Mountains are home to a growing number of the hungriest people in the world.
A new study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and its partners shows that the number of mountain people vulnerable to food insecurity in developing countries increased from 243 to almost 350 million between 2000 and 2017.
In simple terms, one in every two rural mountain people in developing countries was at risk of not having enough food needed for a healthy life even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
These figures are unacceptable.
Around the world, countries are working hard to achieve the internationally agreed 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to end poverty and hunger, leaving no one behind.
But mountain people run the risk of being left behind.
Instead of seeing their conditions improve, many rural mountain people are suffering due to the deterioration of mountain environments, continued marginalization and lack of access to food, markets, basic services and infrastructure.
So what makes improving living conditions in mountain regions so difficult?
The very ecosystems in which mountain people live are fragile. Environmental degradation affects mountain people disproportionately. Their choices and opportunities for nutritious food and balanced diets are limited. This also limits their capacity to cope with food shortages.
Climate change plays a role, triggering the degradation of mountain ecosystems and increasing the occurrence of natural hazards such as landslides and droughts, which can be disastrous for mountain communities. In developing countries, approximately 80 percent of the rural mountain population lives in mountain areas affected by such hazards.
In mountain areas, overgrazing, unsustainable farming practices and urbanization can also lead to land degradation, with loss of agricultural lands and reduced productive capacity.
The COVID-19 crisis has added to the urgency of this situation. Restrictions adopted in response to the pandemic have amplified the existing vulnerabilities of mountain communities, which rely mostly on agriculture, tourism and remittances from migrants for their livelihoods.
Let us be absolutely clear: the deterioration of mountain environments is a massive problem for all of us.
Mountains provide between 60 and 80 percent of the world’s freshwater, essential for domestic consumption, irrigation, industry and food and energy production. Mountains are rich in flora and fauna and host about half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Many of our food crops and livestock originated in the mountains, including potatoes, tomatoes, llamas and yaks.
All of us rely on the biological diversity and ecosystem services supported by mountains to help keep us healthy and prosperous.
So what do we need to do to reverse the shocking statistics on mountain people and promote the restoration of mountain environments?
Addressing climate change is a key piece of the puzzle. Transforming food systems by promoting sustainable agriculture and livelihoods is also vital, with the support of policies, Innovation, research and community involvement.
As we enter the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the global community should focus on mountains as one of the key ecosystems requiring attention. Improving the resilience of mountain ecosystems by preventing soil erosion and maintaining meadows and forests can help maintain biodiversity. It also protects people in downstream areas from flash floods and landslides. At the same time, restored landscapes ensure the water and soil productivity that is essential to food and agriculture.
Another pathway toward improvement is for rural mountain dwellers to find ways to earn income from the rich biodiversity of mountains while using sustainable approaches.
The Mountain Partnership, a United Nations alliance, works for livelihood improvement and natural resource management in mountain communities. With the support of the governments of Andorra, Italy, and Switzerland its Mountain Partnership Products labelling initiative promotes products that come from small-scale producers in mountain areas and preserve local agrobiodiversity and traditional techniques.
These products include chamomile tea and pink rice from India, white honey from Kyrgyzstan, and jams from Peru. The initiative has already supported more than 10,000 farmers – 6, 000 of them are women – in eight countries, and has resulted in production increases of up to 40% and sales increases of up to 49%.
Taking this concept a step further, FAO is launching the 1000 Digital Villages Initiative, which focuses on increasing resilience, diversifying incomes and building back better in rural areas through digital technologies, including e-commerce, and through innovative promotion of rural tourism.
Advertising for these digital villages, their agricultural production, sustainable agri-food systems and cultural elements, as well as agri-tourism will be done through various digital platforms.
Mountain areas need to be part of the rural digital transformation that is driven by the urgency to narrow the urban-rural digital gap and regional disparities, accelerate job creation, rural economic diversification, promote agri-tourism and improve farmers' incomes and livelihoods.
Mountain biodiversity is the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day, celebrated on Dec. 11. This day should be a reminder that governments, organizations and communities can and should do much more to help mountain people protect natural resources, improve their livelihoods, and keep mountain environments healthy.
When we say we will leave no one behind, let us mean it.
Dr. QU Dongyu is Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.