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Trans-Amazonian highway re-enacted

Javid Ali

In the 1970s, the military regime of Brazil constructed the trans-Amazonian highway to connect the north-eastern parts of the country to the Amazon rainforest. During the 1970s, Brazil was facing one of the most severe economic crises in its history. This highway was envisaged to usher an era of economic development by providing people in the north-eastern cities of Brazil easy access to the natural resources of the rain forest.

Large numbers of people flocked to the rainforest after completion of the road and settled deep in to the forest; clearing forest cover for agriculture and pastures. Amazon saw the highest rate of deforestation; the poaching and trade of exotic rainforest species was at all time high and fresh water rivers of amazon were polluted with sediments and pesticides. At a point Amazon was so heavily deforested that experts posited that Amazon will cross its tipping point and the ecosystem would cascade into a self-destructive cycle if no actions were taken. In 2014 the Sahiwal coal power plant was built with a staggering cost of $1.8 billion as part of the CPEC. The then government of Nawaz Sharif hailed it as the realization of the mandate of his party and a foundation for a continued prosperity in the region. Let alone prosperity, the coal fired power plant turned the ethereal village of Qadirabad into a dystopian nightmare.

Contamination of the groundwater with arsenic and other toxic metal has destroyed the guava orchards in the village and caused liver failure endemic. The ground water has decreased up to 15ft drying up tube well and severely effecting agriculture. Dr Abdul Rauf, who has been analyzing the water and air quality of Qadirabad after high number of liver failure and asthma cases started to be registered, says that the concentration of polluted in both water and air sample is so high that the population of Qadirabad needs to relocated.

Economy and Politics have been at odds with climate action worldwide. See for instance the Populist trump administration; during his tenure he revoked the Paris accord, opened coal power plants, removed grey wolves from endangered species list, opened pristine ecosystem for oil drilling and downplayed climate scientists to appease his largely climate denying vote base with the prospects of new jobs and economic development which subsequently come with cheap energy and oil.The same goes for politics in Pakistan, environment has been a victim of hastily undertaken development projects to deliver to the masses during short term in the parliament. This pays off to the politician as the vote of largely illiterate masses of Pakistan is motivated by the amount of glittering and shiny infrastructure erected by the government.This also explains the competition over mass transit projects in major cities of Pakistan between rival political parties. The PTI regime also used this strategy to retain its vote base. Rawalpindi ring road, a highway through Margalla Hills, BRT, and Sawat Motorway are some of the beads it used to embellish its crown.

Chitral-Shandur road is also being built with high hopes. The popular belief is that the project will usher in an era of economic prosperity by promoting tourism and business in the region and making commodities and services cheaper. But the increase in commodities and services as a measure of economic development has long been trashed. What entails economic prosperity now is sustainability of environment, welfare of the people, their happiness and how connected they feel to their surrounding and community.

Development without considering cultural and environmental sustainability leads to chaos and alienation of local people and environmental degradation as is evident from the example of Sahiwal and Gwadar. This new concept of economic development has brought the practice of environmental impact assessment (EIA) at the forefront of development projects. EIA is a study undertaken to identify the negative impacts of development project on culture, economy, and environment of the regions directly or indirectly under the influence of the project and propose mitigation strategies and make a subsequent environmental management plan to implement the provisions for the implementation of mitigation strategies.The full scope of EIA includes public consultation where information about the design and impacts of the project are shared with community. A public gathering is arranged through publication in local newspapers and concerns of the locals are registered and incorporated into the design and management plan of the project.

Section 12(1) of Pakistan Environmental Protection Act,1997 states that “No proponent of a project shall commence construction or operation unless he has filed with the Federal Agency an initial environmental examination or, where the project is likely to cause an adverse environmental effect, an environmental impact assessment, and has obtained from the Federal Agency approval in respect thereof”. Unfortunately, EIA is seen as a legal hurdle in the completion of development projects by proponents, rather than a tool to improve the Environment. I have had the privilege to participate in a couple of Public consultations in Peshawar. The consultants, who have actually been bribed by the proponents to steer the project out of this “trivial” legal mess, exaggerate the economic benefits of the project and undermine the social and environmental implications. Mitigation impacts proposed in the EIA statement are mere rants to navigate the legal requirements, which are never implemented, thanks to the disregard and lack of provisions for accountability and monitoring by EPA.

In case of Chitral-Shandur road, proponents have exploited a window in the “IEE and EIA regulations 2001” to do away with EIA statement, where it is mentioned in the Schedule II that reconstruction and maintenance projects of roads are exempted from EIA study. However, the Rule 5(1)(a) of the IEE and EIA regulations 2001 states that “proponents shall submit an EIA, if a project is likely to cause adverse environmental impacts even if it is exempted from filing an EIA statement in Schedule II of the rules”. Given the very sensitive culture and environment of Chitral and the nature of this project it will have severe implication on the Environment-including social and economic, thus making EIA a prerequisite for this project.

