Mountain soils have long performed a host of vital ecosystem services that help to ensure food security and nutrition to 900 million mountain people around the world and benefit billions more living downstream.

Soils are the basis for healthy food production. They help people to mitigate and adapt to climate change by playing a key role in the carbon cycle and in water management, improving resilience to floods and droughts. Mountain soils, which vary greatly and are by their nature fragile, host 25 percent of terrestrial biodiversity including agro-biodiversity, crucial gene pools for locally adapted crops and livestock.

Soil is a fragile resource that needs time to regenerate. Every year, an estimated 12 million ha are lost through soil degradation. Mountain soils are particularly susceptible to climate change, deforestation, unsustainable farming practices and resource extraction methods that affect their fertility and trigger land degradation, desertification and disasters such as floods and landslides.

For mountain peoples this is a harsh reality that they face every day. Many mountain peoples – in ranges including the Himalayas and Andes as well as the Elburz Mountains and the Fouta Djallon Highlands – are family farmers who live by subsistence agriculture and often have poor access to basic infrastructure, health services, roads, transport and markets.

Local communities in mountain areas serve as the custodians of natural resources, including their soil. Over generations, living in their particular high-risk environments, they have developed solutions and techniques, indigenous practices, knowledge and sustainable soil management approaches that shape and protect ecosystems that ultimately provide water for at least half the world’s population. Local and more recent knowledge can be successfully integrated, as is shown by terracing for rice production in Asia and agroforestry for cereal production in Latin America.

This publication intends to raise awareness of the global importance of mountain soils in providing critical ecosystem services and the need for their sustainable management. Building sustainable soil management capacity, promoting inclusive policies and governance, and investing in soil research and soil information systems are all necessary to ensure healthy soils for sustainable production systems that can improve the livelihoods of mountain peoples and, indirectly, everyone else as well.

To mark the International Year of Soils 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Mountain Partnership Secretariat, the Global Soil Partnership and the University of Turin have jointly issued this publication. Understanding Mountain Soils has been produced with in-kind contributions by Mountain Partnership members, non-governmental organizations, research institutes and universities in a concerted effort to bring key issues to the fore.

In 2015, the year in which the UN Sustainable Development Goals are being adopted, it is our aspiration to highlight how, through the provision of crucial ecosystem services, mountain soils can contribute to ensure overall sustainable development, reaching far beyond the peaks and deep into the surrounding lowlands.

The following chapters, with specific case studies, showcase the diversity of soil management approaches and the solutions that sustainable mountain management can provide.

Affiliate Partner

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

Type of publication

Type of Ecosystem


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