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The Siachen glacier may be the world’s highest war zone. Here, bullets whistle over the wild roses and snow leopards’ dens, endangering the fragile environment as they perpetuate the decades-long war between India and Pakistan. But this beleaguered bit of no-man’s-land high up in the Himalayas could be in for a radical recasting. Last month, a group of Pakistani and Indian mountain climbers gathered in the Swiss Alps to highlight the plight of Siachen and other threatened cross-border regions. The solution? Designating the glacier a ‘peace park’ where the two hostile nations can cooperate for the sake of sustainable development.

Battling against the elements as well as each other, thousands of soldiers from these South Asian neighbours have been killed over the past 20 years, the vast majority succumbing to the bitter weather. Despite bearing the scars of war, the glacier and its surrounding region remain rich in biodiversity, the abode not just of the elusive leopards but also of brown bears and herbivores such as ibex. But ecologists believe that these and other species are now under severe threat from the military presence in the area. Troop movements around strategic locations and firing practice – as well as the military detritus left behind – disturb wildlife, affecting their breeding and spreading disease.

A 1997 report from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on India-administered Kashmir estimated that more than 30 per cent of the region’s endemic flora is threatened. Some species are believed to be extinct. [Ref. 1] Meanwhile the World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists nearly half the region’s mammalian diversity as threatened. Several species, such as the Tibetan gazelle, are understood to be on the brink of extinction – if not already over the edge.

Such concerns from ecologists have now prompted calls for the governments of India and Pakistan to reduce their military presence in the region, and jointly begin the task of regenerating its biodiversity by setting up the peace park.

Paradise regained

Peace parks – protected areas straddling the boundaries of neighbouring and sometimes hostile states – are not a new idea. The first, the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, was established nearly 70 years ago between the United States and Canada.

The premise behind peace parks is that neighbouring states, by jointly managing common protected areas, can foster more peaceful relations. It’s an ambitious notion, and one that is now undergoing a renaissance – the number of new parks nearly tripled (to 169) between 1988 and 2001. Only three years ago, for instance, South Africa and Botswana announced their own first officially designated transfrontier park.

Although most of these transboundary parks lie across areas that aren’t in conflict, the IUCN has advocated creating 'parks for peace' for several years. The organisation believes that “protected areas along national frontiers can not only conserve biodiversity but can also be powerful symbols and agents of cooperation, especially in areas of territorial conflict".

And India and Pakistan are no strangers to such conflict. The countries have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, mostly over the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Relations between them – at best lukewarm – have been tense over the past five years, following the election of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India in 1998, tit-for-tat nuclear tests, and a military coup in Pakistan in 1999. After an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, an estimated one million soldiers faced each other in a lengthy stand-off along the border, which many analysts thought would lead to a fourth war.

Thankfully, the governments stepped back and have begun to talk again in recent months. Transport links have been restored, and in August a visit to Pakistan from an all-party delegation of 30 Indian MPs was regarded by both sides as a success. But can this goodwill extend to the idea of a peace park at Siachen?

A handful of success stories round the world are hinting it just might work. In 1998 Peru and Ecuador resolved a long-running territorial dispute with an innovative plan to create two national peace parks near the most contested stretch of land on their border, according to IUCN chief scientist Jeffrey McNeely. Until then the countries had fought three wars along their border, with Ecuador demanding sovereign rights over the disputed territory. Four mediators – Argentina, Brazil, Chile and the United States – brokered the agreement and granted Ecuador free trade and navigational access to the economically important shipping routes in Peru’s Amazon region. 

Similarly, two years ago, Colombia’s rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), agreed to jointly manage with the government large swathes of protected areas that were under FARC control. The rebels did not want the areas to deteriorate, but also knew that they lacked the expertise to do the job themselves.

Around the same time a peace park was proposed for the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. Nelson Mandela said that such a project could "help peace take root in one of the world's last Cold-War frontiers". The area has been untouched by humans for nearly half a century following its devastation during the war, and is a sanctuary for native plants and animals. A group of eminent scientists and conservationists have given their support to the 'DMZ forum' initiative, which is urging leaders of the two Koreas to work together to transform it into a world peace park and environmental laboratory. 

Greening Asia

The idea of turning the glacial region at Siachen into a transboundary peace park was first mooted several years ago, notably by Aamir Ali, then at the International Labour Organization. Ali believes that such a concept "would work not only toward disengagement [from military activities] but also toward the creation of a park to protect the environment". [Ref. 2]

The idea was proposed again at a workshop in Dhaka in June organised by the IUCN and the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) in preparation for the World Parks Congress, held earlier this month in Durban, South Africa. A statement adopted at the Dhaka meeting said: “As part of the normalisation process / confidence building measures, the governments of India and Pakistan are urged to establish a Siachen Peace Park to protect and restore the spectacular landscapes which are home to so many endangered species including the snow leopard.”