  1. Starting off with the construction phase, first comes the matter of land acquisition. Private lands adjacent to the road would be chipped in to widen the road. Traditionally matters of land acquisition has been controversial because of the vested interests of officers involved. The terms and conditions of land acquisition and compensation matters there off are deliberately concealed from the public.In this case too, no public consultation has been done to share any plans and conditions of land acquisition. Such practices give rise to distrust of government institutes and culminate into brawls and protests often inhibiting the progress of development projects.
  2. The project has damaged existing public and private infrastructure such as roads and canals. One of the irrigation canals for Awi village has been filled with the excavated earth to widen the road near Domadomi since early march. The wheat crops and tree plantations of more than 200 households are on the verge of desiccation due to the disregard of the concerned authorities for rehabilitation of the canal. In other areas excavated materials have been dumped into the private lands of people.
  3. Given the hilly terrain and raged topography of Upper Chitral, villages often have multiple roads to connect them to the main transport artery as one road will not suffice for access to all parts of the villages. Construction of highways only allow for one link road to be build for every village, which means all these link roads will be closed. Closure of these road networks bares people from access to agricultural and construction machinery and personal transport facilities.
  4. People also have reservations over where a culvert or bridge over a nullah is build, because it effects how and where the connected watershed and flood water is drained. All these factors require active and detail public participation in decision making about design of the project which should have been arranged as part of the EIA and Environmental management plan.

The second concern is, what the project holds for the future of tourism and subsequently for the environment and societyof the region.Tourism practices in Pakistan generally are very unsustainable and domestic tourists harbor no regards for the environment and culture of their hosts. Over the years with the boom of domestic tourism conflicts between tourists and locals in Murree and Gilgit-Baltistan have frequented on social media. The Hunza rave incident is one example how tourism erodes local values and believes and brings division in community.The tourism mafia has also encroached into the natural environment in GB. Guest houses and tourist resorts have been erected around Atabad lake and other pristine ecosystems, dumping their sewerage and solid wastes into the open without any treatment. All these events will be inevitably reciprocated in Chitral.As social indicators show GBians are more resilient community than us; The community cohesion and awareness level of GBians is unprecedented in Pakistan. They have very active and functioning informal and formal institutes and a comprehensive governance structure. On the other hand, Khow are more passive and divided community. Thus, we would not be able to cope with changes brought by tourism without government intervention and commitment of concerned of the institutes. The impacts of tourism on the environment and culture of Chitral are already very apparent. Qaqlasht meadows, Shandur plateau, Broghol present scenes of Mad Max fury as tourists flock there to sate their dune bashing cravings. Tourists on their four wheelers rev their vehicles across these landscapes spewing earth into the air. Now Qaqlasht meadows are sadly more of a crisscross of bike trails than greenery. Littering of tourist site with wrappers and packages is a common sight. 

The more serious threat to tourism is presented by Climate change. Tourist attraction sites like Oyun, Reshun, Kalash Valleys and Sonoghor have already been severely damaged by Floods. The Shandur lakes have receded from their earlier marks and temperatures are drastically increasing. Glaciers and snow caps are melting at a staggering rate, eroding away the aesthetics and beauty of once iconic landscapes. There has been a continues decrease in snowfall received by the region since the last two decades. Without snow the hopes of winter tourism which is riding the wave these days, would be diluted in its infancy.

The Kalasha community has been treated as a show piece to promote tourism for long now. Walls of museums, culture departments and public spaces are embellished with pictures of Kalasha girls everywhere in Pakistan. Vast majority of domestic tourists come to Chitral to visit Kalash valleys. Kalasha women are considered lecherous and indecent because they dance and drink wine, which are looked down upon in Islam. Majority of the tourist have licentious intends and they often approach and harass Kalasha girls. Tourists ask Kalasha women to dance for them in exchange for money. Such commercialization of Kalasha culture is not only degrading and dehumanization but also threaten the essence and meaning of these cultural practices eventually fading them out and leaving behind the superficial remnants. Under the robe of tourism are disguised suitors who lure poverty stricken Kalasha family with promises of fortune and good life in to marriage. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that marriages of Kalasha girls outside their community is the biggest threat to their existence. The domestic tourists are also burdened with xenophobia and religious intolerance who cherish Kalasha girls and wine but hate them for being non-Muslims. While wilding they convert into part time Proselytizers and make rounds in groups often engaging callous tactics to convert them to Islam.

There are also many internal societal factors which threaten the Kalasha community.According to a research by Mohd Iqbal of University of Peshawar,Kalasha students are bullied and mocked by their Muslims peers for almost every aspect of their existence from food and dress to their accent. Kalasha students are reminded by teachers and their peers frequently that how they are destined to roast in hell and are preached by teacher to convert in to Islam. Furthermore, they are forced to study Islamiat and Nazira in schools, which they cannot wrap their heads around. They perform poorly in academics and do not continue beyond high school. This disenfranchisement of Kalasha from education by the societal systems makes them further vulnerable to conversion and marriages outside their community.

The diverse and multidisciplinary nature of the impacts of this project require the engagement of the wide range of government institutes including Tourism, education, cultural and irrigation department and consultation with multiple stakeholders, especially the community members. Provisions for sharing of information and consultation between these department should be made to safeguard interests of the masses. The governance structure and institute involved in tourism and culture need to revitalized and activated to avoid Chitral from being another Murree or Gwadar in the name of development.Climate change adaptation strategies to safeguard the ramshackle ecosystems of Chitral from GLOFS, flash floods and droughts should be intrinsic part of the Chitral-Shandur road project, if it is to sustain tourism in the future. EIA is a comprehensive tool which covers all the aspects of environmental management regarding development projects from small changes in the design to complex interventions engaging communities and institutes to offset the negative impacts of development projects. Not conduction an EIA for this project is thus an injustice to the people and environment of Chitral.


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