Worldwatch Paper #123: High Priorities: Conserving Mountain Ecosystems and Cultures

February 1995
Derek Denniston
ISBN: 1-878071-24-6
80 pages

Many people perceive mountains as powerful symbols of pristine wilderness and natural beauty. But these perceptions belie the vulnerabilities of mountain environments and the social marginalization of their peoples.

Mountains make up one-fifth of the world’s landscapes and are home to at least one-tenth of the world’s peoples. In the surrounding lowlands, millennia of intensifying human use have led to advancing biological impoverishment and cultural homogenization. Mountain peoples, in their vertical archipelagos of human and natural variety, have become the guardians of irreplaceable global assets. Their homelands serve as sloping storehouses of timber, minerals, meat, and hydroelectric power for the surging populations below them. And at least half of humanity now depends on mountain watersheds for fresh water. Mountains are also becoming recreational refuges from crowded cities for the tourist elite. All over the world, expanding economic pressures are degrading mountain ecosystems, while confronting mountain peoples with increasing cultural assimilation, debilitating poverty, and political disempowerment.

In High Priorities, Derek Denniston examines promising community-based initiatives that integrate conservation and sustainable development, and spells out new priorities for effective action at the regional, national, and global levels.