Why the World Needs to Go to Great Heights to Save Mountain Habitats

After 30 years working in mountain regions, Jack Ives argues that the world’s elevated habitats are essential

In places, the Kakani ridge landscape in Nepal's Middle Mountains has been so completely engineered that no vestige of 'untouched nature' remains. This is a dry season view of bari terraces. Ives and his team argue that there is value and beauty in such managed landscapes (1980). Jack Ives
Here Ives is high in the Swiss Alps, from which sprung the inspiration for Mountain Agenda and where "the road to Rio" (UNCED 1992) began. Jack Ives
Ives encountered this girl wearing a porkpie hat in her island village on Lake Titicaca, between Bolivia and Peru. To Ives, she represents hope for the future leaders of the mountains and their indigenous inhabitants and emphasizes the necessity of treating them as equal collaborators and leaders in the commitment to sustainable mountain development. Jack Ives
Imja Lake from the air in 2007. The newly regarded major threat to the outbreak of the lake is the course of drainage through the end moraine via the series of small lakes. Sharad P. Joshi, International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu
Jack Ives has dedicated his life to mountain research. He also writes like lightning with a fountain pen. Hans-Ludwig Blohm
The Inugsuin Pinnacles on the northeast coast of Baffin Island, captured by Ives in his early days of mountain research Jack Ives
Ives flies in a military helicopter over Bartang Gorge in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. This view provides an example of an alluvial cone on which every square meter of usable space is occupied by one of the 32 small villages (kishlaks). Jack Ives
For a brief moment, a Yi matron turns her attention away from tourists wishing to see Lijiang scenery by horseback. Jack Ives
The highest summit of the Jade Dragon (Yulong Xueshan) from what in 1985 was close to the center of the old town of Lijiang, China. Jack Ives
This is the main Everest trekking trail above Namche Bazaar in Nepal. The multiple terraces are produced by the trampling of generations of yaks. Jack Ives
Ives experienced his first view of the Himalaya in 1968 during the International Geographical Congress in New Delhi. This is Kangchenjuna, the world's third highest mountain, as seen from Darjeeling. Jack Ives
The perfection of Nepal's Middle Mountains in 1986 impressed Ives and his team. The water is carefully controlled by low earthen bunds, the surplus being guided down to the next lower terrace by stone-lined cuts in the bund, and so all the way to the river in the valley bottom. Jack Ives
When these young Bai women saw Ives' camera, they turned away, unwittingly exposing the most beautiful part of their costumes. Jack Ives
Much of the Yunnan Plateau (pictured here in 1982) has been clear-cut and over the centuries, erosion has removed much of the soil cover to expose bedrock. According to Ives, the deforestation does not date to the birth of Communist China, as was widely claimed in the '80s. Rather, it is the product of centuries of tree-felling and over-grazing. Jack Ives
Researching mountain hazards and their environmental impacts in Tian Shan, China, Ives passed through the village of the Uigur people and was formally greeted by its headsman. Jack Ives
Ives observes a high pass in the Dzhungarskiy Alatau range in Xinjiang Province, China, close to the Soviet frontier circa 1981. The meadows are the result of transhumance grazing by Uigur and Kazak herders. Jack Ives
A Lisu lady from the Huai Thung Choa region of Thailand chews betel, a regional leaf and stimulant. Jack Ives
Ives' first mission with United Nations University involved introducing alternative farming practices to opium poppy cultivation in the Chiang Mai-Huai Thung Choa region of Thailand. A population increase following WWII encouraged shorter fallow periods for the poppy fields, resulting in the spread of an invasive weed and soil erosion. In 1978, sufficient progress had been made so that cut flowers, seeds and some vegetables from the gardens were being sold in the markets of Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. Jack Ives
In October 1968, more than 100 centimeters of rain fell on parts of the Darjeeling Himalaya in three days. The road from Siliguri to Darjeeling was cut by landslides in 92 places. Ives made it his goal to research the causes behind such natural disasters. Jack Ives
Ives looks over the hilltops of Huai Thung Choa towards the frontier with Myanmar in the late afternoon. Jack Ives

Jack Ives has met His Holiness John Paul II and has been ambushed by bandits. He has dined with the king and queen of Thailand and been followed by the Chinese secret police—all in the name of mountain research.

