Mountain communities are among the poorest and most affected by hunger in the world. Some 245 million mountain people live in rural areas in developing and transition countries and are threatened by food insecurity, recent FAO research shows.

Do you have an opinion on this? We would like to hear it, but better still, register for the Sustainable Summits Conference to be held at Aoraki Mount Cook from 07 to 11 August 2016.

The characteristics of high-altitude environments – and of the communities that call them home – mean that development in highland areas requires a different approach — mountain-specific strategies, based on mountain-specific research and knowledge.

In the past, however, governments have tended to concentrate development planning and service provision in lowland areas, traditionally centres for national economic production, leaving poverty and development issues in mountain regions unaddressed.

After the adoption of chapter 13 of Agenda 21, “Managing fragile ecosystems: sustainable mountain development”, at 1992’s UN Earth Summit, awareness of the importance of mountain ecosystems and communities increased.

This trend has been reinforced by the designation of 2002 as International Year of Mountains, and by FAO’s ongoing collaboration with partner organizations to shape an International Mountain Partnership.

Consequently, the need to not only protect highland environments but also ensure the economic and social well-being of mountain communities is widely recognized.

However, much remains to be done in terms of translating that growing awareness of highland development needs into mountain-specific laws and policies, FAO has noted.

Needed: mountain-specific laws

FAO’s experience in the field shows that when mountain communities have a sense of at least partial ownership or control over local natural resources they are more inclined to help protect them.

For example, in Nepal about 50 years ago, local communities had little or no incentive to protect state-owned mountain forests. A policy shift in the last two decades devolved management and user rights to local communities, which are currently making profitable investments in forests and benefiting from wood and non-wood forest products. Consequently, communities became increasingly interested in – and committed to – sustainably managing their forests.

Despite the benefits of doing so, however, most countries don’t have the mountain-specific policies or laws that would enable mountain people to more effectively manage mountain ecosystems, observes Douglas McGuire, coordinator of FAO’s work on mountains.

According to a new FAO report, “mountains have only recently begun to attract the attention of political decision-makers and economic planners. Mountain law is, thus, still in its infancy: only a few mountain-specific legal instruments, national and international, are currently in placStill, a few countries — France, Georgia, Italy, Switzerland and Ukraine are examples — have enacted legal instruments focusing specifically on mountain areas, and other countries are in the process of developing similar legislation.

“These converging efforts seem to signal an emerging trend towards a progressive increase in mountain law-making in the years to come,” notes a recent FAO report.