The Central Karakoram National Park (CKNP), the largest protected area in Pakistan spread over 10,000 sq. km covering four districts in Gilgit Baltistan province, could well be the country’s most charming and sustainable tourist destination if a community-driven programme of conservation gets its way.

According to Raffaele Del Cima, Country Operation Manager and Project Director of the Pakistan-Italy government-funded project Social, Economic and Environmental Development (SEED) for the CKNP, 40 per cent of the area is covered by glaciers and it has a unique environment with rare flora and fauna. The project focuses on villages on the boundaries of the park and they are a doorstep to the CKNP, dubbed a park between the earth and the sky. It has some of the most remote and economically deprived communities living off the land and the multitude of medicinal plants there. Mr. Del Cima told The Hindu that most of the communities were pastoral and moved around during the long winters. The main idea was to attract tourism to the area and engage the people who are not mountaineers. “We want to promote tourism as a green industry for the area and make it a landmark project. We are trying to say it’s a unique and beautiful business card for Pakistan,” he says.

Most of the places are above 3500 m and in spring and summer there is plenty of grazing. According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)- Pakistan, in 2011, communities living in 23 valleys around the park had over 400,000 heads of cattle. The park is spread over four of the seven districts of Gilgit Baltistan — Ghanche, Skardu, Gilgit and Hunza Nagar. There are around 230 villages in the buffer zone of the park with a population of 100,000 who benefit from the forests, water, wildlife, medicinal herbs and minerals in the region.

What is different is the sustainable aspect of the project which took some time to establish. Agriculturists and pastoralists from the area were taken into confidence and they mapped the area as a first effort. In addition to providing irrigation, firewood and fodder supplies, introducing stall feeding to minimise predator conflict with domestic cattle, was one of the aspects of the programme.

The CKNP authorities are working closely with communities as partners and local people are part of the park management. By caring for the community which has poor health and water facilities — the area has the highest infant mortality rate at 112 per 1,000 live births, and deaths due to poor water quality — the project aims to make a critical difference to the region. Health clinics have been set up for the scattered communities.

Now with Italian help, Karakoram International University is focusing on subjects related to mountaineering and providing services and support. “We are interested in creating a mining sector for semi precious stones with the possibility of processing them and adding value like cutting and polishing,” Mr. Del Cima said. The area is known for its ancient tradition of woodcraft. Many non government organisations including the Alpine Club of Pakistan, WWF and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme support the project.

Now in its fourth year of implementation, SEED has a year to go and is mainly concentrating on capacity building for women, providing teaching aids to schools and WWF is mapping the flora and fauna of the region.