Persistence and Transformation in the Eastern Hindu Kush: A Study of Resource Management Systems in Mehlp Valley, Chitral, North Pakistan by Fazlur-Rahman. Bonner Geographische Abhandlungen 118. St. Augustin, Germany: Asgard, 2007. vii + 314 pp. €25. ISSN 0373-0468.
The Hindu Kush mountains are among the most isolated parts of the mountain system that covers Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and Nepal, and includes the Pamir, Karakorum and Himalayan ranges. Chitral itself, ranging from 1000 to more than 4000 m in altitude, is made up of a series of isolated valley systems, the whole being surrounded by high mountain passes. Its biodiversity is unusual. The geography is dominated by river systems flowing through broad and narrow valleys, and the region is prone to episodic flash floods and earthquakes. Until the 1960s, the people of Chitral were ruled by a mehtar who wielded almost absolute power. The human communities live either in the main valley of the Khunar River, or in the extremely isolated side valleys, including the Mehlp Valley.
Fazlur-Rahman describes the entire ecosystem of the Mehlp Valley, including its history, land ownership and use, agriculture, and current and past village organization. This is a massive undertaking. His account is detailed, extremely well written, and contains a wealth of information. He begins by describing the conceptual and methodological framework of his research. The remote sensing methodology is state-of-the-art, involving panachromatic IKONOS satellite images of the area, acquired in April 2001, at a 1-meter spatial resolution, with a horizontal accuracy of 50 meters. Fazlur-Rahman conducted fieldwork during summer 2001 and, in April 2002, consulted the records of the India Office Library, London, including correspondence between the India Office and political agents in Chitral from 1895 onwards. He makes the interesting comment that, by contrast with other valleys in Chitral, there is little information on the Mehlp Valley. One wonders why this is so.
The second chapter reviews the physical and anthropological characteristics of the Mehlp Valley. It covers the ecology and the physical and resource potentials of the valley, along with its climate and natural vegetation. The history of the valley, and of Chitral more generally, is also discussed. Furthermore, the author describes valley settlement patterns—which are heavily influenced by natural hazards, especially landslides—and informs us that approximately one-third of the jeepable road is prone to landsliding and requires regular repair. Many villagers have 2 or even 3 houses at different altitudes, necessitated by the changing annual weather cycle and the need for access to summer pastures. As in many isolated valleys in the area, there has been outwards migration of people who are unable to live there because conditions are too difficult. The historical causes of these permanent migrations are inability to pay land taxes, incurring the pleasure or anger of local rulers, land development in nearby areas, and the purchase of arable land in other parts of Chitral.
In Chapter 3 Fazlur-Rahman discusses the Mehlp Valley's resources, including ownership, utilization and management mechanisms. He begins by defining property rights in terms of the original Latin connotations (pp 47–49) and makes the important statement that, in the Mehlp Valley, there appears to be little or no written evidence of ownership rights: the whole system is operated through orally transmitted traditional knowledge. He then provides a detailed breakdown of village resources in terms of land, water and human resources. There is considerable difference between the amount of arable land at different altitudinal levels, and local tenancy systems and responsibilities are well defined. The author also discusses changes in land tenure, differences between villages in land ownership, and the utilization of land for food and fodder crops and irrigated grass. We were fascinated by the subsequent accounts of roads, paths and animal passageways, and of the design of houses, including room layout and roof construction. The remainder of the chapter consists of 3 other interesting topics: clan level distribution and management of Prangos pabulata, a perennial fodder plant growing at about 2900 m; irrigation water; and controlled sheep and goat grazing.
Chapter 4 describes traditional livelihood systems and collective sustenance strategies. The yearly cycle is organized around agriculture. In early spring, the villagers increase the rate of thawing by covering snow with earth, moving higher up as the season progresses. Detailed information is provided on the use of oxen for plowing and harrowing. Seeding—first of barley, then of maize and potato—as well as subsequent irrigation follow carefully planned sequences that involve considerable cooperation between the families. Chemical fertilizer is applied regularly. The inhabitants of the Mehlp Valley also cultivate willow and seabuckthorn, which are both used in village and household activities. Threshing of cereal crops is well organized, and the floor of the threshing room is very carefully prepared using soil and water. Threshing is conducted by 7 to 9 animals tied together and walking in a circle, led by a donkey or ox at the center (pp 134–135). These descriptions are followed by an account of cattle and milk cow grazing practices and arrangements for goat grazing. Yaks are also grazed, although this has become less frequent. Finally, the author describes wool and hair processing, the making of rugs and ropes, and gender division of labor at the household level.
The final chapter discusses recent changes and their impacts on the valley's village system. There have been significant changes in agriculture, arable land ownership, crop rotation and cropping patterns. Modern agricultural innovations have included the use of chemical fertilizers, although most families in the village can now no longer afford them. In the 1970s, government subsidies allowed a progressive increase in exogenous food supplies, including wheat grain, sugar, rock salt, and cooking oil. Chemical fertilizers and kerosene were subsidized as well. However, subsidies were later reduced and eventually abolished. Currently, wheat grain is the most important material trucked in. Changes have also taken place in livestock ownership and grazing arrangements for sheep and goats. House design and construction have been modified, especially in guest rooms, and access doors to the animal quarters have been re-sited.
The final part of this chapter covers a number of very important sociological changes. “The traditional system of barter, reciprocity and exchange of products has totally changed, and money has become the single means of transformation in the village” (p 215). There have been major changes in patterns of male migration out of the valley, and of migrants into the valley: the latter are mainly permanent employees of governmental and non-governmental organizations. Seasonal labor migrants out of the valley include young males who temporarily migrate to Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi in winter, engaging in ad hoc employment, before returning to the valley in spring. There is also a developing international migration to the Gulf States for periods of 2 or more years. In the Mehlp Valley, unlike other parts of the Northern Areas, international remittances from migrants to their families in the valley are an important source of income. The chapter closes by drawing attention to the developing role of village and women's organizations, especially through the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme. This initiative's efforts include development of irrigation infrastructure and construction of jeep-able roads and a micro-hydroelectricity plant.
Fazlur-Rahman's appendices are remarkable, providing household-by-household and village-by-village data on which much of his book is based. The final colored maps are a delight to the eye.