Ecology, equality, economy: rethinking the Highlands

12 October 2020

The Highlands represent a crucial nexus between urban and rural spaces, and are without doubt some of the most complex and fragile areas on our planet.

The penultimate Forum of Terra Madre was dedicated to the highlands, where we’ve been exploring the world from the perspective of ecosystems, shedding light on the most pressing issues that affect each one.


For decades now, across the world, most of the highlands are living through a progressive depopulation. Combined with hydrological instability, the climate crisis and the decline of biodiversity, the trend doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.

Lindsey Hook, Outreach Expert at the FAO, and Maurizio De Matteis, a journalist interested in issues relating to mountainous areas, coordinated an international discussion which, from Morocco to the Philippines, from Austria to Peru, highlighted common problems across the highlands as well as projects that are giving hope back to the people that live there.


“The Himalayas”, says Anita Paul, co-founder of the Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation “represent around 60% of the total area of our country, yet host just 4% of the population. At the same time, it contains 70% of our biodiversity. What happens here has an impact on the lives of 300 million people. Up until 1980 there was subsistence level agriculture here. Then the climate crisis turned the lives of the local population upside down, and they’ve begun to migrate systematically. Mountain agriculture has been abandoned, and now women and children have trouble satisfying their daily needs for water and energy. For this reason we need to train the youth and allow farmer women greater market access, in order to guarantee them a decent income.”

Highland agriculture: the , home of the Heritage Huaylas Lupin Varieties (Slow Food Presidium)


In some cases, the presence of deserts makes life for people who live in mountainous areas even more complex and challenging. “I represent a Moroccan community that lives 3700 meters above sea level,” Jamal al Houssain tell us. “Here farmers are struggling against drought. Until 50 years ago it was a region largely forgotten by the government; there was no electricity. Naturally, without enough resources to sustain the local community, an exodus began, which makes those left behind ever more dependent on external, commercial help. Only in the last 15 years has the community got back on the path towards autonomy and self-sufficiency, by recovering techniques and local traditions that had almost disappeared. For example, we’re investing a lot of energy in the practice of drying legumes, vegetables and meat, a practice which had largely died-out with the arrival of refrigeration technology.”


While nature has shown benevolence, it is often humanity creates arid and hostile terrains around itself. “In our community in Mexico,” explains biologist Helda Morales, “racism has tried to cancel out every trace of the indigenous knowledge which had been passed down over generations. In the 1970s the government started a program to try and suppress our language and culture. The NAFTA treaty signed with the USA in 1994 smashed our economy due to the impact of imported corn from our northern neighbor. We lost our youth, who emigrated. We were bombarded with refined produced that are full of preservatives and artificial chemicals.”

The Sambucano Lamb (Slow Food Presidium), photo: Paolo Andrea Montanaro


Despite all these issues, one thing all the speakers had in common was a belief in the power of transversal dialog: between different cultures and generations, to maintain the place of traditional knowledge gained from the Earth over millennia, and make sure it is handed down to our children and grandchildren.

“We need to pass these things down to the youth,” concludes Lam-en Gonnay, member of the Indigenous Terra Madre network in the Philippines. “This belief: that nature is life. We can’t do anything without water, the sun and the land. And this is why it’s important that this becomes the heart of every movement for cultural and ecological rebirth.”

by Gioia Baggio,

The protagonists of the discussion were:

  • Anita Paul (National Dairy Development Board of Anand)

  • Lam-en Gonnay (spokesperson for the Slow Food community for the conservation of local traditional and indigenous knowledge and the food heritage of Pasil, Kalinga, Indigenous Terra Madre Network)

  • Christian Kresse (Slow Food Travel Austria and Slow Food Villages)

  • Giuseppe Pidello (architect and coordinator of the Museale Biellese network, promoter of the recovery terraced landscapes around the ex-monastery of Trappa di Sordevolo)

  • Jamal al Houssain (founder of Migration et Developpement)

  • Javid Gara (founder of Camping Azerbaijan and the Ecofront environmentalist group)

  • Marco Marchetti (Past President of SISEF, President of Alberitalia)

  • Helda Morales (biologist working with the agroecological group Ecosur)

  • Alain Dlugosz (Huerta de Tipón project)

  • Zarasisa Wakamaya Cazho Zaruma (member of the Indigenous Terra Madre Network in Ecuador).