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The United Nations declared 2002 as the International Year of Mountains to increase awareness of the global importance of mountain ecosystems and the challenges faced by mountain people and to stimulate long-term on-the-ground action. This unprecedented opportunity to address mountain issues and celebrate mountain culture evolved from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, where mountains became the singular focus of Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) serves as the lead agency for the International Year of Mountains. This is done in collaboration with governments, United Nations Environment Program, (UNEP), United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Program, (UNESCO), and other United Nations agencies, as well as non-governmental organisations.

The goal of the International Year of Mountains is both simple and ambitious: to ensure the well being of mountain peoples by promoting sustainable development of mountain ecosystems.

Mountain ecosystems are the source of fresh water for more than half of humanity and harbour a rich variety of plant and animal life, yet each day crippling poverty among mountain people and armed conflicts played out on mountain terrain put these irreplaceable global assets at risk.

Water is a shared resource. What begins in mountain watersheds trickles down into streams and rivers, meanders across boarders, flows into lakes, fills aquifers and, eventually, empties into oceans. Worldwide, 214 river basins - host to 40 percent of the world's population - are shared by two or more countries, or within a country, are shared by two or more local authorities, councils or district bodies. Too often however, where there is need for cooperation there is potential for conflict.

In recent years, farmers living in the mountain's highlands have been using increasing amounts of water to irrigate crops. As a consequence, downstream water flow has been severely reduced, fuelling hostility from those whose survival depends on lowland pastures, on cropping, cattle ranching and tourism in wildlife parks.

To help meet the needs of growing cities in their unprecedented demands for freshwater and electricity many countries are developing schemes to divert mountain rivers or dam them entirely. As with all large-scale initiatives like these, the potential is great but the threat to mountain watersheds, people and bio-diversity is even greater. Protecting mountain ecosystems and the freshwater they generate should be the first priority as nations consider such developmental plans.

Conflict in mountain areas often arises when mountain communities are denied a voice in how local resources are used. Local rebel movements gain momentum when central governments based in lowland capitals impose their rule over mountain communities and decide how to exploit mountain resources and who will profit from them. The exclusion of mountain people from national politics can also be the result of deeply engrained and unquestioned racist attitudes. When mountain communities are of indigenous heritage or belong to an ethnic, racial or religious minority, their marginalisation can be politically expedient for governing parties.

Mountains have been described as islands of bio-diversity surrounded by an ocean of monoculture's and human-altered landscapes. Indeed, many plants and animals found in mountain habitat have disappeared from lowland regions, crowded out by human activities. Eighty percent of the world's population relies on traditional medicines, yet one in every eight species of plants, many originating in mountain biomes, faces extinction.

Commercial mining, logging, tourism, global climate change and the pressures of a market economy also exact a heavy toll on mountain bio-diversity.

Mountains are a barometer of climate change. Mountain climates are like narrow bands each stacked on top of the other. Every rise in altitude generates different conditions, supporting unique and often isolated ecosystems with some of the world's greatest variety of plant and animal life. It is vital that the biological and physical components of mountains are strictly monitored and studied. Information on the health of mountain environments will undoubtedly assist governments and international organisations as they develop management strategies and mount strong campaigns to reverse current global warming trends. Mountain glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates. If current trends continue, many of the world's glaciers, including all those in Glacier National Park in the United States, by the end of this century, will have vanished entirely.

Healthy mountain forests are crucial ecological health of the world. Cloud forests are among the world's unique ecosystems, yet, in as little as 10 years time the great majority of cloud forests will be gone.