Conservation in northern Pakistan is more than just about saving wildlife. While the region is a critical area for globally threatened and endangered species such as the flare-horned markhor and the snow leopard, it is also a critical catchment and source of water for hundreds of millions of disadvantaged people across Pakistan as a major part of the Indus River watershed. The region’s great conifer forests (some of the very last native forests left in the entire country) are crucial to water management, as otherwise excessive run-off, erosion, and siltation can lead to flash flooding (resulting in thousands of deaths every year), hydropower breakdowns, and changes in water regimes that can lead to crop and drinking water failure across much of the country.
However, another important aspect relates to conflict. The Gilgit-Baltistan Province of Pakistan borders Afghanistan, China, AJK, Indian-controlled Kashmir, and Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, currently an area of intense instability and conflict. Fiercely independent communities live in a rugged, mountainous landscape, which means that many parts of Gilgit-Baltistan continue to function as essentially autonomous regions. The enormous geographic diversity found there has led to an equally diverse assemblage of biodiversity, ethnicities, and languages due to the region’s isolating, remote location. It is also home to some of Pakistan’s most marginalized and poor communities who depend directly on environmental benefits from local ecosystem processes for their livelihoods and their very survival. However, because of the unusual political history of the region and fierce independence of the communities, previous to our efforts there had been no previous successful attempts to work in Diamer District by international assistance or development organizations.
Despite occasional local conflicts, our staff’s longstanding and uniquely close relationships with the multiple sects and tribes across the region has led to the creation of a vibrant community-based conservation program across a broad swath of Gilgit-Baltistan. The program includes Sunni, Shi’ite, and Ismaeli sects, and within those sects including tribes such as Shin, Yashkun, Gujar, Kamin, Kohistani, Soniwall, Shinaki, Burushaski, Wakhi, Syed, Kashmiri, and Pathan.
The program’s ability to build grassroots environmental governance institutions, and then link them with the provincial and national government bodies, international organizations and international donors, has been critical in building stronger ties between government and civil society. Natural resource conservation (unlike many other topics) is a politically and culturally shared value in northern Pakistan – forests, wildlife, water, and soils are what these rural people depend upon and consider part of their lives, livelihoods and cultures. The act of working together to find common solutions to a common threat results in the discovery of shared values, which unites groups and influences and increases social change that can encourage a culture of peace. Through the program’s focus on natural resource conservation, we have built critical links within and across communities that provide a safe forum to discuss common solutions that will promote mutual understanding and positive attitudes. We have helped create indigenous civil society organizations that are now sustainably managing their resources in a collaborative, negotiated manner. This work spans religious and tribal entities – and their differences – to enable and encourage communities to work together to find common solutions to these conflicts.