Even as the summer drew to an end in the last week of July, the snow had not completely melted in the pastures of Deosai in northern Pakistan. This was a problem for Abdul Rauf and 400 other Bakarwal families, who had been stuck at an altitude of 12,479 feet in Deosai National Park and the meadows of Astore waiting to graze hundreds of thousands of animals in higher pastures.
In the winter, these nomadic people erect temporary villages on the plains and low-lying areas and graze their animals in rented fields. In warmer months, they usually move to high-altitude meadows in Azad Kashmir, Swat and Deosai.
Rauf is a member of the nomadic Kalukhel community of traditional sheep and goat herders scattered across the Pir Panjal and Himalayan mountains. For centuries, Bakarwals have centred their lives around rearing sheep and goats (bakra in Urdu) and even today accompany their herds across mountains and meadows. In Pakistan, these indigenous communities live in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and the region of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Their livelihood depends on the meat, wool and leather obtained from their flock.
Now, changing weather patterns and administrative hurdles pose major threats to these nomadic people and their culture.
There are reports that Bakarwal families have given up migration due to the challenges of getting grazing permits and frequent conflicts with landowners on migratory routes.
Barkawal community under threat
Dr Mohammad Nafees, professor in the department of environmental sciences at the University of Peshawar, has researched the indigenous shepherding groups of the Hazara and Malakand divisions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He found that the Bakarwal community contributes significantly to shaping the environment and economy of the region.
His study was conducted in collaboration with the University of Bern, Switzerland between 2009 and 2012.
Dr Nafees estimated that there are 7,400 Bakarwal families in Hazara and Malakand and said they have more than one million animals. In total, they contribute about USD 64 million to the province annually, he added.
No official figures are available for the population of Bakarwals in the country, as the 2017 census did not include nomadic people. These landless communities do not have identity cards, which require a permanent address. They are not registered with the National Database & Registration Authority and therefore not counted in any state policy.
The most reliable data on Gujjars is from the Census of India in 1931. It reported there were around 2 million people from these nomadic, cattle-rearing communities, inhabiting eight provinces and Indian states.
Dr Nafees said that Bakarwals are part of essential ecosystem services and uphold a national cultural legacy.
“These nomads and their herds provide nitrogen and phosphorus to meadows and fix the nutrient cycle,” he said. He added that the animals help pollination and are also the backbone of the organic meat, wool and leather industries.
Bakarwals are often criticised by forest authorities for grazing more animals in a meadow or field than its capacity, illegally cutting down trees and smuggling herbs. However, Dr Nafees addressed this allegation in his research, saying, “these people manage their business themselves; if there is less grass in pastureland, they move to another”.
Rauf also denied the allegations of overgrazing. “We have our own rules. We don’t graze more than 10 families in one field. The forest department has checkposts everywhere – if these crimes are being committed, the forest department should arrest the culprits,” he told The Third Pole.
Changing weather takes a toll
Rauf added that Bakarwals are being forced to abandon their way of life due to prolonged rain and snowfall as well as extreme heat.
“We usually begin our journey towards the meadows in Vaisakha [the second month of the Indian calendar, which corresponds to April/May], but now harsh weather and unscheduled rains create hurdles in our journey. We are late in reaching the pasturelands,” he said.
“Pakistan is facing more late winter rains,” said Sardar Sarfaraz, the director of the country’s meteorological department. “Some studies indicate the lessening of early winter December-January rains and increasing of later winter rains, that can partly be attributed to climate change.”
Rauf said the animals struggle in extreme heat, remembering a year when “we spent four months in the Deosai pastures, where the temperature is usually 6C to 8C. But when we reached the plains of Punjab at the end of October, the temperature was above 35C. Our animals could not bear this change in temperature. They fell ill and had to be sold. It was not like this before. This year, it rained heavily in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is why we are returning a month earlier.”
He added that the same thing happened last year, and the Bakarwals were forced to sell 700 sheep at low prices as they fell ill.
“A few days ago, 300 of our relatives’ goats died during their journey towards the Ganga peak pastureland in Kashmir because of a drastic change in temperature.”
Tahir Rasheed is former chief executive of South Punjab Forest Company, a government organisation that aims to promote sustainable forestry investments, and an environmentalist. He said that climate change is the biggest threat to the Bakarwals, adding, “If there is prolonged snowfall, grass will not be available – a factor which affects the health and price of the animals.”
In recent years, Bakarwals have protested against the forest department, which has banned them from travelling through the forests of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Ayaz Khan, a member of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s forest department, said livestock are banned from crossing the forests on foot in order to protect plants under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Billion Tree Tsunami project.
Khan said, “When thousands of animals pass through forests, they eat small plants. Goats especially uproot plants and all the efforts [of the plantation drive] are wasted.”
As a result, the animals are only allowed to pass in vehicles.
Bakarwals are reluctant to transport their animals this way, due to the poor condition of roads in the mountain regions. Animals are injured during the rough journey and some are suffocated. Another major factor that compels Bakarwals to travel on foot is that they cannot afford vehicles. They also consider the journey by foot as beneficial to animal health.
“Many of the goats die during the loading and unloading in trucks,” said Sultan Ahmad, a herd keeper from Gujrat.
According to Jamil Khattana, a professor from Kashmir, “Until three decades ago, herdsmen had thousands of animals, but now they are limited to a few hundred as pastures are being converted into agricultural land.”
Protecting Bakarwals and their culture
The former top boss of forests, Syed Nasir Mahmood, said the government must protect Bakarwals and formulate a policy to solve their problems as Pakistan has ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) 2007.
“The government should create national parks and protected areas but it should also accommodate Bakarwals,” he told The Third Pole. “These communities have been traversing these routes for centuries – stopping them is a violation of their indigenous rights.”
Tahir Rasheed agreed that the government should recognise pastoralists’ role and rights and include the services they provide in the country’s GDP. He said that a new climate calendar should be developed for them, providing weather alerts so they can adjust when they travel.
Dr Nafees was in favour of involving them in forest policy. “We can learn from our neighbour Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the country has recognised the Bakarwals as an integral part of national policy. “A system can be created for pastures and agricultural lands so that the land after a certain height will be considered as pasture.” He added that frequent vaccination of Bakarwal cattle would help them withstand harsh weather conditions. Mobile schools, health systems and mobile courts can also be developed.
Dr Nafees said that if these problems are not addressed, this way of life could die out. “Pakistan may lose traditional and affordable livestock production. The meat, leather and wool industry will be affected badly. Most importantly, there will be an imbalance in the mountain ecosystem.”