There is a growing understanding worldwide of the need for countries to work together on conservation and development. Many nations are forging transboundary partnerships to ensure that such initiatives are not bound by political and geographical boundaries.
In Asia, China has taken the lead with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which comprises the Silk Road Economic Belt that links China to South and Central Asia and onward to Europe. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is part of the BRI which aspires to establish a strong and integrated connection of shared destiny, harmony and development in the region. Perceived as a game-changer in China and Pakistan, CPEC will also positively impact other countries.
A major part of the CPEC project runs through the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. The HKH is a 3,500 km stretch that extends across eight countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Considering the possible benefits that CPEC could have in the region, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has established the Bam-e-Dunya (or ‘roof of the world’) network to promote long-term conservation and sustainable development in the region. This network brings together partners from six protected areas in four countries along the ancient Silk Road trade route – Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan – to encourage knowledge exchange, promotion of best practices, research and capacity building to promote long-term conservation and sustainable development in these mountain environments.
The Hindu Kush Pamir Landscape (HKPL) represents a fragile alpine ecosystem with unique biodiversity and is shared by Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, with six physically interconnected protected areas – Broghil National Park, Qurumbar National Park and Khunjerab National Park in Pakistan, Wakhan National Park in Afghanistan, Taxkorgan Nature Reserve in China and Zorkul Nature Reserve in Tajikistan. Together, are home to several globally important wildlife hotspots. This area is an important habitat for various plants and animal species, including the endangered snow leopard and Marco Polo sheep.
The HKPL is a confluence of the world’s highest mountain ranges – Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Pamir and Himalaya, and is a source of three major rivers – Indus; the longest river in Pakistan; Amu Darya which originates from Pamir Mountains and Tarim; located in Xinjiang, China. Apart from the diverse topography and rich biodiversity, the HKPL is also home to nine indigenous ethnic groups who share strong socio-economic and cultural ties that go beyond the political boundaries. Wakhi, Kyrgyz, Kho, Burusho are some of the tribal communities in Pakistan who may benefit in terms of enhanced livelihoods through conservation and development works as promotion of several factors like eco-tourism, trade and infrastructure development comes along with such initiatives.
The diverse and unique cultures, geography and biodiversity in the landscape has been instrumental in supporting the livelihoods of indigenous communities in various forms. In Pakistan and Tajikistan, community-based trophy hunting is considered a successful conservation tool. Statistics from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan show that from 1998 to 2019, 69 hunting permits for the markhor were issued in Chitral. This generated revenue worth $4.2 million. About 80 percent of the revenue generated from the trophy hunting programme is returned to the community and then used in rural development work – to provide safe drinking water and education, and for watershed management projects. Such programmes are an illustration of effective development work that goes hand-in-hand with good conservation practices.
The Bam-e-Dunya network has been established to facilitate a balance between development and conservation by seeking ways to reduce negative impacts on biodiversity, natural habitats and ecosystem functions. While CPEC focuses on economic development, the network highlights that CPEC is an ecologically important area and serves as a refuge for many endemic species like Himalayan Ibex, Markhor and other vulnerable species including common pochard and snow leopard. It is a route for cultural exchange, peace, and harmony for the landscape. The Bam-e-Dunya network is also conceived as a way to achieve a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) like no poverty, quality education, clean water and sanitation, economic growth, sustainable cities and communities and most importantly the last two goals; peace and justice strong institutions and partnership to achieve goal.
The Bam-e-Dunya network could set an example of strong institutions and partnership for the overall development of the landscape. Therefore, working together, CPEC and the Bam-e-Dunya network could potentially reconcile development and conservation concerns from design and planning up until the completion of construction phases; and that too, beyond borders.
Most development projects explicitly talk about achieving economic targets and improving the livelihoods of people. However, it is equally important to talk about cultures, traditional practices, historic trade routes, biodiversity values, and historic sites that are likely to be affected by these developments. It is important for these elements to be taken into account to ensure that projects are sustainable in the long-run. As per the Long-Term Climate Risk Index (CRI), Pakistan holds the eight position in the list of ten most climate affected countries in the last two decades. Therefore, it becomes even more important to take into account the environmental considerations and promote initiatives like Bam-e-Dunya for balanced development.
The Bam-e-Dunya network is a step towards strengthening transboundary cooperation in the region and managing the landscape in a manner that benefits the environment and ensures human wellbeing. Ideally, this would mean bringing all six protected areas under one integrated corridor to conserve biodiversity and promote ecotourism and help to combat climate change.
The HKPL has the potential for revitalizing cross-border tourism and trade, and providing alternative livelihoods and income opportunities to over one million people living in the Hindu Kush Karakoram Pamir landscape. Harmony between the objectives of CPEC and Bam-e-Dunya would benefit all governments and local communities involved. This would also offer a balance between conservation and development efforts in the HKPL, promoting sustainable development.
The writer is research associate at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
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