Drinking rainwater from banana leaf, Nigeria. (c) I. Uwanaka/UNEP peopleandplanet.net
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Drinking rainwater from banana leaf, Nigeria. (c) I. Uwanaka/UNEP
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mountains > factfile > mountains and people

Mountains and people

Posted: 13 May 2008

It has been estimated that 12 per cent of the world's population - about three-quarters of a billion people - lives in mountain areas. Nearly half (46 per cent) of these people live in the Asia/Pacific region. Recent research, bringing together census data with satellite measurements of the light visible from the Earth at night, suggests that 1.48 billion people - 26 per cent of the global population - live in or very near to mountain areas.

Yi girls, Hengduan Mountains, Yunnan, China
Yi girls, Hengduan Mountains, Yunnan, China. ©UN University

Over 70 per cent of the global mountain population lives below 1500 m, most in China. While less than 10 per cent live above 2500 m, this still amounts to over 70 million people, almost all considered extremely vulnerable.

Most mountain people are rural, particularly in the Asia/Pacific (14 per cent urban) and sub-Saharan Africa (22 per cent urban) (Table 27.11). Globally, 27 per cent of mountain people are urban, and settlements in and adjacent to mountain areas are expanding. The urban proportion is particularly high (47 per cent) in Latin America and the Caribbean, mainly in the Andes, with high proportions up to 3500m. For instance, El Alto in Bolivia at 4000m altitude is the fastest growing city in South America, currently inhabited by almost 1 million people. The urban proportion is also nearly half in the mountains of the Near East and North Africa, North America, western Europe and the countries in transition (mainly below 1500 m).

Click here for a Table showing regional mountain population and urban %

Population density

Mountain population density generally decreases with altitude. However, in Latin America and the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa, the highest densities are from 2500-3500 m, reflecting the more equable climates and healthier environments in tropical mountains than at lower altitudes. However, the reasons for the increase with altitude up to 3500 m are different: high urban populations in Latin America; high rural populations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Average mountain population density (persons/km²)
300-1000m 1000-1500m 1500-2500m 2500-3500m 3500-4500m >4500m
Asia & Pacific 74 52 44 13 5 2
Latin America & Caribbean 30 25 30 42 14 8
Near East & North Africa 43 42 29 23 7 2
Sub-saharan Africa 20 34 80 124 53 10
Countries in transition 7 4 4 2 2 -
Western Europe 29 7 4 - - -
North America 4 3 1 1 - -
Other 19 19 17 15 1 -
Source: Huddleston et al (2003) and FAO data

Migration. Migration is characteristic for many mountain people, over many time-scales. The many wars within and near mountain areas have led to massive movements of people. While comparison of data between censuses may show gross patterns of change, demographic flows often occur within statistical reporting districts including both rural and urban areas. Consequently, although the spatial distribution of the population may change considerably, the level of data aggregation may hide these movements.

Demographic Trends. In developing countries, mountain populations are generally growing, though rural rates of increase are often decreased through emigration, especially of men. This clearly increases the workload of mountain women. Even with emigration, some of the highest global rural population densities are in tropical mountain areas (e.g., Central American and Ethiopian Highlands), due not only to endogenous growth but to immigration by people from lowland areas. This often leads to conflicts over land and other resources and the introduction of inappropriate land management practices and alien species.

In industrialised countries, one factor that stabilises populations in mountain regions, or encourages growth, is tourism, increasingly linked to amenity migration: the movement of people into mountain areas because of their attractive environments and/or other cultural and recreational amenities. This phenomenon is becoming evident in many mountain regions. Both amenity migrants and other immigrants may not spend all, or much, of their working time in mountain communities: numbers of mountain commuters are also growing as travel times to urban/industrial centres decrease. These trends are all part of a blurring of rural/urban differences as mountain areas and their inhabitants become more integrated into the global economy.

  • From 1870 to 1990, the population of the Alps increased from 7 to 11 million, but the proportion living in the mountains decreased from 7.4 per cent to 5.8 per cent. By 1990, only 7 per cent of the Alpine population lived at an altitude above 1,000 metres. On average, settlements above 1,500 metres grew by 27 per cent, but this rate is biased by a few tourist centres. Without these, the average would have be a decline.

  • In 1980, the populations of the counties of Colorado, USA which contain resort towns were growing at over 8 per cent per year. Since the 1970s, the populations of these counties have grown faster than for the state as a whole: growth rates of 2-4 per cent per year are expected to continue.

  • About 17 million people, approximately 10 per cent of the population of the Central Andean states, are classified as 'native'. At the time of European contact, the indigenous population of this region is estimated to have been 12 million.

  • There are four official languages in Switzerland: French, German, Italian, and Romansch. In the Hunza valley of Pakistan, which is about a quarter of the area of Switzerland, there are four different languages belonging to three language families.

  • Almost 80 per cent of mountain peoples live below the poverty line.

Pamiri children of the Pianj River gorge
Pamiri children of the Pianj River gorge. The Pamiri are hard-pressed to survive without assistance from relief agencies - and abandonment of many of the high villages (kishlaks) with tragic loss of culture and tradition would be inevitable. However, these children may grow up to attend the new mountain university being established at Khorog in Gorno-Badakhshan, by the Aga Khan Foundation. ©United Nations University

  • Eleven of the 18 regions identified by the United Nations as in desperate need of humanitarian assistance in 2002 were mountainous (Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Indonesia, North Caucasus, North Korea, Southeastern Europe, Tajikistan, Uganda).

  • Many wars and armed conflicts take place in the world�s highlands. Mountainous areas � ranging from Afghanistan to the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Andes, parts of the Near East and Africa � are the flash points of conflicts afflicting the world today.

  • The prevalence of goitre (iodine deficiency, especially prevalent in mountain areas) in children aged 6-11 in the late 1990s was 49 per cent in Rwanda, 44 per cent in Nepal, and 36 per cent in Peru.

  • Maternal mortality is often high in mountainous countries: in 2005, in Bhutan it was 440 per 100,000 live births; in Nepal, 830; in Ethiopia, 720; in Burundi, 1,100; Rwanda, 1,300; in Papua New Guinea, 470.

  • Mountain areas are home to a large proportion of the world's minority populations. While most of these consist of small numbers of people, some large groups exist, such as the Quechua in the Andes, the Amhars in Ethiopia, and the Tibetans and Yi in China.

  • Yunnan, in southwestern China, is home to 26 minority peoples.


1. Meybeck, M. et al (2001) A new typology for mountains and other relief classes: an application to global continental water resources and population distribution. Mountain Research and Development 21: 34-45.

2. Huddleston, B. et al. (2003) Towards a GIS-based analysis of mountain environments and populations. FAO, Rome.

3. B. Messerli and J.D. Ives (eds.) (1997) Mountains of the World: A Global Priority, Parthenon, New York and London.

4. UNICEF, The State of the World's Children, 1998 (Children and Nutrition).

Compiled by Dr Martin Price, Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College, within Scotland's UHI Millennium Institute, 'creating the University of the Highlands and Islands'.

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