Mountain Cultures: Celebrating Diversity and Strengthening Identity
December 11, which has been designated as “International Mountain Day” by the United Nations General Assembly has been observed every year to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, to highlight the opportunities and constraints in mountain development and to build alliances that will bring positive change to mountain peoples and environments around the world.
There is so much to be said about the world’s undeniably incredible mountains. These giants encompass some of the most spectacular landscapes, a wide variety of ecosystems, a great diversity of species, and distinctive human communities.
• Mountains cover 22 percent of the earth’s land surface
• Mountain tourism attracts 15-20% of global tourism
• Indigenous and local populations in mountains have unique local knowledge, traditions and cultural practices
• Mountains are home to 13 per cent of the world population
• Mountains have 56 per cent of all Biosphere Reserves
The Sustainable Development Forum Nagaland (SDFN) together with the Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI), other mountain networks and communities across the world is observing the International Mountain Day by way of sharing information about mountains and their importance in not just in our lives but in shaping and influencing global development. Nagaland, like most of the northeast, is in the Eastern Himalayan region which is amongst one of the most significant global biodiversity hotspots.
Last year’s theme raised awareness of how mountain agriculture, which is predominantly family farming, has been a model for sustainable development for centuries. It highlighted how family farming in many mountain regions is undergoing rapid transformation due to population growth, economic globalisation and urbanisation. This was an issue so relevant to Nagaland and its farmers where a majority of our farmers are small land holders practising family based farming.
The theme for this year’s International Mountain Day is ‘Mountain Cultures: Celebrating Diversity and Strengthening Identity’. If one were to look within, we will notice that this concept of traditional heritage, culture and spirituality is intrinsically linked with our livelihoods, where it is often our traditional lifestyles that determine the way our people make a living and subsist. Nagaland like many mountain areas is home to indigenous communities that possess and maintain precious knowledge, traditions and languages. How these are valued, conserved and used is a different issue.
In terms of spirituality, mountains have a spiritual meaning for most religions: Mount Olympus, Mount Sinai, Machu Picchu, Mount Athos, just to name a few. Mountain peoples across the world have developed remarkable land use systems that are rich in globally significant biodiversity thanks to the harmonious co-existence of communities with the environment.
More than a quarter of the world’s surface is covered by mountains and over 12 per cent of the human population (approximately 720 million people) call mountains their home. Mountains not only provide sustenance for mountain people around the world, but also indirectly benefit billions more living downstream. They are the water towers of the world, providing freshwater to at least half of the world’s people. Most of the world’s rivers are fed from mountain sources, with snow acting as a storage mechanism for downstream users.
They also play an important role in influencing regional and global climates and weather conditions. All this essentially means that the well-being of people around the world depends largely on the health of our mountains.
To us mountain people, land, water and forests are not just natural resources. Our well-being, sense of identity and our children’s future depend on the careful stewardship of this environment. While we may aspire for new types of crops, institutions or forms of development, one cannot ignore the fact that ultimately, our traditional knowledge and techniques will be critical to managing and enhancing the resilience of our fragile mountain ecosystems. Even as the world celebrates, let us give a thought to the vast knowledge system of our ancestors and our people and ensure that we do not lose it as rapidly as we are losing it now.
Can the theme for next year’s Hornbill be based on our diverse natural biodiversity?
Mountains across the world are also places of tourism and cultural trails. From skiing to climbing to visiting the rock churches in Ethiopia, mountains offer all types of possibilities to all kinds of tourists. Probably, one reason why people flock to our Hornbill Festival is because Nagaland is a mountain state and yes, mountains and hills do attracted people. If sustainably managed, Nagaland Tourism can have a role in promoting and protecting traditional cultures as well as creating incentives for the protection of our ecosystems, their goods and services too. Can the theme for next year’s Hornbill be based on our diverse natural biodiversity? After all, our very own cultures do emanate from these resources and the agricultural calendars.
Vulnerability of mountain ecosystems
As gigantic and enormous as they may seem, mountains are vulnerable to a host of threats including landslides, fire, climate change, land cover change and agricultural intensification, deforestation, infrastructure development, and armed conflicts. These pressures degrade mountain environments and affect the fragile ecosystem and the livelihoods of people dependent upon them. The impacts of unsuitable development are particularly intense and more rapid in mountains, and more difficult to correct than in other ecosystems.
At the same time, mountain people are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged in the world, with about 80 per cent living in poverty. They often face marginalisation and lack access to basic services such as health and education. Like most in Nagaland, traditional mountain societies rely on agriculture, with a higher risk of crop failure than at lower elevations because of harsh weather and less level ground suitable for agriculture. Moreover, since mountains are constantly under threat from disasters, the hardships we face are exacerbated.
There is growing evidence that many mountain regions have become increasingly disaster-prone over the past few decades, due to unchecked mining and unbridled development. A recent workshop on Disaster Risk Reduction organized by SDFN and the Nagaland State Disaster Management Agency has brought out ample cases and examples of how most disasters are brought about by unsustainable development activities. Sustainable approaches to development in mountain regions are therefore particularly important today and we must ensure that all activities are planned and executed in manners that will reduce disaster risks.
On this International Mountain Day, let us raise awareness about the conservation of mountains, and the sustainable use of scarce resources from mountain areas. Let us protect our cultures, traditions and knowledge by using local products ourselves. Finally, let’s resolve to conserve our biological diversity, for the well-being of mountain dwellers everywhere and our own well-being.
Let this International Mountain Day 2016 help us reflect on the variety and richness of mountain cultures, and the need to promote the vast array of mountain identities, as well as, ensure that indigenous rights are recognized and traditional ways endure. The Sustainable Development Forum Nagaland calls upon all communities, organizations and even religious institutions to dedicate some time to reflect on the crucial role of mountains in our lives and to consider ways for us to collectively work and network towards a common pathway to sustainable development.
John Muir, naturalist and conservationist said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”… and incidentally, for us lucky people, this is home, we just need to tidy it a bit more.
~Sustainable Development Forum Nagaland (SDFN)