Illegal construction, timber smuggling and a decades-long conflict have degraded Kashmir valley’s forests. But locals are stepping in to protect the unique nature of their home in the Himalayas.
Sartaj Ahmad Magray is a 21-year-old trekking guide in Pahalgam, a resort valley nestled in the folds of the Great Himalayas. During the summer months, his clients come to hike the green slopes and take in views of sparkling blue glacial lakes.
But today, Magray (pictured above) is taking a different kind of a trek. Along with a group of boys from his village, he’s volunteering to collect trash left behind by tourists along walking routes.
Burlap bags in hand, the boys get to work cleaning up a waterfall surrounded by lush pine forests. This is just one of his many short local clean-up excursions, but each year Magray and his friends make multiple climbs to gather litter from trekking routes at heights of up to 3,000 meters (9,842 feet).
Majid Magray, 12, and Waseem Ahmed, 16, help out on Magray’s clean-up treks. Here they carry trash down from their local waterfall
Tourism threatens unique biodiversity
Pahalgam is in Kashmir Valley in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir, along the India-Pakistan border. Its coniferous forests and wetlands are home to bears, Himalayan marmots and vulnerable species found nowhere else in the world, such as the orange-breasted Kashmir flycatcher bird and the Kashmir stag.
The region’s networks of glaciers, rivers and lakes don’t just support this rich array of wildlife, they also supply water to billions of people in Asia. And despite decades of conflict related to a territorial dispute between Pakistan and India, the valley’s vibrant beauty brings tourists from around the world. While that provides employment opportunities for locals like Magray, it also has environmental impacts.
Tourists camp around and enjoy in the waters of river Lidder, that flows through the valley of Pahalgam
Pahalgam’s resorts and hotels are encroaching on forest and putting pressure on wildlife, says local environmentalist Mushtaq Ahmad Magrey, also known as Mushtaq Pahalgami. There are already over 200 hotels and resorts in the area, according to official figures.
Pahalgami founded the Himalayan Welfare Organization in 2008 to campaign for cleaner and greener resorts in Kashmir. He supports Magray’s clean-up treks and has been pushing against the use of plastic in his village.
Battling illegal construction
But perhaps his biggest battle is against developers. And he has succeeded in getting the authorities to demarcate and fence off areas of forest protected from construction.
“A rich class of people wanted to overtake this land, but because this has been fenced off, they can’t do much now. This is hundreds of acres of land,” Pahalgami says, climbing cast iron stairs into a forested area where he has been planting pine, walnut and apple trees.
Pahalgami says hotels and resorts are encroaching on forests in the area
There has been a moratorium on new construction in Pahalgam since 2010. Yet hotels, cottages and tourist facilities continue to pop up and encroach on forest, according to local media reports. Pahalgami has had his work cut out bringing developers to court to challenge these constructions.
After one court hearing, he was physically assaulted. He’s unsure who attacked him but believes it was connected to his activism. Still, he’s undeterred. “If I get scared, I won’t be able to get anything done. And I can’t let that happen,” he says.
Development versus environment
Decades of conflict, political turmoil, and a weakened government in the disputed region have already damaged forests. With the local administration focused on security, illegal logging and timber smuggling occurred without much resistance.
But with a growing population requiring homes, wood for fuel and land for farming and livestock, forests across Kashmir have come under increasing pressure . And now they could face new threats due to recent government decisions that would make it easier to divert forest land for development.