What is Chinese doing in one of the most sensitive areas in the Himalayas? The international community must hear the anguished cries of the people of Gilgit Baltistan who not only fear the loss of their ancestral abode in the great Himalayas but also their unique life, customs, language and traditions. It will be a big loss for the world community….writes Syed Shihabudeen
Hundreds of Chinese workers, their tools and their support systems have been moving through the pristine valleys and mountains of Gilgit Baltistan, one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the Himalayas, damaging and destroying precious fauna and flora and disturbing the life of local indigenous people who have been living there for centuries.
All this cultural invasion and environmental degradation is happening in the name of development and friendship between China and Pakistan.
But people of Gilgiti-Baltistan, who have for long been deeply unhappy with what Pakistan has been doing to their home, damaging its ecology for supplying power to Punjab and Sindh, resent this invasion of the Chinese. There is mounting resentment among the people of this unique region against what they see is wanton exploitation of their natural resources which they fear will destroy their unique customs and traditions.
In fact, they believe that their way of life is greatly threatened by the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor where China has proposed to invest over $40 billion to link China with the port of Gwadar, the new strategic port funded by China. They are acutely aware that this is how China works—run through indigenous communities, take over natural resources, exploit them to the hilt and leave the people and the place destroyed beyond imagination.
There is a growing resentment among locals over China’s presence in the region. To fulfill the requirements of the project, the government and the army are forcibly acquiring the ancestral land of the locals in Gilgit-Baltistan.
A well known academic from the region, Mr Senge H Sering, who is also the Director of the Gilgit-Baltistan National Congress, had this to say about the growing public disenchantment with the project and anger.
“When Pakistan Army was constructing Karakoram highway along with China, no compensation was given to affected people,” he said. “No loss assessment was made. Now, the land acquirement for the CPEC project is being done forcibly. The ancestral land of the people cannot be acquired without paying them compensation and earning their consent. But, the Gilgit-Baltistan government and Pakistan Army are forcibly acquiring the ancestral land of the people.”
In short, Pakistan Army, which has assured the Chinese of protection, is running rough shod over a community of indigenous people whose cultures and traditions are now threatened by the mega economic project. This could lead to disastrous changes in the region, forcing the indigenous people to migrate to other safer regions and letting the Chinese destroy the delicate ecological balance of the region.
Another reason is the realisation among the people that the real benefits of the project will go to the Punjabi heartland and its masters and not the people of Gilgit Baltistan. This will be the repeat of the hydropower projects which Pakistan set up in the area, promising the local people employment and power, but they got nothing when the project was completed and began generating power. They know that this is what is happening this time around also.
Locals, for instance, are not taken in confidence about the project. They are unaware of the dimensions of the project and how much land, which has been their ancestral land, will be taken away from them. Pakistan Army is all set to take over whatever land their Chinese patrons would demand for creating the corridor and its support facilities. This would mean cultivatable land and pastures and water sources would go under the Chinese drills and explosives as the highways takes shape.
Valleys will be cut through, mountain sides blown up or drilled for tunnels and rivers and streams diverted and bridged all along the passage. This will prove, as in other places, disastrous for the region. Rivers and streams will soon be clogged with debris from the road building project, raising the level of the water ways or blocking them, both of which could mean frequent bouts of floods downstream, threatening human habitations and cultivable lands. Pastures will be severely affected, forcing people to take their cattle and sheep to higher pastures which may cause further depredation and faster melting of ice from the glaciers.
Destruction of mountain sides will naturally drastically change the ecology of the region, altering weather patterns. Cutting down of trees will fatally damage the eco-system which has sheltered scores of species of fauna and flora. All of these will be threatened by the disastrous project. Some of the fauna and flora might also become extinct. The region is home to unique fauna like Snow Leopard and mountain goats which are already on the verge of extinction and the construction of the corridor will accelerate this process. The massive amount of concrete debris, petroleum left overs, plastic and other garbage will pollute the mountains and valleys for centuries to come. In all, the corridor will be an environmental disaster and contribute to the climate change threat facing the world substantially.
The international community must hear the anguished cries of the people of Gilgit Baltistan who not only fear the loss of their ancestral abode in the great Himalayas but also their unique life, customs, language and traditions. It will be a big loss for the world community.