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26 Mar 2018 | Blog

Transborder trade in the Kailash Sacred Landscape

Krittika Uniyal

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Suspension bridge over the Kali river at Jhulaghat marking the international boundary between India and Nepal.

Before I started working with the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI), whenever I thought of transborder international trade, my mind would conjure images of giant cargo trucks speeding through huge, six-lane highways. After all, economic avenues cannot be sustained in isolation, and symbiotic economic relationships are the international norm.

KSLCDI is a collaborative transboundary programme being implemented across the borders of China, India, and Nepal. The programme aims to achieve lasting protection of ecosystems, habitats, and biodiversity while encouraging sustainable development, enhancing the resilience of communities in the landscape, and safeguarding cultural linkages among local populations.

Working for KSLCDI as a research assistant at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), I got acquainted with the history of cross-border trade in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. As I participated in a study about cross-border trade in the Kailash Sacred Landscape, I realized the uniqueness of the context.

As I engaged further in the study, I realized the image in my head—of cargo trucks and six-lane highways—hardly applied to transborder trade in the KSL. Cargo is often still ferried on the backs of pack animals in many parts of the region along trade routes of the ancient Silk Road. This reality hit me hard as I had expected that these landscapes—shared between three countries, two of which are among the world’s fastest growing economies—would have road access at the very least.  Two months into the study, I found myself at the tri-juncture of India, Nepal, and China, at the district headquarters in Pithoragarh, India. I was accompanied by Clemens Kunze, senior political specialist at ICIMOD. I was thrilled to be there, surrounded by the same mountain peaks that had witnessed the incredible flourishing of the Silk Road.

These ancient routes were closed completely after the Sino-India War of 1962, and it was only in 1992 that trans-Himalayan trade was revived. In these decades of complete socio-economic blockade, many Bhotia people, who have historically depended entirely on transborder trade, lost their means of livelihood. Over the years, many of them took up other professions and a lot of first-hand information pertaining to historical trade in the area was lost. On our research trip, we visited and interviewed local people and government representatives attempting to understand the various dimensions of contemporary trade and other socio-economic practices in the landscape in order to inform the proposed second phase of the Kailash project.

We visited Jhulaghat and Dharchula in India, two of the most important cross-border trading points on the Indo-Nepal border. The people in these towns are afraid of what is going to happen with the construction of the Pancheshwar dam on the Kali River. It has been reported that the Pancheshwar hydropower project, if implemented in its present form, will submerge Jhulaghat, Dharchula and surrounding towns, and displace many people. The hanging bridges that connect India’s Pithoragarh district to Nepal’s Baitadi district represent historic ties between India and Nepal, and locals are hopeful that the two governments, who are collaborating on the Pancheshwar project, will make necessary revisions to its plans to save their towns from eventual submergence.

People in these towns see livelihood opportunities in cross-border trade. However, major trade is done through tedious sea routes. Developing a study that looks into reviving ancient trade routes and strengthening them to meet the needs of the present can help tackle issues of transboundary functionality related to trade, create new livelihood opportunities for people in these regions, and ensure sustainable, low-impact trade through travel routes across the Himalayan range. These efforts will ultimately increase transboundary cooperation in the region and strengthen economies throughout the landscape.

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