The recent revenge killings of the three older brothers of the two boys embroiled in the “video scandal” in Palas Valley, has brought the remote region of Kohistan back into the news. The story broke last year, when a video allegedly showing five girls clapping and dancing at a wedding in Kohistan in the presence of the two younger boys was circulated. News began filtering out of the region that the five girls in the video had been murdered on the orders of a tribal “jirga” for “bringing dishonour” to their tribal traditions. Although an investigation was ordered then by the Supreme Court and indeed it looks like they might re-open the case now, it all remains a mystery as to what really happened.
It made me sad to hear this horrific news story for Palas Valley in Kohistan, located half way between Islamabad and Gilgit on the Karakoram Highway, has long been considered a biodiversity hotspot in scientific circles. I feel strongly about this picturesque tribal area because I had the good fortune of visiting it a few years ago through WWF-Pakistan, who then had a field office in the small town of Pattan on the Karakoram Highway (just after Besham). In this region, you find the thickest natural forests left in Pakistan – pine and deodar trees and even Chilghoza trees at higher altitudes.
Palas Valley, its mountain ridges hidden in clouds, lies just opposite the town of Pattan across the Indus River. Due to its inaccessibility, its forests and rivers are undisturbed (there are only a few jeep tracks leading into the valley). Half the valley lies inside the monsoon belt while half is outside and the great range in altitude means that there are a variety of habitats, from sub-tropical to alpine. Upper Palas has pristine forests, home to rare species of pheasants like the Western Tragopan, which was thought to be extinct but was spotted and then captured on film in the valley.
While I didn’t get anywhere close to the Western Tragopan since it is only found in the Upper Palas side which is a good two days trek from Pattan, I did spend three days visiting some of the nearby villages and climbing up to the see the thick forests. No more than 4 per cent of Pakistan’s land mass is today under the cover of forests so to be able to visit the remaining few natural forests is indeed a special experience.
Massive deforestation started in Pakistan in the 1990s and the greatest victims were the conifer forests in the Himalayan belt. The massive earthquake that struck Pakistan’s north on October 8th 2005 resulted in widespread land sliding in the mountains. The land sliding was a direct result of all the deforestation that had taken place in this region and claimed thousands of lives. Villages in Kohistan were badly affected as well – those located near the thick forests, however, were spared the destruction of homes.
The UN has recently introduced a mechanism for financially compensating countries to reduce emissions from deforestation. It is called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) and the goal is to reduce global deforestation by 50 per cent by 2020. While REDD has started in Nepal, it is still in its introductory phase in Pakistan. Workshops have been organised with the Forest Departments to introduce the concept of receiving dividends from the protection of forests. On the way to Pattan, one could see piles of timber lying on the KKH, so clearly the timber mafia is active in this area. A strong REDD mechanism could of course galvanise the government into action. Given the incentive of financial compensation, they might actually think it is worth their while to move against the influential timber mafia and save these old forests.
During my visit to Palas Valley, I met with members of the community based Palas Conservation and Development Federation. Their project was encouraging the locals not to cut the trees by introducing non timber forest products like medicinal plants, fruit orchards, beehives and the marketing of Chilghozas. The aim of the project was to conserve the moist temperate forests of Palas Valley by introducing the concept of managing non timber forest products. The process was slow but word was spreading throughout the valley. The villagers were beginning to realise that they could make more money from these yearly activities than by selling their timber every 20 years.
I was told that the people of Palas have always respected their natural environment – for example they consider it unlucky to cut a green tree in spring, but they do have to feed their children as well and Kohistan is a poverty stricken region where jobs are rare and every day is a struggle for survival. People own small plots of terraced land and basically live off what they can grow. Many men go in search of work to Karachi and other large cities.
The mountain people, with their tall physiques and rugged good looks have survived for centuries in this harsh albeit beautiful environment. Unfortunately, feuds are common in the area and almost every grown male carries a gun. Most homes have watchtowers from where they can guard their property. Feuds are over land and women – and can last for generations. The women are not allowed to mix with the men and have to veil themselves, although they work hard in the fields and have to walk for miles to fetch fire wood and spring water.
I remember asking one of the local men, “why the need for all this feuding? Your lives are so tough already”. His haunting reply was, “We are human, not animals, we only pick up our guns and use them when we have to”. From the accounts that I have heard of those five women, I’m afraid, that may not be the truth.
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