What do gin and tonic, coffee and mountain climate risks have in common?

  • Article type Insights
  • Publication date 09 Dec 2022

For many, mountains are remote sites of natural beauty to admire. But their distance means we should not be complacent in the face of worrying degradation of mountain ecosystems. The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is financing various initiatives to help protect and restore the natural interaction of biodiversity and climate on mountains. In this special feature, Veronica Gálmez, GCF’s acting Deputy Director of the Division of Mitigation and Adaptation, explains in more detail. 

A gin and tonic. For many, it provides a refreshing respite from an uncomfortable blast of tropical weather. But few pause to think where the ingredients to make this ubiquitous beverage come from. The base for the tonic part of this popular drink originally comes from quinine, a medicinal extract from the bark of cinchona trees that grow naturally in the Andean forests. 

Apart from being an ingredient for a cocktail, quinine has been a crucial medicine against the deadly disease of malaria.   However, harvesting these trees to extract quinine has not been done sustainably in the past.  It is proving difficult to restore the natural ecosystems in the forested areas where they once grew freely. There are now only a few trees left standing in their natural state. The healing properties of the cinchona bark, which have made these trees so popular, have also led to their near extinction.  

The cinchona tree is evidence that bounties derived from the biodiverse interaction of nature on mountains can provide remarkable healing properties. But unless we are willing to risk degrading the natural sources that provide us with lifesaving medicines, we must consider how to manage these natural resources sustainably. The damage suffered by natural environments that have supported cinchona trees is just one example of the human-induced risks faced by other species, which rely on the rich biodiversity of mountains. 

Cinchona is a close relative of the coffee plant. Both plants grow in similar mountainous locations. If we look at the location of the world’s niche coffee-producing areas, many of them have traditionally sustained cloud forests. These are rich natural ecosystems where fog and low-hanging clouds shroud the upper forest canopy before condensing onto the leaves of the trees to provide a natural drip irrigation system for the plants below. 

Unsurprisingly some mountain ecosystems have borne the brunt of indiscriminate harvesting. Coffee from many mountainous countries is considered the finest in the world. At international auctions, these coffee beans reach prices of around USD 10,000 per quintal (a special measurement weight equivalent to 46 kilograms of green coffee beans).  

These days, as the consumer market is becoming more socially aware, coffee aficionados not only demand a nice flavour but also that their favoured brew is grown sustainably, using agricultural and agroforestry practices that avoid deforestation. Sustainability has become a quality attribute that enhances market value. 

This is part of an increasing awareness that we need to connect agricultural commodity production with measures that halt ecosystem degradation. Around the world, we see ecosystem restoration are in mountainous areas – with natural features characterised by steep slopes and rich soil conditions. They are often also home to territories shared by many local, culturally diverse communities. It is here where opportunities for conducting impact businesses are concentrated, based on deriving profits for local people while also placing a high value on mountain biodiversity.  

But this story is not just about protecting local biodiverse regions and the people who live there. The location of these local mountain communities, living in the world’s highest inhabited regions, also holds the fate of some our most important water supplies.  

The melting of glaciers, supercharged by climate change, has a huge impact on the water supplies and distribution of many metropolitan cities, especially those relying on rivers originating from high mountains. Glacier runoffs cause devastating floods which are followed ultimately, when the glaciers themselves disappear, by the drying up of rivers. It is not just the highly urbanised areas of the world that face difficulties from melting glaciers. Extensively cultivated areas for crop production in valleys also depend on mountain river sources. This has major implications then for national and international commodity markets. 

The protection of mountain ecosystems is important for enhancing adaptation to climate change. They also represent an irreplaceable case study for understanding how climate change is impacting biodiversity. Forced by rising temperatures, the distribution of plant and animal species located on mountains is shifting to higher elevations – which has important spill over effects for all connected ecosystems. 

A Shift to Valuing Mountain Ecosystem Services 

Consideration of climate change has increased attention to the importance of ecosystem services, which account for the human benefits derived from nature in the form of physical, social, and economic well-being. This holistic approach, which marks a major step change from thinking about agricultural production purely in terms of profits alone, is generating financial flows that benefit people and the natural ecosystems on which we rely.    

A variety of funding mechanisms based on valuing ecosystem services are now being applied to protect the nature of mountains. These include employing public-private partnerships to promote sustainable water regulation. An underlying rationale for all these endeavours to use financing models to protect nature recognises the need to combine the management, restoration, and conservation of mountain ecosystems with businesses based on high-value production chains. These ecosystem service approaches to businesses seek sustainable profits from goods or services.  

And this is where the Green Climate Fund (GCF) comes into the picture. The world’s largest dedicated climate fund, GCF is investing in the sustainable management of mountain ecosystems - while acknowledging multiple climate hazards and risks both observed now and predicted in the future. So far, GCF has approved at least 31 projects in mountainous areas in 26 countries, with a total GCF investment of USD 1.8 billion.  

This includes supporting the sustainable production of Argan forests in Morocco and the sustainable management of conifer forests in Honduras. And in mountainous Bhutan, an innovative ‘sinking fund’ approach for the ‘Bhutan for Life’ project carried out with WWF is providing the national government with time and resources to put in place long-term, sustainable financing to maintain mountain ecosystems and sequester carbon dioxide within forests, while supporting an ecosystem-based approach that preserves natural wildlife habitats. Meanwhile, in northern Pakistan, GCF and UNDP are reducing the risk of glacial flooding which threatens communities and infrastructure, as well as water security. 

Most of GCF’s projects in mountain ecosystems are designed to restore and rehabilitate natural resources that are key for productive systems - in particular, agricultural systems that benefit food and water security and improved market access. A consideration of mountain agro-biodiversity shows that these areas may not be suitable for large-scale production. It is not a coincidence that mountain environments form the hubs that give rise to biodiversity. 

If our goal is to conserve, restore and sustainably manage mountain regions, and to increase natural resilience to multiple climate risks, we must stop adopting a longitudinal approach towards these regions.  We need to think vertically about how natural conditions vary according to altitude and adjust our approaches to supporting sustainable management accordingly.

The United Nations has proclaimed 2022 the International Year of Sustainable Mountain Development. We must use this important juncture to ensure mountains receive peak prominence in our shared endeavour to tackle climate change. 

By Veronica Gálmez, acting GCF Deputy Director of the Division of Mitigation and Adaptation, and Simon Pollock, former GCF Communications Specialist