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Taking care of our mountains


Author: Paul Demerritt


Home to 1.2 billion people and occupying nearly a quarter of the earth’s surface, mountains and their surrounding ecosystems provide a bounty of life-sustaining resources. UNESCO aptly named mountains the “Water Towers of the World” due to their vast reserves of freshwater that supply a range of services such as drinking water and energy production to downstream communities. Over half of humanity relies on these freshwater reserves drawn from mountain ecosystems. In addition, mountains are home to a wide range of flora and fauna, comprising nearly half of the world’s biodiversity. Mountains are the backbone to life on Earth, and their conservation is critical to our survival.

Mountains, despite their vital importance, are one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems. Manmade ecological crises such as climate change and the overexploitation of resources are already degrading mountain environments with dire consequences for the people, plants, and animals reliant on their conservation. Communities living and surviving in mountain ecosystems are diverse, comprising small-scale farmers and pastoralists, indigenous groups, dense cities, and many more. Downstream towns and cities, even some hundreds of kilometers away, are also dependent on the ecosystem services mountains provide. Thus, mountain conservation should be a shared goal between even the most distant communities that are united in their reliance on the sustainability of highland natural resources. Despite these differences, these disparate groups are linked by common environmental and socio-economic risks. Mountain communities throughout the world often struggle with widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, lower education levels, and a dependence on agriculture. Environmental crises only exacerbate these challenges – especially for marginalized groups such as women and girls and ethnic minorities. For example, as mountain glaciers melt from increased temperatures, people living in the highlands face greater difficulties in surviving due to flooding and landslides, threatening their livelihoods and exacerbating existing gender and social inequities.

In recognition of the importance of mountain ecosystems, CARE is joining the United Nations and our partners throughout the world in celebrating International Mountain Day 2020. First established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2003, International Mountain Day is observed “to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, to highlight the opportunities and constraints in mountain development and to build alliances that will bring positive change to mountain peoples and environments around the world.” This report contributes to the wealth of information and conversations around mountains by highlighting CARE programs that address the social and environmental threats to highland ecosystems, underscoring the disproportionate impacts of these threats on women and other marginalized groups, and drawing from their experiences to outline best practices for integrated, equitable, and community-centered approaches to mountain conservation.