Sustainable development in the Hindu Kush

The HKH Call to Action advocates a shared vision for the future of the HKH and urgent actions to address climate change

Sustainable use of natural resources has supported humanity for millennia.

Biodiversity rich areas are often among the poorest, and the Hindu Kush Himalayan region (HKH) is no exception. The biggest challenge here is to balance conservation with development using an integrated approach.

The HKH Call to Action advocates a shared vision for the future of the region and urgent actions to address climate change. The recent ministerial summit and declaration have recognised this Call to Action and the roadmap towards a prosperous, healthy, peaceful, and resilient HKH region.

The HKH region is the pulse of the planet, home to rich biodiversity and the largest reserves of ice outside the polar region. There is an urgent need to reinforce positive relations between biodiversity, landscapes, culture, and health in a post-Covid new-normal for a sustainable future.

“The Hindu Kush Himalayan region has incredible cultural and biological diversity and is a global asset, providing water, energy, and food for a fourth of the world’s population,” says Dr Pema Gyamtsho, director general of the International Centrefor Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

He was speaking at ICIMOD’s session at the Biodiversity Digital Conference: One World – One Health, organised by the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) on October 28-29. Dr Gyamtsho went on to highlight the uniqueness of the HKH biodiversity: “Four out of 36 global biodiversity hotspots are in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. In addition to the biological diversity that we know about, from 1998 to 2008, on average around 35 species new to science have been reported every year in the Eastern Himalaya.”

He also outlined several challenges threatening the region: “Population growth, rapid economic growth, land use change, migration, climate change, and now Covid-19 are impacting the region, and affecting the wellbeing of mountain communities.” Dr Gyamtsho called for a mountain-specific approach to development needs, as what happens in the HKH affects a fourth of humanity.

Community knowledge and conservation

Experts from the eight HKH countries participated in ICIMOD’s session at the digital conference. On the question of how indigenous traditional knowledge has been key to conserving biodiversity, Mehjabeen-Abidi Habib, ecologist and writer from Pakistan, gave an example from the remote Shimshal Valley in the Karakoram mountain range of Gilgit-Baltistan. Habib said the valley, with its glaciers and rich biodiversity, is home to a pastoralist society that passes on knowledge about nature from generation to generation through an oral tradition. She said, “When this experience-based local knowledge is combined with science-based conservation efforts, the effectiveness of conservation and benefits to communities is greatly enhanced – for instance through ibex trophy hunting, which is helping to regenerate biodiversity in the region.”

Another panelist, Sarala Khaling, regional director of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Eastern Himalaya Programme, India,spoke about how indigenous and scientific knowledge came together to conserve biodiversity in Nagaland in north-eastern India. She said, “The Amur falcon, a raptor which migrates from Russia and China to spend its winter in South Africa, makes a stopover in Nagaland.In the past, up to 14,000 Amur falcons were hunted every day in Nagaland. Now the government, community leaders, and civil society have joined hands to conserve this fascinating raptor.”

The HKH region is the pulse of the planet, home to rich biodiversity and the largest reserves of ice outside the polar region. There is an urgent need to reinforce positive relations between biodiversity, landscapes, culture, and health in a post-Covid new-normal.

Khaling points out, “The villagers who were hunting the Amur falcon are now its guardians. This has helped promote ecotourism. Every year a large number of tourists throng the areato see the falcons.”

Traditional healthcare and modern medicine

On the question of how traditional healthcare systems can be retained in a fast-changing world, Dr Fu Yao, an ethnobotanist at the Kunming Institute of Botany, China, said that traditional healthcare systems are being overshadowed by modern medicine in the policy and public domains. However, said out that in many countries, local communities rely on traditional healthcare systems. “Nowadays in developed countries, there’s a renewed interest in exploring traditional healthcare systems, as they offer a holistic and preventive view to understand health.”Yao added, “Many chronic and age-related diseases are difficult to treat with modern medicines.”

Another panelist, Jamyang Dolkar, an associate lecturer at Sherubtse College, Royal University of Bhutan, urged the youth to respect and continue indigenous and traditional knowledge systems in the era of globalisation: “Indigenous knowledge played an important role in the conservation of environment, even before the science of conservation was developed.”

Dolkar described how indigenous knowledge is practiced in Bhutan through traditional medicine hospitals and by the use of wild edible and medicinal plants. She stressed that indigenous knowledge must be preserved for posterity: “Indigenous knowledge has relied on oral transmission but there is a chance of losing this knowledge or dilution of this knowledge. Documentation is therefore important.”

Traditional knowledge is also embedded in cultural festivals. Dolkar suggests engaging the youth in festivals. She also recommends greater involvement of the youth in local community practices, such as collecting wild edible plants, to retain traditional knowledge.

Youth in conservation

Sonam Tashi Lama, one of the founding staff members of Red Panda Network in Nepal, who was named the Disney Conservation Hero in 2015 for his work on conserving the endangeredred panda, said, “Loss of habitat and habitat degradation are due to overgrazing. Over exploitation of forest resources is the major challenge hampering wildlife conservation in the Kangchenjunga landscape in Eastern Nepal.”

He also outlined other challenges threatening the survival of wildlife, such as“forest conversion for agricultural purposes, over-exploitation and unsustainable extraction of commercially viable species, construction of rural roads and trekking tracks in wildlife habitats without an ecological assessment, and human–wildlife conflict among other issues.”

Lama suggested investing in green infrastructure in place of the unsustainable development that is currently in practice in the region. He urged the youth living in the HKH region to halt such development.

The session culminated with a closing question on priority actions to protect the HKH. Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib suggested bio-cultural management of water for healthy co-existence; Sarala Khaling suggested restrictions on land-use change in the HKH; Fu Yao suggested promotion of traditional knowledge in relation to healthcare and biodiversity conservation; Sonam Tashi Lama suggested restoration of degraded lands to protect biodiversity; and Jamyang Dolkar suggested strengthening the research capacity of organisations and individuals to address environment and biodiversity-related challenges.

The writer is a KMC Officer at ICIMOD. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar

Sustainable development in the Hindu Kush