I first visited Pakistan three decades ago, in the summer of 1992, when as a biology student I went to assist Dan Blumstein with a wildlife research project on golden marmots in Khunjerab National Park, situated in the far north of the country.
I’ve kept in touch with people I met there since then, but the nudge to return again came from a chance encounter over pizza and beer in Kathmandu in January 2018. There, at a planning workshop focused on the conservation of the snow leopard and its mountain habitats, I unexpectedly ran into an old acquaintance, who previously had been a field assistant like myself. Now, years on, he was a veteran development worker in his own right. We kept in touch and this year, we finally found an opportunity to jointly identify more concrete ways that we could support and strengthen local communities. The first step: an exploratory trip, where we could see and discuss first-hand about the mountain regions of Pakistan, their people and natural environments, and a potential future collaboration.
Well aware of how Pakistan is facing heat waves and floods, yet hopeful that the mountains were spared some of these challenges, we focused on the far north. Here, we had a double purpose — to return to cherished landscapes and communities, and to explore projects that could simultaneously support community development and conservation. We knew that environmental concerns and local development, though often seen as opposed, could be brought together through the sustainable use of resources such as rangelands and wildlife. We also were convinced there was an urgent need to combine both of these dimensions, especially in critical landscapes where mountain livelihoods and priority conservation areas overlap.
After flying to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, in mid-July 2022, we set out from the big city and surrounding hot plains on a month-long exploration through the remote mountain regions to the north.
We made our way first to Upper Chitral, situated along the border with Afghanistan, up the Yarkhun valley to the gateway of Broghil valley. The area is inhabited by Wakhi pastoralists, an ethnic group with a population of around 50-60,000 people spread across border regions in China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Wakhi herders in Broghil valley speak a Persian dialect and they continue their traditional livelihood that largely depends on the yak. Though the government has created a national park in this valley, it has yet to develop a “management plan” that would achieve conservation goals while allowing the local Indigenous community to continue practicing yak husbandry in ways passed down over generations — ways that are appreciated both for their ecological sense as well as for their deep contributions to the people’s sense of cultural identity.
Unexpectedly, we were invited to attend and observe the proceedings of a village council meeting at which around 40 people came together. A new chairperson was appointed on this special occasion and widespread mobilization of the local communities was evident, with discussions ranging from how best to maintain roads, improve health services, enhance lands and agricultural production, and prepare for mountain disasters. With the devastating floods and landslides that soon were to arrive and destroy most the homes and all fields in this region, this level of mobilization and local organization would turn out to be essential for recovery and rebuilding.
After Upper Chitral we traveled to Upper Hunza, passing through one of the most infamous (dangerous) mountain roads in the world to visit Shimshal village. The 50-km road was built over a period of 23 years, mostly by hand and largely by the community itself.
The Upper Hunza looks, to an outsider, like an entangled landscape of dry mountains and valleys, but the local people speak of a variety of land types, each with its own characteristics and clearly prescribed activities, all being cared for by the community. In recent years, local community associations such as the Shimshal Nature Trust have been created in order to maintain and even strengthen such customary approaches as well as to translate their traditions, thereby enabling more effective interaction with the government authorities responsible for forests, wildlife, and national parks.
Toward the end of our travels, we returned to Passu village and from there trekked about 25 km along Batura Glacier, one of the world’s longest non-polar glaciers, to the base of the highest peak in the westernmost subrange of the Karakoram, Batura Sar (7,795 m).
Herders from Passu and the nearby Hussaini village graze their livestock in this glacial valley, each on their respective sides. Both groups have taken responsibility to protect their wildlife through local community-based hunting conservancies with strictly enforced quotas based on annual population surveys of target species, and with hunting fees that return in majority to the communities themselves.
Our conversations with local communities and with our friends and colleagues highlighted for us the enormous achievements that have been made over the past few decades in terms of local socioeconomic development, including community-led hunting tourism and building new water channels for irrigated farming, alongside wildlife and forest conservation. Each of these local initiatives have been distinctly enabled by the more inclusive approaches that are made possible by community associations. Yet in many places, poor road conditions are still limiting access to services, mountain hazards are very real and the risk of climate-induced disasters remains a constant factor in everyday life. Relations between the communities and formal national parks also must be improved in several instances. Fortunately, there are already successful models from which we can learn in many places around the world.
What is necessary for these changes is already present: the information, knowledge, insights and experience for bringing these changes was heard from many sources. Many innovative individuals and institutions are clearly committed and are now seeking to strengthen and to build resilience in these fragile regions. We look forward to returning and collaborating on new ventures together in the future.
Marc Foggin has worked with local and indigenous mountain communities on the Tibetan plateau and in Central Asia for nearly 30 years as a conservation biologist, development practitioner, and researcher — mostly as founding director of the organization Plateau Perspectives as well as being honorary research Associate in the School of Public Policy & Global Affairs, University of British Columbia. He was invited by the editors of GlacierHub to share this post.