Fueled by a boyhood love for mountains, Ives embarked on an academic career in geography beginning in the 1960s, which launched him onto the world stage in a political struggle over how these habitats and their inhabitants are perceived. In time, he became a pivotal force in bringing to the world's attention the importance of mountainous regions to an environmentally sustainable future.

Today, much of the conversation about climate change and sustainable development tends to focus on polar ice and the rainforests, and mountains still don't receive the full attention they deserve, Ives says. In his recent book, Sustainable Mountain Development: Getting the Facts Right, he details his efforts to include mountain regions in environmental legislation before and after the pivotal 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Here is why Ives thinks it is imperative that elevated regions remain in the picture for sustainability, and what he hopes for the future of mountain development:

Who or what inspired you to sit down and write this book?

It was really a conviction. I’m referring to colleagues of long standing … but also world leaders that I had the privilege of meeting. I felt that bringing that all together in the context of what was really a major political and research effort should be on the record.

Of the many anecdotes that you share in the book, which one best illuminates the joys or challenges of developing a mountain agenda?

I did my undergraduate work in England, and my dream was to organize expeditions to Arctic mountain areas. The place I chose was Iceland, and this led me to living on a rather poor sheep farm for quite long periods of time and getting to know the people and especially the farmer. I learned from him that my clever university learning could nowhere near match his understanding of the ecology of the surrounding environment on which he depended. Years later, ... [my colleagues and I] had a growing feeling that we have so much to learn from these wonderful mountain people who have been very much abused. They’re not ignorant. There is an enormous amount of ethological and environmental knowledge—and the experience of surviving in difficult environments—which is now coming into the main flow of knowledge.

In light of that, what is important for people to understand about the mountains and how they fit into the larger conversation about the environment?

We refer to the mountains as water towers of the world. Most of the major rivers of the world are supplied from heavy rainfall in the mountains and melting snow. If you mess up the mountain environment, you are going to impact the plains. Twenty percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is mountainous, and the mountains provide the living means for about 10 percent of the human population. If mountains are badly handled, as in many places they are, then the impact is far greater than just on that part of the world that is mountainous, because the downstream effects are properly going to be more serious than the effects in the mountains themselves.

You say that the students of this first group of mountain academics, and their students, are now “guardians of the mountains.” What is their task? 

I would need to write a book on that question. Each country tends to have different problems, but creating awareness and giving credibility to the intelligence and determination of the mountain people themselves—I think this is the thing that we’ve helped lay the foundation for. There is an enormous increase in awareness, and the students that have worked with me are themselves teaching courses in mountain geography. When I was teaching in Boulder, Colorado, up until 1989, I don’t think there were more than three courses in mountain geography per se in the whole of North America. In my old-age wisdom, I have to realize that you don’t change the world in a few years. I just hope that we can change it sufficiently more before dreadful things like climate change and terrorism catch up with us.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career?

This broad experience of finding a group of friends from all over the world. There’s been an international partnership of all shapes and colors, and we have developed this kind of community spirit, and I think this has been the great personal experience of my life.

I have to ask—what is the most beautiful place you have visited, with regard to the mountains?

Well, that is difficult to answer. We had our 60th wedding anniversary in Switzerland last year in the Emmental—that’s a farming community between the capital city of Bern and the Swiss Alps—where the buildings are 300-year-old farmhouses surrounded by flowers. That’s where I had my sabbatical year in 1976-77, and basically it was from that sabbatical year that what we’ve been talking about grew. I love mountain landscapes, but the real beauty is where you have this incredible mix of careful maintenance of landscape within a mountain setting. That to me is beauty—with the people included.

Preview thumbnail for video 'Sustainable Mountain Development: Getting the Facts Right

Sustainable Mountain Development: Getting the Facts Right

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