Interview: Saving the world one mountain village at a time

Farmland in Ilam District, Nepal: TMI’s Medicinal & Aromatic Plants Program; Photo: K. Bhutia

Farmland in Ilam District, Nepal: TMI’s Medicinal & Aromatic Plants Program; Photo: K. Bhutia

Dr Andrew Taber is the executive director of The Mountain Institute. This international NGO addresses mountain sustainability issues, particularly in the context of climate change, around the world. Within the “Scaling Up Mountain EbA Program”, funded by Germany’s Environment Ministry (BMU) and its International Climate Initiative (IKI), The Mountain Institute is using Ecosystem based Adaptation (EbA) to build climate-change resilience, reduce disaster risk and promote adaptation in mountains, benefiting people in mountains directly as well as downstream.

Dr Taber, your project started last year, building on the IKI project "Ecosystem-based adaption in mountain ecosystems”. What benefit will the new program bring?

Andrew Taber, Executive Director of The Mountain Institute; Photo: PB IKI/ Karin BeeseThe new program will enable us to consolidate our Ecosystem-based Adaptation work at local levels through demonstration projects and will show how this approach can work in practice. We will test and implement solutions, upscale them and also replicate them. We will focus on the original project countries which are Peru, Uganda and Nepal but also expand to Colombia, Kenya and Bhutan. We are focusing on applying and identifying EbA measures in these countries, working to influence national policies and also engaging with international policy processes to share effective measures more broadly.

Why do you focus on mountain regions?

It has been our focus since our beginning in 1972. Mountains are extraordinarily important at national, regional and global levels. Between 60% and 80% of the fresh water that humanity depends on every single day flows from mountain sources. Mountains also harbour about a quarter of terrestrial biodiversity, yet are some of the most hard-hit environments by climate change. Further, climate change models predict that relative temperature increases at higher altitudes will be on the order of 1,8 times greater than in lowlands. So, if we see a 2°C increase down here we will see almost 4°C at 3,000m to 4,000m in the mountains – and accordingly, even more severe impacts!

What are the threats that mountains face with climate change?

A critical backdrop to climate change in mountains is widespread environmental degradation and extreme poverty. One in three people who live in mountains today are vulnerable to food insecurity – a much neglected issue on the global stage. With climate change we are already seeing rapid glacier retreat and changes in snow cover at faster rates than many of the climate change models have predicted. In addition, mayor changes in precipitation patterns are occurring. These factors combine to threaten water supplies, with consequences for both mountain and downstream communities and economies.

View on the way to Laguna Mullaca, Cordillera Blanca, Peru; Photo: TMI

There are also major issues concerning migration, poverty and lack of government services in remote mountain regions. Out-migration is pervasive, particularly at high elevations, due to poorly developed economic opportunities. But, we also expect more in-migration from climate refugees fleeing scorching lowland areas. A wide set of environmental and social challenges are impacting the world’s mountains today, and will likely become more acute in the future.

As you look across the global agenda other topics have captured a huge portion of concern and action, like marine areas or flooding islands. But there are many other regions such as dry lands and mountains that also need attention and that face severe social and environmental issues. We are doing as much as we can to raise the profile of mountain issues on the international stage so that no one will be left behind.

Why is the need for adaptation in mountains so difficult to communicate?

I think it’s partly a messaging issue. Mountains are perceived as symbols of enduring immutable nature, bedrock areas that will never change. In fact, mountains contain some of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet, and most vulnerable communities. They also have amazing cultural diversity, thousands of languages, amazing rituals and practices, traditional knowledge, etc. We are extremely proud that we won one of the Solution Search Awards in the Farming for Biodiversity Contest. That involved restoring ancient water management techniques that go back a thousand years that are fantastic at helping indigenous, highland communities make better use of mountain water supply. It is a perfect example of Ecosystem-based Adaptation, and shows the value of indigenous knowledge. And it's what funding from the German government has enabled us to do – for which we are extremely grateful.

So within your program you are searching for and distributing solutions as well as working on the policy level?

We are trying to raise the profile at the policy level, but I am proudest of our work to demonstrate tangible solutions to current challenges. Maybe I could briefly outline a few different ones because I think each one is very interesting. I don't want to just list "all the disasters occurring in mountains!" We believe that there are answers to many problems. If governments paid attention, if there is an appropriate investment, if there is technical help, if communities are empowered, if land tenure issues are addressed - humanity can solve these problems! We at The Mountain Institute want to give a message of hope and resilience.

Vicuñas grazing with Andes peak behind; Photo: TMI

Could you explain some practical examples?

Viewed from the Andean highlands, Peru is a country where 70% of the population lives in desert lowlands on the coast where almost no rain falls. They are highly dependent on mountain water sources – gravely threatened by glacial retreat. We have found that by working at the individual mountain community level - “saving the world one mountain village at a time” - there are wonderful approaches to improving water security for highlanders and lowlanders alike. One of the most exciting and innovative possibilities concerns the Vicuña. This wild cousin of the alpaca has come back from the edge of extinction. It can be managed as a wild animal - sheering, not killing the animals – and has one of the world’s most valuable fibres: a single scarf can cost as much as 2000 US dollars. A sustainable and humane harvest of their fleece can both greatly improve household income, but also create incentives for protecting alpine environments vital for vicunas and downstream water security. Combined with improved management of domestic alpacas, grasslands and related wetlands, we see a pathway that could triple the household income of some of the poorest people in Peru. If we can get this right through microcredit for indigenous herders to improve pastures, better environmental management, and access to markets, we can help build an economic motor that would drive conservation, bolster water security, and strengthen climate change adaptation.

Miraflores, Peru: community members carry posts to build fences around grasslands that were restored by repairing an ancient water canal; Photo: TMI

We see similar prospects in the Himalayas related to the ancient trade in medicinal and aromatic plants. These species have long been collected from the wild for Ayurvedic treatments and traditional Chinese medicine. Yet the traditional wild harvest has contributed to degraded mountain forests and has even put some plant species at risk of extinction. These habitats, similar to the Andes, are critical for water security, climate change adaptation and erosion control. In Nepal, we are working with indigenous farmers to help them cultivate these valuable plants as an alternative to wild harvesting. Farmers can intercrop these plants on terrace risers leaving room to grow their traditional food crops. They also are using these plants to restore degraded lands. We are working with mountain villages to strengthen cooperatives, build market linkages, and create incentives to better protect mountain habitats. Our hope is that young men and women will see a vital economic future for themselves in the mountains rather than migrating away. And that by staying, their own economic activities can contribute to better protecting mountain biodiversity, forests, and water supplies that so many people depend on.

Transplanting medicinal plant seedlings, Upper Arun, Nepal; Photo: TMI

Leading women farmers grow Chiraito on terraced land, Eastern Nepal; Photo: K. Bhutia

Is there something the regions can learn from each other?

Absolutely! We at The Mountain Institute have long encouraged sharing knowledge and solutions between the Andes and the Himalayas, and other mountain regions. But, we also think a lot of learning needs to happen in my own country. We look forward to bringing some of these experiences back to the USA to help manage protected areas and natural resources with local and Native-American communities in the context of climate change. There is much to be learned from ancient practices, and indigenous peoples—both deserve more respect! And by combining traditional knowledge with them and with the latest science we can better protect the world’s mountains.

Vicuñas in mountain wetlands, Peruvian Andes; Photo: TMI

Thank you very much!