Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan Province is a critically important region for many reasons. It is considered the water tower and energy hub of the country based on its significant water resources, including the Indus River and enormous glaciers. Fiercely independent communities live in a rugged, mountain landscape that functions as an essentially autonomous region. It is in this region that three of the greatest mountain ranges in the world – the Himalayas, the Karakorams, and the Hindu Kush – collide. 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 has the only commercial link to China through the Karakoram Highway, it borders Afghanistan on one side and India-controlled Kashmir on the other, and it is also home to some of Pakistan’s most marginalized and poor communities, a vast majority of whom depend directly on environmental benefits from local ecosystem processes for their livelihoods.
Because of the importance of natural resources to local communities in this region, and the region’s significance as a center of biodiversity, Gilgit-Baltistan is also a critically important conservation landscape. The area contains some of the last remaining arid conifer forests in the Greater Himalayan mountain chain, dominated by blue pine (Pinus wallichiana) and chilgoza pine (P. gerardiana), but also containing deodar cedar, spruce, fir, and various juniper species.
Gilgit-Baltistan is also an important stronghold for a range of spectacular and threatened wildlife species, most notably the endangered snow leopard (Panthera uncia), flare-horned markhor (Capra falconeri falconeri), and woolly flying squirrel (Eupetaurus cinereus). It is also an important stronghold for the Ladakh urial, Marco Polo sheep, musk deer, Asiatic black and Himalayan brown bears, Himalayan lynx, leopard cat, otters, various threatened pheasants and a host of other wildlife species.
These natural resources, and thus the traditional way of life across much of Gilgit-Baltistan, have been at risk for decades. Deforestation and overhunting were stripping the area of its last tracts of forests and wildlife. Logging, run by external commercial enterprises, offered little economic return to local people and threatened their future livelihoods. Loss of habitat, coupled with an influx of modern weapons from three decades of conflict in Afghanistan, was decimating the local wildlife populations upon which local people relied for protein and income. If environmental conditions continued to degrade, people would no longer be able to carve a living out of these mountains as they have for centuries. Poverty will spread, communities and cultural practices will dissolve, and rural migration will further dissolve cultural connections and negatively affect neighboring communities, regions and even the global community.
On the other hand, helping local communities initiate and maintain reforms for environmental sustainability and stability will help them prevent the spread of poverty, out-migration and cultural dissolution that threatens the region. Natural resource conservation is not a politically or culturally sensitive issue – forests, wildlife, water and soils are what rural people depend upon and consider part of their lives, livelihoods and cultures. Assistance aimed at providing better ways to manage these resources is a natural way to build relations with these communities and achieve sustainable resource conservation. At the same time, assistance in resource management leads naturally to building governance structures (such as community resource committees) aimed at management at the local level – and once these structures are in place, it is a simple and obvious step to link them to the larger government agencies responsible for oversight of resource management. These linkages can lead directly to greater regional stability and security – all in the name of, and through the act of, natural resource conservation.