CPEC and indigenous communities’ rights

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a vital segment of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, offers a great opportunity to investors in several sectors, especially in power or energy sector.

The $1 trillion projects, often described as a 21st-century silk road, and comprising a ‘belt’ of overland corridors and a maritime ‘road’ of shipping lanes, is the brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The ambitious development project focuses on improving connectivity and cooperation among multiple countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. Of the total estimated cost,  $270 billion is expected to be spent in Asian regions to build roads, power plants, dry ports, oil and gas, mining and many other infrastructures.

In Pakistan, a major chunk ($58 billion) of the investment is being spent on road projects, power plants, and development of the Gwadar port.

Pakistan has been endowed with huge natural resources. Unfortunately, due to flawed policies and misplaced priorities of successive governments, these resources have not been exploited and utilized for the development of social infrastructures such as education, health, water and sanitation, road and basic human needs of the rural populace to improve their living standard. The people are being ignored or kept in dark about the projects.

For Gilgit-Baltistan, CPEC offers huge opportunities, as well as challenges. Gilgit-Baltistan’s fragile ecosystem will be affected by the CPEC road project as it passes through a 600km stretch of the unstable mountainous region, home to endangered species, and small human settlements. However, not a single development project under CPEC has been identified and approved in GB. It is not because there are no opportunities in the region, but because the policymakers are biased, and exploitative.

Opportunities for investment in Gilgit-Baltisan are galore! The mineral resources of GB remain untapped. There are several strategies that can be followed, for instance using development organizations to train local people including women and empower them to develop the mineral resources on modern lines.

Tourism is another mainstay of the GB economy and major contributor to job market which also faces the apathy of the policymakers and the government in developing it as an industry. The recent on-arrival and e-visa policies are a welcome step forward, but no step has been taken to grant passes or visas to Chinese tourists who come to Khunjerav in droves, every year.

The world powers have historically played great games in and around GB because of its geo-strategic importance and natural resources. The CPEC project has once again brought the GB to the limelight.

The arrival of Chinese people to Pakistan in large number shows the interest of China in the areas. The Chinese investors are eyeing the huge mineral, tourism and water potentials. But they are least concerned about the unique culture, fragile mountain ecology, customary laws, and centuries-old traditions of the indigenous people. They foreign investors through their local front men want to grab their resources by hook or by crook. This may create tension and discord among the local people.

The local administration, instead of safeguarding the interests and rights of the local people, is facilitating the foreign individual people and companies and intimidating the people to dispossess them from their land and resources.

Most of the Chinese companies are least concerned about the rights of the people. There is a common perception in Pakistan that Chinese companies are behaving like East India Company.

The people in the mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan are feeling threatened. The community organizations and conservation societies are under threat as the local administration at the behest of the influential investors are pushing them to the wall. Efforts are being made to alter the centuries-old conservation and ecological balance, in sheer violation of rules to benefit few individuals and foreign investors.

This is the duty of the government to protect the fauna and flora. If the government does not contribute to conservation efforts at least it has no right to facilitate some elements to destroy the community initiatives.

Who will be responsible for the protection and conservation of rare species in the conservation areas and what else if they are not being treated as per international law?

Of course, the community needs to be united to raise their voice nationally and internationally. The local community will not tolerate and accept such illegal activities and bullying behavior at any level. This is the right time to resist such moves by all means with the unity of thought, clear vision, legal action, and political strength.

UN resolution clearly emphasizes the protection of the rights of indigenous people and the fauna and flora. The government should take the local communities on-board before taking any decision on mining and other commercial activities in protected areas.

Also, the indigenous people should also adopt effective approaches with a clear understanding of international obligations.

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