Gilgit Baltistan belongs to an ecologically sensitive area in the Himalayas. The culturally unique area is nestled deep in the greater Himalayas, occupied by Pakistan since 1947, lost over half of its forest cover in the last two decades, most of it in the recent years. The ongoing Beijing funded China –Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will bring ecological disaster in the catchment area….write Dr Ismail Kareem
In January 2015, there was a small news article in The Express Tribune, a well-known English daily published in Pakistan. It was about Gilgit Baltistan and was missed by many because there was no follow-up either in print or on the otherwise raucous television. But it told a tale of destruction and injustice unfolding in the valleys of pristine Himalayas. The news article, quoting official sources, pointed out that Gilgit Baltistan, an ecologically sensitive and culturally unique area nestled deep in the greater Himalayas, occupied by Pakistan since 1947, lost over half of its forest cover in the last two decades, most of it in the recent years.
The newspaper quoted Dr Shahzad Jehangir, Deputy Inspector General, Climate Change Division, Forest Wing, as saying that :“Forest area in G-B has fallen to 295,000 from 640,000 hectares in the last 20 years due to callous cutting of trees and illegal transportation down-country.” This is the official figure; the real figures would many times over.
This is also the area through which the much-heralded China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is slated to pass through, despite outcries by the local indigenous communities against what they call the depredation of the pristine valleys and farm lands by gangs of Chinese and Pakistani troopers and construction workers.
Though most of the forests are owned by the local communities under a deal they had signed with the occupying Pakistani government forces in the 50s, the final veto rests with the Gilgit-Baltistan Council chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The local communities have never accepted the council as representative of their interests and welfare. In fact, the council has only been seen as a fig leaf to impose Punjabi-military clique to rule this far-flung region by intimidation and repressive laws.
The local people have never accepted Pakistan’s suzerainty and continue to raise their voice of protest and demand for freedom at the UN and other international forum. What has riled them now, as never before, the coming of CPEC which they fear, rightly, will ruin their hearth and their unique culture.
With thousands of Chinese troops and Pakistani soldiers let loose in the region, where foreigners were welcome but only as tourists and travellers, the local communities foresee the tragic disruption of their life. Huge cantonments have sprung up in valleys and mountain sides which once sheltered rare species of herbs and lush alpine grass for their cattle to graze on. Workers encampments have been rammed into forests cleared ruthlessly. Massive machinery have been airlifted or brought to the narrow valleys and high mountains, cutting huge swathes of mountains for them to stand and move, and dig and excavate, leaving the mountains denuded and fragile. Once pristine and virgin springs and rivers are getting clogged with debris and other wastes of massive construction. The ruin is near and complete.
But this ruin and destruction is not limited to the people of Gilgit Baltistan alone; it has equally deeper impact on the lives of millions who live on the waters of Indus which originate here, in the deep folds of the great Himalayas. It is well known that Gilgit-Baltistan is a critical catchment and source of water for hundreds of millions of people across Pakistan as a major part of the Indus River watershed. The region’s great conifer forests are critical to water management—holding off excessive run-offs, erosion and siltation, all of which, in the recent years, have caused massive loss of life and property downstream. In 2010, flooded Indus caused the death of over 2000 people, displaced over 20 million people, and caused damage estimated at over US$40 billion across Pakistan.
The damage done to the eco-system by large scale construction and mining, both of which are rampant in this part of the world, is well documented. Experts have warned that massive infrastructure projects like the CPEC will lead to melting of glaciers, damage the eco-system, loss of productive farm lands, displacement of large number of people, permanent disruption of local economic activities, introduction of new forms of diseases, and death of indigenous culture and traditions.
This is how Pakistan and China are building the future—through rampant destruction of the great Himalayas and its indigenous communities. The local community leaders, who have been vociferously protesting the development, fear it as the creation of a new conflict zone between different stakeholders. They think that the economic corridor would bring war to their doorsteps which, till now, echoes the melodious chirpings and the sound of forests and rivers.
But they are fast losing hope. Protests are not heeded either in Islamabad or anywhere else in the world. Protesters are being locked up as terrorists. The occupying Pakistani government has now introduced a new draconian law, modelled on Chinese laws, to punish those protesting the CPEC. It is known as Schedule 4 under which all residents of Gilgit Baltistan are required to present themselves before the local police officers along with their credentials. They are supposed to give assurance that they would not indulge in any “terrorist or anti-national“ activities, in short their voices are being firmly muzzled. The punishment for violating this code is swift and harsh as many protesters have recently found out.