Lending support to the initiative is Bittu Sahgal, from the Mumbai-based environmental organisation Sanctuary Asia. Sahgal is running a petition calling for the establishment of the Siachen peace park and plans to take up the issue at Durban. “The response to the signature campaign has been very positive,” he says.

Siachen is not the only cross-border area in the region that is crying out for conservation, says Ejaz Ahmad, deputy director general of WWF-Pakistan. For example, Pakistan contains five of the ecoregions – large areas of relatively uniform climate that harbour a characteristic set of species and ecological communities – ranked among WWF's ‘Global 200’ areas critical to global conservation. [Ref. 3] And three of these regions border India.

What is the outlook for such eco-gems? If a number of green projects on both sides of the border are anything to go by, it will be positive. Several international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are exploring how the two countries can work together to conserve biodiversity. WWF-Pakistan, for example, is discussing with its Indian counterpart ways of conserving marine turtles and river dolphins. And the International Crane Foundation is encouraging India and Pakistan to collaborate in the conservation of migratory cranes and flamingoes.

Elsewhere across the region, the idea of joint conservation has taken off in a modest way. Bangladesh and India, for example, are working to preserve the Sunderbans – the world’s largest mangrove system – three-quarters of which lies in Bangladesh. And in August, Bangladesh and India announced plans to begin the world’s largest tiger census.

Meanwhile, India and Nepal have set up a permanent transboundary biodiversity conservation network. Prakash Rao of WWF-India says the two countries are also working closely on conservation projects in the Himalayas, concentrating on the Terrai region where endangered tigers and rhinos roam. WWF estimates that almost half the native species in the eastern Himalayas are threatened with extinction, including the golden langur monkey, the lesser panda and the Himalayan black bear.

Pie in the sky?

Conservation NGOs are optimistic that a joint India-Pakistan initiative over Siachen could be on the cards.

“With the situation improving, all this might happen in the years to come," says Abdesh Gangwar of India’s Centre for Environment Education. "NGOs and institutions from both sides would like to have collaboration and partnership."

But others point out that there has been little real collaboration among the biodiversity research community of the two countries. “There have been no systematic attempts – let alone interaction between the countries – to study biodiversity hotspots on either side of the borders,” says P. S. Ramakrishnan, scientist emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of Environmental Sciences in Delhi.

Gangwar accepts that significant progress in the dialogue between the two countries is probably needed before the park can leave the drawing board. He believes that policies within each country will decide the way forward, a view widely shared by others.

Robert Bradnock is one. A South Asia specialist at King's College London, United Kingdom, Bradnock says he cannot foresee the two countries making peace based on a commitment to shared conservation alone. "It is an area that could be included down the line as a positive result of achieving peace," he says. "But I find it difficult to see any of the participants to the conflict currently putting this high on their agendas as a reason for making peace."

One New Delhi-based wildlife scientist puts it more bluntly: “You cannot have a peace park with armies sitting out there, shooting left, right and centre.” Even the WCPA acknowledges that plans for peace parks should not be too ambitious. A report on its activities in 2000 states that "the creation of a protected area will not in itself resolve a dispute but protected areas can be part of the resolution settlement". [Ref. 4]

Most observers doubt that the current thaw in relations between India and Pakistan will lead to a political agreement between the two countries any time soon, if at all. The past five decades are too full of false starts and dashed expectations. What is clear from the past, however, is that improved relations have led to progress in other areas.

For instance, there has been a boost in officially sanctioned contact between different groups of professionals in India and Pakistan, such as journalists, teachers and parliamentarians. In recent years there has also been an easing of travel restrictions for ordinary citizens, and there is talk of reviving exchange visits by school children.

What the NGOs seem to be arguing for now is that this contact be taken a stage further by lobbying the two countries to think about working together on a shared problem. A peace park at Siachen – or in another cross-border area – will not directly result in peace between India and Pakistan. But it could help to erode some of the mistrust and misinformation that five decades of hostility have helped to spread in the minds of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, as well as symbolise a genuine desire for peace.

As Ali Habib, director-general of WWF Pakistan, says, “there are possibilities for future collaboration, and given the improved political climate, it may now be easier to initiate some modest early measures”.

References:

[1] M Ahmedullah (ed.) (1997). Biodiversity of Jammu and Kashmir: a profile. Indira Gandhi Conservation Monitoring Centre, World Wide Fund for Nature – India.
[2] A Siachen peace park: the solution to a half-century of international conflict? (2002)
[3] WWF: Global 200
[4] WCPA: Protected Areas: Benefits Beyond Boundaries (2000)
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