Noreen Haider: Writes from her visit to the beautiful Naran valley of Khyber Pakhtunkwa province in Pakistan, where she observes various dimensions of social and environment development. Noreen came across various developmental projects and activities in the region and finds that poor education and poorly planned social and environmental projects lead to acute poverty natural resource crisis in this region.
In the Northern East of Mansehra District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province of Pakistan are situated the most beautiful and picturesque valleys of the Kaghan, Shogran and Naran. The valley is about hundred and fifty kilometers long scenic wonder. The mountains, dales, lakes, waterfalls, streams and glaciers appear to be in a pristine state and as close to the image of “proverbial garden of Eden” as one can imagine.
In the north, along the boundary with Kohistan district forms the great Himalaya Range. The famous Babusar Pass is situated in this range on the northeastern boundary of the district. The peak of famous Nanga Parbat is situated about 40 kilometers from the northeastern boundary of the district
It is just five hours drive from Islamabad, the capital city but somewhere during the drive on the long and winding road you are transported to another world, another age and perhaps another dimension. The transition is so smooth that you hardly become aware of it but slowly the mountains on the sides of the road start turning a deeper shade of green and widen as if to welcome you in their embrace.
Driving up North to Kaghan and Naran valleys a few months back I was literally taken aback by its unspoiled and pure beauty. Naran is famous for its gorgeous Lake Saif-ul-Maluk where according to the folk lore, fairies descend here on every full moon.
The last three hours drive was mostly on broken road and it is ironic that the only thing that reminds you that this little piece of heaven was stuck by a devastating earthquake only six years ago.
In July the valleys looked wonderful and the weather was mild and balmy. It seemed as nothing could be less than perfect here but, as I explored Naran and the surrounding valleys, I soon realized that this was not the case. The valley had its share of problems including, land degradation, deforestation and lack of sustainable livelihood to mention a few.
In fact it was distressing to see that the people in the whole area were extremely poor with almost no means of sustainable livelihood. Most of them relied on tourism in the four summer months of the year. With the arrival of winters the tourist season comes to an end and the total business in the valleys comes to a complete halt. So much so that most hotels offer free accommodations in winters in the hope to attract some adventurous visitors who might like to drive up North to enjoy the snow.
In terms of natural resources I have yet to see a more blessed land with abundant fresh water streams with sparkling clear water flowing in them, some of the biggest lakes in all the northern areas, lush green meadows stretched for unending miles, plush forests, cultivable fertile land, access to market and metallic road that connect Islamabad on one end and reaches and connects with Karakorum Highway through the Babusar top at 4170 m from mean seal level. But, even all these resources put together have not been able to alleviate the people out of their abject poverty or make the communities prosperous and self sufficient.
Walking through the small market area with just a few shops I was surprise at the scantiness of everyday goods and groceries there. My guide, a local mountaineer informed me that the people are mostly so poor that they could afford very little. They couldn’t afford to add meat or poultry in their diet so there were hardly any such shops there. Neither were there any clothes or woolen garments shops in the market. Small hut like grocery stores and a few tea stalls were the only apparent business.
The local men looked haggard with wrinkles on their faces as most mountain folks do, because of the harsh weather, hard life and poor diet.
I asked my guide the reason why people did not raise their own cattle or grow fruits so that they could have abundance of fresh fruit, milk and meat to sustain them, but he had no answer. He just said that the local people traditionally did not raise cattle and relied on the market for meat or poultry. So much so that they do not even grow any variety of vegetables. They only grow potatoes and in very few areas they have recently started growing peas after a development project by some International Agency that introduced the “new” vegetable to them in very few select areas.
Even with so many streams and lakes around then there was no fish available anywhere and as I learned there were no fish farms. Some people caught fish just as a hobby or an outdoor activity in summers but that was just about it.
The women were totally “invisible” and stayed indoors mostly. They do not make any handicraft of any kind either like embroidery or woven baskets, or mats and rugs as are usually available in mountain resorts. There was no tradition of any handicraft in the area and neither the men nor the women know any skills or craft.
It is indeed rare to find a tourist spot for family holidays where the people do not have anything to present as a local souvenir except the natural beauty of the valley. Interestingly I found out that a couple of years back a civil society organization realizing that women have no indigenous skills gave the community “Washing Machines” in an ill conceived livelihood project. The idea was to encourage the women to start a home based laundry business. Well as it turned out the community when realized the objective of project was highly offended. The men went livid with anger and the washing machines were practically thrown out on the street to rot. It is considered a matter of great shame to touch some stranger’s clothes, let alone wash them at your house.
Besides the amusing part of the story is that there is no electricity in the whole valley and so that was, pretty much, the end of the livelihood project.
But the real tragedy is that in a place littered with waterfalls and streams of all sizes from few feet high to hundreds of feet, unlimited supply of fresh water and a huge river “Kunhar” flowing across it there is no electricity and after sunset the whole area is plunged into darkness.
Naran valley with around five hundred households where I was staying has no electricity, gas supply, indoor plumbing, or any facility of modern day living for its people. That is one of the reasons of the enormous amount of trees being cut for fuel and massive deforestation leading to degradation of land. This could have been easily avoided, had the small population of the valleys been provided with an alternate source of fuel and energy in the form of electricity or gas so that they would not cut away entire forests.
For me the situation left many unanswered questions about the equation of people, poverty and resources. It was hard for me to understand why these folks have failed to actualize the abundant natural resources for improving their lives? What is the real connection between availability of resources and actual prosperity? Even if we do not measure prosperity with a yardstick of western models of growth but by any humble standards, self sufficiency in food, sustainable livelihood, and resilience against any calamity including harsh weather conditions is a minimum requirement. The people do not need to have western wear but to be able to afford warm clothing in sub zero temperatures of harsh winter months is a basic human need. As it is about the people of the gorgeous land fall short by any yardstick of growth and development.
The most important reason I could come up with at the end is that there is an abysmally low literacy level in the whole district but especially in the valleys of Kaghan and Naran. Mansehra has about 35 percent literacy rate but the valleys have an even lower rate and especially there is hardly any tradition of the education of the girl child. This leads eventually to early marriages of the girl and the vicious circle of poverty and illiteracy continues.
The traditional style of living in the valley is building small wood and mud houses on mountain slopes at a considerable distance from one another. The people are used to living like that and they do not come down from their houses for long periods. This isolated living style makes access to schools and education very difficult especially for the girls. That is why they neither get even the basic education nor are trained in any vocation.
Another reason is that the government has not been able to mobilize the people for education in any way. The schools are few and far between and lack basic infrastructure. The teachers are hardly available especially for the girl schools and the ones that are there are teaching multi grade classes in poor conditions.
The situation in the valley reflects that unless there is a conscious effort for human development, the mere presence of resources cannot improve the lives and livelihood of communities. The lack of education has rendered the people handicapped in a way that they are not only stuck in poverty but are also unaware of the potential wealth that they possess for a better future.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya Initiative’s team.
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