John Mock & Kimberley O'Neil

Objects of Desire in the Northern Areas

by John Mock (HIMAL 8:2 Mar/Apr 1995)

In a flurry of activity over the last 18 months, Pakistani administrators have established three new high mountain national parks in the Northern Areas. Previously there was only one, the Khunjerab National Park, established in 1975.

The governmental action to bring more areas under protection, under the aegis of the Northern Areas Wildlife Act of 1975, seems directed at heading off an uncontrolled rush to develop the alpine meadows of the Northern Areas. With the extension of the Karakoram highway over the Khunjerab Pass to China in 1982, the area has experienced more than a decade of steady growth. The summer grasslands, valued over the centuries only for livestock grazing, have now become the object of desire of many competing interests -- resort hotels, polo tournaments, adventure tourism, big game hunting, and military bases.

Two of the new parks have been established by the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Areas. They are Shandur-Hundrup National Park, and Deosai Plateau Wilderness Park. Shandur is where over 50,000 people converge on the high meadows for an annual polo tournament. By declaring the area a National Park, the Chief Commissioner with one stroke reigned in the polo players and fans, a group that was not prone to be the most respectful towards the fragile mountain ecology. Future tournaments will have to clean up their trash.

The Deosai Plateau is a 3464 square km high-altitude plain bordering on Indian Kashmir. Uninhabited and little used, the area has the largest brown bear population in Pakistan. The new national park, which is thought to strengthen Pakistan's claim to the territory, reserves the entire area for preservation and research, particularly on the bears.

By far the most important of the new reserves, however, is the Central Karakoram National Park, which includes the Baltoro, Biafo, and Hispar Glaciers and their tributaries. The crown jewel is, of course, 8616m high K2. The Baltoro Glacier is already the most popular climbing and trekking destination in Pakistan. In 1994, 27 out of 50 climbing expeditions went to the Baltoro, and 93 out of 128 organized treks also headed up the glacier to the spot known as Concordia and the K2 Base Camp.

The move to set up the CKNP began in late 1993 in response to growing environmental pressure on the once-pristine Baltoro. Though the park is established, however, several problems of management remain. One of them has to do with the government's attitude. At a workshop organized in Skardu last September by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to discuss park management, the government representatives refused to make any commitment to share revenue from proposed park entrance fees with the surrounding Balti and Hunza villages. One researcher ascribed this to a "Lingering attitude of prejudice towards local communities."

Clearly, the "co-management approach" which has found favour with Nepali park administrators has yet to find a firm foothold in Pakistan. This approach is characterized by a willingness of government to share power and responsibility for park management with local communities and other user groups.

Yet the biggest problem facing the Central Karakoram National Park is the presence of Pakistan Army troops on the Baltoro Glacier. In 1982, the indeterminate status of the northern end of the 1949 India-Pakistan cease fire prompted Indian troops to move up the Siachen Glacier, which Pakistan had regarded as part of their Northern Areas. There has been a huge military buildup on both sides and the two armies fought skirmishes over the Siachen since. On the Baltoro Glacier, as is also happening on the Indian side, the hardware and debris from this long simmering war continue to accumulate.

Whether the exercise of government control over these mountain parks will resolve conflicts resulting from multiple users remains to be seen. With the government as owner, but others as users, no one has sufficient control over resources. Until this gap between usage and control is resolved, effective management seems unlikely.

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