The world's one billion "mountain people" speak out

Kempf family famer in the community of Oberalp, in the Swiss Canton of Uri, recites the alpine blessing with a milk funnel at the end of the day (Credit: Keystone)

From the Alps to the Andes and Malawi's Mount Mulanje, mountain people face common problems. The Mountain Partnership links them in a quest for solutions.

From the Alps to the Andes and Malawi’s Mount Mulanje, mountain communities face common problems, which range from changing rural livestyles to climate change. On Thursday, The Mountain Partnership, convened a virtual meeting, on the margins of the 2020 High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, to discuss some of the threats to livelihoods and ecosystems in mountain communities, home to 15% of the world’s population. Switzerland, shared its ideas on solutions to reach Zero Hunger, one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Switzerland, where mountains cover about two-thirds of the terrain, is one of the cofounders of this unique United Nations Alliance created in 2002 with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Carla Mucavi, Director, of FAO’s UN Liaison Office:

“Mountains provide biodiversity, food, water, clean energy to all of us and mountain communities are stewards of these precious resources. They can help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Why do we talk about “mountain people”? Some 1.1 billion people worldwide live in mountain communities. Of these, one billion live in developing countries (65% in rural areas). About 346 million people are vulnerable to food insecurity with a daily intake of calories and protein below the minimum threshold. With remittances from family working in cities or abroad drying up, and disruptions in supply chains as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns, mountain communities around the world are facing increased risks of hunger and poverty. Switzerland, where 25% of the population lives in mountainous areas, co-founded The Mountain Partnership in 2002, has contributed CHF 600 000 for the 2019-2021 period to initiatives that would reduce food insecurity. Laura Sommer, Deputy Head, International Affairs and Food Security at the Federal Office for Agriculture:

“Mountain areas are often neglected in the global debate yet they are strongly impacted by decisions taken outside of their frontiers. Policy- and decision-makers are not always aware of mountain communities and their specific situations. They produce policies on climate change or biodiversity without addressing them. Bringing together different countries with similar preconditions helps to advance these populations and promote sustainable mountain development.”

Who are the “mountain people”? There is no official definition. Altitude is not a real indicator as some mountain communities are situated at only 600 meters above sea level and while others in the Andes or Himalayas are thousands of meters higher. But in all cases, mountain people are people who depend on the mountain environment for their living. Sommer:

“Mountain people are not equal, but what they all have in common that they live in rough areas with climate change having big impacts on their livelihoods and ecosystems. And they are vulnerable to natural disasters (avalanches, floods, droughts). Often, they have limited access to food and water. It’s a very hard life with difficulty to make a living out of their work.”

Swiss mountain people: Today, only about 5% of the Swiss population is directly dependent on mountainous areas for their livelihoods. A small proportion of those living in mountain communities, they maintain the Alpine traditions of farming and herding that remain an iconic part of the Swiss international image. Sommer:

“Historically, they are farmers who have livestock, and they take care of meadows and alpine pastures including forests. Making a living with farming in mountainous areas alone has become difficult. Additional sources of income are often needed.”

Threats. The vulnerability to food insecurity of mountain people in the developing world is compounded by: natural hazards; climate change; armed conflicts; disease and other health risks; unsustainable land management as well as insecure tenure on the land peasants farm, which makes them particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. But as Sommer says:

“Globally, the main threat is climate change. This has a huge impact on ecosystems. The change on the ecosystems has an impact on food security, which again has an impact on the livelihood of the people.”

Solutions for mountain areas: Stronger international cooperation can help share lessons learned, promote awareness, and empower mountain people. Key needs include;

  • Policies to reduce the negative effects of climate change in the mountains;

  • Control of environmental degradation and the preservation of ecosystems services;

  • Improved infrastructure and services for mountain people

  • Improved living conditions through more sustainable agriculture and food systems, including the promotion of nutritious local food varieties;

  • Initiatives for diversifying livelihoods to safeguard decent work opportunities, particularly for youth in rural areas;

  • Strengthening of partnerships to assist mountain communities in recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and promote synergies between key sectors.

Swiss solutions. Despite the longtime absence of war, as well as well-organized systems of land, forest, water and hazard management, Swiss farmers still face many uncertainties, from climate to volatile markets, in their efforts to eke a out living. Still, Switzerland also has developed financial, ecological and social safety nets that recognize the value of their labour and products that are sustaianbly produced. Sommer cites a few examples:

  • Financial support for mountain livelihoods: Swiss policies actively promote sustainable development of mountain environments, including measures that strengthen the local and regional value chain for products such as meat, milk and cheese. Since 2017, article 104a of the Swiss Federal Constitution has included four core dimensions of food security as a basic right: availability, access, utilization, stability. To support sustainable land management, not always a value recognized by commercial food markets, farmers can request direct payments of financial support on the basis of their terrain’s “ecological performance” based on ten key indicators. Some CHF 1.8 billion, or 63% of direct payments are paid to people living in hill and mountain regions every year, and increase of CHF 100 million since 2017.

  • Supporting regional products and labels. Under the Federal Act on Agriculture, the Swiss government offers subsidies to projects that promote the production of characteristic local and regional agricultural products. For instance, in the Michelsamt region of Lucerne, farmers must meet special requirements in the livestock and crop production of raw products such as milk, cereals, and fruits to have their products used as inputs on locally branded cheeses and bakery items produced either on the high plateau or within a range of thirty kilometers.

  • Promotion of mountain employment. Not only the raw materials, but also the fabrication of branded products produced with government support must be carried out in mountainous areas or adjacent communities. This helps ensure that the added value of processed products is earned locally, further rewarding farmers. Requirements regarding the local production of raw materials supports mountain ecosystems and biodiversity, which has in turn a positive influence on the product as well.