Environmental protection in Kashmir
Working in the shadow of violence and climate change

Illegal construction, timber smuggling and a decades-long conflict have left their mark on the forests of Kashmir. But locals are stepping in to protect the unique nature of their home in the Himalayas. By Furkan Latif Khan

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 below) is taking a different kind of a trek. Along with a group of boys from his village, he's volunteering to collect rubbish 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).

"We do this because we think it is for our benefit. Those places are so high up, no one cleans there," he says. "The government does not pay attention."

Sartaj Ahmad Magray (photo: Furkan Khan)
Sartaj Ahmad Magray is a 21-year-old trekking guide in Pahalgam in Jammu and Kashmir. He regularly volunteers to collect the rubbish left behind by tourists along local trekking routes. He says he didn't learn about climate change at school, but was raised to value the unique splendour of his mountain home by his elders

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.

Pahalgam's resorts and hotels are encroaching on the forests 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.

Tourists camping on the banks of the River Lidder, Pahalgam, Jammu and Kashmir (photo: Furkan Khan)
Double-edged sword: the valley's stunning beauty attracts tourists from all over the world, creating job opportunities for locals, but also having a detrimental impact on the environment. Pictured here: tourists camping on the banks of the River Lidder, Pahalgam, Jammu and Kashmir

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 take over 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.

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