Siachen Peace Park, dead or alive? The 23rd anniversary of the Siachen conflict was marked by another disappointment. The last round of talks between the Defence Secretaries of India and Pakistan ended in April 2007 without an agreement. This was the third time that an agreement had seemed to be within our grasp, and hopes were high; it was the third time that the two countries backed off at the last minute, as if suddenly frightened at the prospect of an agreement. Five months later, in mid-September, the Indian Army announced that, subject to certain conditions, it was opening the Siachen to trekkers and climbers. This sounded like the death knell of the Siachen Peace Park (SPP).
The SPP was proposed primarily as a conservation effort; it was also hoped to ease the problem of defining boundaries. As there were no inhabitants in the area, the boundaries would be those for a park rather than for national territory. An agreement on Siachen could pave the way to a settlement of the whole Kashmir problem.
Instead, the Indian move seems to assert that the Siachen area is Indian territory and non-negotiable. As might have been expected, Pakistan reacted angrily. It would need a remarkable optimist to claim that the SPP is still alive.
The Himalayan Club has invested a great deal of effort in the SPP proposal. The concept of a transboundary park was first floated in an article in the Himalayan Journal,Vol. 50,1992–93. The HC co-sponsored a meeting in Delhi in 2001 that endorsed the proposal and sent an appeal to the Prime Minister of India before his meeting with the President of Pakistan. (The meeting ended in disarray.) The Editor of the HJ, in his many travels, seldom failed to promote the idea of an SPP; in general, it met a favorable response everywhere, abroad and in India. The HC participated in a joint Indo-Pakistan climb in the Alps, organized by the UIAA (World Mountaineering Federation) to promote the proposal. The 75th anniversary of the Club in 2003 included a series of talks on the Siachen Peace Park in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai. Together with Sanctuary Magazine, the HC held a seminar in Mumbai; the Chief Guest was Prof. Saleem Ali, an American of Pakistani origin; he has written and spoken about the SPP in Pakistan, America, and elsewhere. A special brief was prepared, at his request, for a senior official associated with the Indo-Pakistan talks.
It is sad that India and Pakistan have not been able to agree on a transboundary park or on a withdrawal of troops, especially when we see other countries which have difficult political problems managing to cooperate on conservation issues. Thus the Balkan Peace Park, a grassroots project associating Kosovo, Montenegro, and Albania, seems to be moving ahead, the Mt. Elgon Regional Ecosystem Programme associating Kenya and Uganda likewise. The idea of a transboundary peace park for the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria has been floated; that is surely one area that presents even more intractable problems than Kashmir.
Our main interest must be to protect the Siachen from further degradation and to restore it to the greatest extent possible to the status it enjoyed for millions of years, until war broke out in 1984. The name “Siachen Peace Park” has gathered resonance over the past 15 years, although in the early stages, other names were used, such as International Park of the Rose, Siachen Glacier Park. If a transboundary park seems impossible at present, there is still no reason why efforts to clean up and protect the area should not be pursued. The Siachen Peace Park can be a national park for the present.
Since the Army is responsible for the area and is authorizing trekkers and climbers, it should ensure that visitors adhere to the codes we already have. One assumes that the Army has plenty of people there well-versed in environmentally correct behavior; they can organize training courses for visitors, including porters. Such courses have been conducted by Mountain Wilderness in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; the Army has acquired immense experience in organizing training in mountaineering and in protecting the environment.
Surely the need for a military presence will not endure forever. When that happy time comes, and the Siachen is free of permanent human presence, the area could then be turned into a national peace park. Then the glacier can be given whatever time is needed to recover from the rude treatment it suffered while it was in the front line of battle.
Aamir Ali, Himalayan Club, adapted from The Himalayan Journal