Mountain People: Innovative Ways to Help the World’s Most Vulnerable

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Physically isolated and socially and politically marginalized, mountain dwellers are among the most vulnerable in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. A disproportionate number of the world’s 840 million chronically undernourished people live in highland areas — about 270 million mountain people lack food security, with 135 million suffering chronic hunger. Large numbers of additional people in lowland areas also depend on mountains.

In October in Rome, more than 60 representatives from mountain countries around the world called for a coherent approach to sustainable agriculture and rural development in the world’s highland areas to address this crisis. First identified as a problem back at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the degradation of mountain eco-systems and the poverty of those living there, has only worsened with increasing conflict and war. Mountain forests are rapidly vanishing across the globe.

Mountains occupy 24 per cent of the earth’s landscape, and are home to 12 per cent of the world’s people; a further 14 per cent live beside mountains. Most are in the Andes, the Hengduan-Himalaya-Hindu Kush system, and a number of African mountains. Many mountain people are from ethnic minorities, and are often frozen out of political or commercial power. Poverty is common: more than 60 per cent of the rural Andean population lives in extreme poverty, and most of the 98 million Chinese considered to be among the world’s “absolute poor”, are ethnic minorities who live in mountains.

Mountains make up a quarter of the world’s landscapes, and mountain watersheds are critical to water supply – up to 80 per cent of the planet’s fresh surface water comes from mountains. Over half of the world’s population depend on mountains for water, food, hydro-electricity, timber and mineral resources (UN University Mountain Programme).

By their way of life, mountain peoples have expertise in small-hold farming, medicinal uses for native plants, and sustainable harvesting of food, fodder and fuel from forests.

In China, the MinYiYuan company has developed a model to help the millions of impoverished Chinese in the countryside who are being left out of the country’s current economic boom. While many are migrating to the cities to work as labourers, mostly women and children are left behind in villages, with few options to support themselves.

Cai Tingfen saw an opportunity to help the ethnic minority population of Liupanshui City in Guizhou Province. Founded in 2005, MinYiYuan bridges the handcraft culture of the region with the bigger national economy. Its model is unique: rather than buying ready-made handicrafts from craftspeople, MinYiYuan sets the design standards for the quality of the raw materials and sources them itself. This avoids problems with inconsistencies and guarantees customers get a reliably high-quality product. The craftspeople use these raw materials to make handcrafts in their homes, and the finished goods are bought back by the company.

The company buys cotton, hemp and Chinese herbs from local farmers, luring them away from livelihoods that cause deforestation. In 2006, the MinYiYuan Folk Art Centre sold 60,000 (batik) wax prints, 8,000 embroideries, and 20,000 ethnic handicrafts. It made 1.13 million yuan (US $149.319). The company is ambitious, and is already looking to building a research and development base to integrate design, manufacturing, packaging and sales.

Another model that is working is in the Philippines. After the Mount Pinatubo volcano eruptions in the early 1990s, the Aetas people of Luzon found their community was buried under ash and stone. Unable to work the land anymore and live off of the fish and wildlife, the Aetas were close to starvation. Many migrated to the cities to look for work: And without many relevant urban skills, most ended up living in squalor.

One by-product of the volcanic explosion was vast quantities of pumice stone, used in the garment industry to produce ‘stone-washed’ denim. Entrepreneurs were soon turning up to gather the stones.

The Asian Institute for Technology helped the Aeta people organize themselves in marketing social enterprises to gather, market and sell the stones to the many garment makers in the Philippines. By forming cooperatives, the Aeta are able to change the power dynamics with the garment companies: where they had to sell very cheaply to middlemen, the cooperatives enable them to charge more and make a liveable income, allowing them to stay in the community and avoid environmentally more harmful ways to make a living.

In Peru, coffee growers in the mountains have banded together as a social enterprise and use market solutions to increase living standards. The Cepicafe brand in the Piura Mountains, promotes its Fair Trade practices to secure higher prices for the growers. It does this by countering the increasing competition in the coffee market and lower world prices for the beans, with better quality coffee grains and bypassing middlemen to access markets directly.

Cepicafe raises the skills of the growers by providing education to increase productivity and quality, while reducing the farms ecological impact. The premium that fair trade is able to get is then used to improve the farmers’ lives with better housing, new clothes, shoes, better diets, and access to medicine.

They have 51 grassroots member organizations, totaling to 4,800 small-scale coffee producers. Over 18 per cent are women. By introducing a business culture and using radio programmes to further spread knowledge, productivity and quality have increased.

Cepicafe’s access to markets in the US and Europe means it can pay between 60 and 80 per cent more than local buyers.

Published: November 2007


  • Mountain Forum: created in 1995, it is a great resource for sustainable mountain development and conservation.
  • The Mountain Institute: A non-profit organization dedicated to conservation, community development and cultural preservation in the Andean, Appalachian and Himalayan mountain ranges.
  • Adelboden Group: Established in 2002, it exists as a forum to discuss mountain policies, exchange experience and coordinate planning.

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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