fall and their water holding capacity reduces peak stream flow.
As mountain ecosystem services contribute to sustaining and enhancing the Earth’s sustainability and prosperity, the green economy framework and Rio+20 need to recognize the benefits arising from mountain ecosystems and should set principles and policies for global, regional and national actions in support of sustainable mountain development. Principles for full-cost pricing of resources and services from mountain areas and mechanisms for graining mountain communities a fair share of the benefits derived from the use of mountain resources should be established.
(The views expressed is personal)