ECC Platform Library


Hunger in Shangri-La: Causes and Consequences of Food Insecurity in the World’s Mountains

06 June, 2016
Andrew Taber

Over the past decade, the number of undernourished people around the world has declined by around 167 million, to just under 800 million people. However, this positive trend glosses over a stark reality: Food insecurity is increasing in the world’s mountains. This pattern has been under-recognized by development experts and governments, a dangerous oversight with far-reaching social and environmental repercussions.

Thomas Hofer, coordinator of the United Nation’s Mountain Partnership, recently presented findings on the vulnerability of mountain people to permanent representatives and key stakeholders at the UN in New York City. The statistics were stark and the audience somber.

As of 2012, the most recent year for which a full dataset was available, an estimated 329 million people living in mountainous regions of developing countries – including nearly half the rural population – were vulnerable to food insecurity. These mountain people “lacked secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.” The UN Food and Agriculture Organization further found that the number of hungry mountain people had increased by 30 percent over the previous 12 years.

Hunger in mountain areas has increased

While food security in the rest of the world has generally been improving, it’s been getting worse in the mountains.

Putting this into context, the world’s mountains are home to about 13 percent of humanity and cover some 22 percent of Earth’s land area, yet in 2012 they contained nearly 40 percent of the world’s food-insecure people.

The trend is worse still because the report almost certainly underestimates the problem. FAO’s threshold for classifying a population as vulnerable to food insecurity was a daily consumption of less than 1,370 calories and 14 grams of protein per person. This is a minimum survival requirement, barely enough to sustain someone in a warm, lowland climate. Any trekker knows that many more calories are required to keep energetic and warm in high and cold lands. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, a hard working farmer or pastoralist could easily require more than 3,000 calories a day.

Moreover, globalization, development assistance, and food aid are in some cases moving communities from traditional diets, rich in whole grains and other nutritious local foods, to lower-protein processed cereals and less nutritious diets generally. This is not unique to mountains, but can have serious impacts for people already on the edge of hunger.

The impact of poor diets cascades through mountain societies to reduce productivity, affect health – especially of children – and limit capacity to adapt to a fast-changing world.

Why Is Food Insecurity Increasing in Mountains?

There are many interrelated factors behind this troubling trend:

Growing populations. Human numbers in mountains in developing countries increased about 16 percent between 2000 and 2012, straining natural resources and the productive capacity of highland ecosystems in some places. Population pressures on mountain ecosystems will likely increase as climate change advances and people move upland to escape heat and drought. This is already happening in parts of Africa and Asia.

Youth exodus. While populations may be increasing overall, there is a massive out-migration of young people seeking a better life from rural mountain areas to urban centers or abroad, particularly men. This type of migration leaves fewer strong workers to cultivate food crops, care for livestock, and generate income in other ways. We already know this is placing an extra burden on the women, children, and elderly who are left behind.

FAO-Infographic-Mountain-Peoples-enChronic invisibility. Throughout the developing world, mountain communities are underserved by governments and other providers of social services. Many are ethnic minorities with little political influence located in remote areas. Meanwhile, mountain-relevant policies are typically set by and for the benefit of more powerful lowland interests.

From the private sector, investment in mountains tends to focus on natural resource extraction, from mining to timber and hydropower. Where governance is weak and non-inclusive, such enterprises may provide few benefits to local people and often trample on their rights.

Environmental change. Many mountain environments are severely degraded ecologically. This, in turn, hampers the ability of mountain peoples to produce food and prosper, let alone protect the biodiversity and essential ecosystems services upon which they rely.

We know that rural mountain communities are among the most hard-hit by climate change – via effects like increased temperatures, fluctuations in precipitation, and changes to glaciers and snow pack – and among the most vulnerable to natural disasters. Is it any wonder that food production is under stress?

Neglect by the development community. Rough mountain terrain, isolation, and low population density lead some to assume that development assistance is too expensive for too few beneficiaries. This thinking does not consider the co-benefits for lowlanders. More than half of humanity relies on freshwater that flows from mountain regions. There is therefore a clear incentive to ensure mountain ecosystems are well managed in order to secure the sustainable development of both highland and lowland people, agriculture and industry.

Moreover, The Mountain Institute and other groups have found cost-effective ways to build highland prosperity through unique and high-value products and services. These sustainable livelihoods projects include cultivating medicinal and aromatic plants and developing ecotourism, some with quite favorable returns on investment.

Why Should You Care?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successors to the Millennium Development Goals that guided development investments for the last 15 years, were developed under the principle that no one should be left behind. Mountain people are clearly one of those groups that have been neglected and need more attention from the global community. We should care about their fate for humanitarian reasons, for the intrinsic values of their ancient cultures and knowledge, but there are also self-serving arguments.

Water may be the most powerful. All of the world’s major rivers begin in mountains. Globally, about 17 percent of mountain lands are within protected areas, a common strategy to protect headwaters. However, much of the remaining 83 percent of the mountain land area is unprotected. Furthermore, these regions harbor an enormous stock of species and unique ecosystems. Twenty-five of the world’s 34 terrestrial biodiversity hotspots are in mountains.

There are self-serving reasons

To sustain the water sources upon which billions rely, and other invaluable natural assets, it is imperative that mountain environments are well managed by local communities. The stewardship of these residents affects us all. But how much can we expect from malnourished, hungry people in terms of protecting these natural assets?

If food insecurity in mountains continues – indeed, continues getting worse – while climate change pushes populations upward out of the lowlands, the result will be more and more pressure on already diminished natural systems. This, in turn, makes it harder for local communities to protect the fragile mountain environments upon which so many depend.

There is also a security argument. In addition to being home to millions of poor and hungry people – often hailing from marginalized ethnic minorities – mountains are frequently at the nexus of international borderlands and valuable natural resources.

A high proportion of the world’s internal conflicts and wars are associated with mountainous regions. Think Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Tibet, Sinkiang, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Yemen, Rwanda, Mexico, Colombia. Many recent social conflicts in the Andes are related to access and control over mountain water involving rural communities and mining companies. One of this year’s Goldman prizes for environmental activism went to a highland recipient in Peru.

What Now? Mountain Equity

During negotiations in 2015 to finalize the SDGs, efforts were unsuccessful to include a specific mountain target for SDG 2 – to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. Had FAO’s vulnerability study been available, perhaps the results would have been different.

When Hofer presented the report in New York in May, there was a call for consideration of mountain issues across the SDGs. At present, mountains are specifically mentioned in only two. In my view, without broader attention to mountain needs and context, many of the SDGs will not be met by 2030.

We have seen growing attention in sustainable development circles to social and gender equity. Perhaps now it is time to add mountain equity to the equation to bring focused attention to the needs of marginalized communities and environments at higher altitudes.

At the very least, when considering investment, capacity building, policy, and research for sustainable development at national and global levels, mountains must be addressed separately and specifically to ensure adequate coverage.

Without such attention, mountain communities will continue to harbor poverty and hunger amid ever-worsening conditions. Mountain people and environments are clearly at risk of being left behind with grave costs for everyone.

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Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

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In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Land & Food

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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