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Joahannesburg Summit 2002
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Launch of International Year of Mountain to Focus Attention on Highland Needs

11 December– Over half the world's people gets their water from the mountains, but without assistance, those mountains could be in trouble, and the downstream consequences could be devastating, resulting in water shortages, landslides, and loss of biodiversity.

To focus global attention on mountain regions, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2002 to be the International Year of Mountain. At the ceremony launching the Year, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said "everyone has a stake in ensuring that the world's mountain regions continue to provide their riches for many generations to come; this is a challenge the world's peoples can and must scale together."

Often overshadowed by their scenic beauty, and out of earshot as a result of their isolation and inaccessibility, mountain populations are increasingly facing deteriorating ecosystems, growing poverty, and growing instability and armed conflict. But the recent war set in the stark but beautiful mountains of Afghanistan have concentrated world attention on the poverty, famine, and war that are usually out of sight and out of mind to the rest of the world.

According to Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, of the 27 armed conflicts that were raging in 1999, 23 were fought in mountain regions.

"Mountain areas are home to most of the armed conflicts in the world as well as many of the world's poorest and least food-secure people," Diouf said. "As we begin commemorating the International Year of Mountains, conflict may be the single greatest obstacle to achieving our goal. Without peace, we cannot reduce poverty. Without peace, we cannot ensure food supplies. Without peace, we cannot even consider sustainable development."

In addition to serving as the watershed for much of the world, mountains contain a significant amount of the world's biodiversity. In the Andes, for example, there are as many as 200 different varieties of indigenous potatoes and in Nepal, farmers cultivate more than 2,000 varieties of rice. In high-altitude refuges from lowland sprawl, mountain gorillas in Africa, spectacled bears in the Andes, and quetzal in Central America continue to cling to ever-shrinking cloud forests.

But Yolanda Kakabadse, former environment minister of Ecuador and currently President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature noted that climate change was causing mountain ice caps to disappear, little by little. At the moment, she said, there has been a one-third reduction in ice formations on mountains.

It is generally considered that about 10 percent of the word's population lives in mountains, but Bruno Messerli of the University of Berne, Switzerland, said that new surveys have revealed that as much as 26 percent of the world's population lives on or within 50 kilometers of mountains.

Due to their remoteness, mountain people tend to be poorer than their lowland counterparts, a factor that causes many young people to leave the mountains. Lhakpa Sherpa, who works as a manager of the Qomolangma Conservation Programme in the Chinese Autonomous Region of Tibet for the Mountain Institute, said once young people leave the mountain, "they fly away, never to return." Participation of the mountain people in their own development is essential, he said, and without that participation, it is impossible to break the cycle of poverty.

Sustainable mountain development is a major objective of Agenda 21, the global plan for sustainable development that was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Calling mountains an important source of water, energy and biodiversity, Agenda 21 called for steps to reverse practices that cause accelerated soil erosion, landslides and the rapid loss of habitat and genetic diversity, and to address the problems of widespread poverty and the loss of indigenous knowledge.

"People go to mountains to find their souls," said Bernadette McDonald of the Banff Centre, Canada. "A year that will help people find their souls is one worth celebrating."

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24 August 2006