Scholars focus on degradation of mountains

  • 14/04/1993

MOUNTAINS have always enjoyed a special status. Their beauty and mysticism have inspired poets, philosophers and even fairy-tale tellers. We accept their importance as sources of minerals and water, rare plants and wildlife. But what we have never realised is the plight of mountains.

Though uplands cover roughly 20 per cent of the earth's surface and support about half of humanity, we have never bothered to know the extent to which they are the victims of environmental degradation. And we have ignored them because of the notion that as mountains are remote, nothing can go wrong with them. Even the skeletal proposals made in Stockholm in 1972 to arrest mountain degradation could not be implemented due to lack of funds.

For all these reasons, The Status of the World's Mountains is both educative and timely. Produced by a group of dedicated scholars, collectively known as the "Mountain Agenda", this book seeks to focus attention on the serious environmental problems of mountain areas and to encourage the struggle for sustainable development practices in uplands. The book was prepared to appeal to governments and to concerned organisations to place the environment of mountains on the world agenda, both at UNCED in Rio and in the years ahead.

Covering the world's major mountain chains, the book reviews the Alps, the Andes, the Appalachians and the Himalaya; the mountain ranges in the former Soviet Union such as the Urals, Caucasus, Tien Shan and Hindu Kush, and the lesser mountain ranges such as the Sierra Nevada, Granada and Tateyama. The surprising omission is the Rockies -- one of the biggest mountain chains in the United States.

The book is a rhapsody of various disciplines, including the geomorphology, geology, resource management and social anthropology of the world's mountains. Though the writing is both lucid and easy-going, the content and theme of individual chapters describing various mountain chains vary so widely, comparisons become difficult. For example, the chapter on the Alps may include a section on "industrialisation", but this is not covered in relation to the other chains. So the readers cannot be blamed should they conclude industrialisation is a problem limited to the Alps and the other mountain ranges are free from it.

Data presented in the book appear to have been compiled in a hurry because some of it is outdated. For example, the data on literacy rates in Himachal Pradesh is for 1982, whereas Nepali literacy rate data is for 1990, probably because the author is based in Nepal and may have had better access to the latest data. Similarly, while describing the occurrence of earthquakes, the recent Uttarkashi earthquake is mentioned, but not the tremors in Kinnaur. These are minor points, however, and do not reduce the importance of the book.

The weakest aspect of the book, on the other hand, is definitely its cartography. The reader expects better and easier-to-read maps in these genre of books, intended basically to advance public awareness. The majority of the maps are illegible or can be seen clearly only through a magnifying glass. Map indexing is often misleading and the heading of the maps is in German.

Nevertheless, the book does a lot to alert the public that mountains matter to all of us. A leading environmentalist and founder of Friends of the Earth, David Bower, says in praise of the book, "It has my strongest support."

I agree, and I am sure you, too, will.

---S Mukherjee is a writer of popular science.