Welcome to the United Nations. It's your world.

International Mountain Day
11 December

2011 Theme: “Mountains and Forests”
Mountain Forests, Roots to our Future

Mountain forests protect local communities against natural disasters and safeguard the natural resources and environmental services billions of people rely on for their well-being and livelihoods. They are some of the most spectacularly beautiful landscapes on Earth, but they are under threat.

Mountain forests protect sources of freshwater 

Mountains in Honduras

Mountain forests cover over 9 million sq. km: 28% of the world’s closed forest area. Mountains in Honduras. UN Photo/A Wolff

More than half of the world’s population relies on freshwater stored in mountains for drinking, cooking and washing, irrigation, hydropower, industry and transportation. When forests are removed in mountains and the land is left unprotected, runoff and soil erosion increase. As a result, water quality deteriorates in streams and rivers for both upstream and downstream communities. Fish and other aquatic species are threatened. Irrigation systems that highland and lowland farmers depend on silt up, threatening food production and entailing costly maintenance.

Mountain forests protect people against natural disasters

Mountain forests help to ensure that people are protected against natural disasters. When forest cover is lost in mountain areas, villages and cities, tourist resorts, power plants, transmission lines and rail and road systems all become more vulnerable to landslides, avalanches and floods. As the climate changes, the protective shield provided by mountain forests will become even more important. Storms are expected to become more intense with higher precipitation, increasing the risk of natural disasters in mountains.

Healthy forests for healthy communities

For mountain forests to provide us with protection, they must be healthy. The health of a forest is determined by its density and the presence of a broad mixture of tree species of varying ages and heights. This mixture is crucial if the forest is to withstand natural hazards, pest infestations and diseases.

Many mountain forests continue to exhibit these healthy traits. In some cases, however, when mountain forests are managed by companies that are unconnected to the local community and focused on the production of a single commodity, usually timber, maintaining the overall health of the forest may not be the highest priority.

Mountain forests under threat

Mountains in Guatemala

Deforestation can lead to soil erosion, crop failures and food shortages. View of mountains in the Quiche province in guatemala. UN Photo/John Olsson

Deforestation in mountains is driven in large part by population growth and the expansion of commercial agriculture. As competition for land in mountain areas has increased, smallholder farmers have been forced to clear marginal lands on steep slopes unsuited to agriculture. Pastoralists send animals to graze on mountain pastures and forested land, often destroying ground cover, compacting the soil, preventing natural regeneration and complicating reforestation. Commercial logging and mining have also contributed to a loss of forest cover in mountains.

Protecting mountain forests

Work must be undertaken at all levels of governance to ensure that mountain forests are protected so that they can, in turn, protect us and provide essential goods and environmental services.

At the community level, mountain people need to have a say in the management of local forest resources, have clear rights to access the land and water they need to carry out their stewardship responsibilities effectively and are properly recompensed for their work.

Forest managers have to apply best forest practices to ensure that mountain forests can carry out their essential protective functions.

At the national and international level, policy-makers and delegates need to consider forests issues in national and global strategies for disaster risk reduction, water resource management and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

UN Web Services Section, Department of Public Information, © United Nations