‘Siachen Peace Park’
(Sanctuary Asia | April 16, 2005)

by Priya Raja

Think Siachen — Soldiers under fire, aircraft para-dropping food and supplies, unmelting frost, symbolic of the unrelenting standoff between Pakistan and India — insurmountable and icy.

Travel back in time, or to the future, if you will, when "normal" life could exist here. The glacier, earlier known as "Saicher Gharni", located between the Karakoram and Zanskar ranges, was once guarded by a small Yarkandi hamlet at its mouth. The walls of this settlement were unearthed in 1912. Siachen was the meeting place for the Yarkandis and the Baltis, who came from the west, to trade with each other. According to legend, some Yarkandi men once descended the Ghyari nullah and abducted a Balti woman. The incensed Baltis went to a mullah for advice. The mullah gave them a tawiz (amulet) to be placed on Bilafond La and instructed them to return via the Nubra valley. The Baltis did not heed this and instead, retraced the route they had taken. Soon after, a violent storm on the Siachen glacier destroyed the Yarkandi settlement, leaving behind a desolate, rocky area. But because the Baltis had not returned via Nubra, the storm spared wild roses on the moraine and along the walls. The glacier came to be known as Siachen: the land of wild roses. (In Balti, sia=rose, chen=land of).

Cut to 1984. The Indian army arrived in spring and stationed itself at Siachen, the Saltoro ridge and the Sia La and Bilafond La passes. This was described as a pre-emptive move as India felt that Pakistan's mountaineering expeditions in the region could lead to territorial claims. The Teram Shehr (the destroyed city) and Rimo glaciers, adjoining Siachen, were more easily accessible from Pakistan and it was suspected that authorised expeditions to the area had "liaison officers" from the Pakistani defence services.

Prior to 1984, neither country had shown much interest in this glacier, perhaps owing to its sheer inaccessibility. The Line of Control (LoC) runs up to a point called NJ 9842 and then north to the glaciers. The LoC as defined by the Simla Agreement of 1972 has been interpreted differently by both governments where the Siachen glacier is concerned.

Costing the Earth

By some estimates, India spends about one million dollars and Pakistan about half that amount (they have easier access from the plains) every single day to maintain troops at Siachen, the world's highest battlefield. Both countries have at least one battalion each stationed here at all times, mostly at altitudes above 5,600 m. Human habitation ends at about 4,000 m. An incredible 97 per cent of casualties occur due to high-altitude complications coupled with the extreme cold, and troops have to be acclimatised and rotated every month or so.

One battalion each means approximately 1,200 soldiers with food and fuel, tents and boilers, arms and ammunition, rocket launchers and the assorted accompaniments of war — 6,000 tonnes and more of material — Discarded food cans and drums, fuel barrels, tetrapacks, oil, aluminium foil, ammunition casing, parachutes, rations lost while para-dropping, toxic chemicals, medical waste and even human bodies that may not be recovered are left behind. At least 40 per cent of the waste is estimated to be plastic and metal, including crashed helicopters and vehicles in disrepair. Helicopters don't take back the waste; it cannot be burnt and it does not even decompose at the sub-zero temperatures that limit microbial activity.

As a result, all waste is packed in metal drums and dropped into crevasses. About 4,000 drums of waste pile up on the glacier each year. Considering that troops have been stationed at Siachen for the last two decades, and assuming a constant rate of disposal, we're faced with 70-80,000 drums of waste — and still mounting.

Rocket propellants used in battle release harmful gases that can be acutely poisonous at high altitudes with a low oxygen content and slow rate of diffusion. Cobalt, cadmium, lead and chromium are some of the toxic metals confirmed in artillery. Over the years, the toxins will seep (have probably already seeped), into the ice and snow, enter the Nubra river and be carried into the Shyok and then the Indus. The "pristine" waters of the Himalaya are already bringing down organic waste as well as unknown toxins from the machineries of war.

Besides the construction of roads and helipads, the exchange of fire is affecting the region's seismic balance. In 1998, 43,000 artillery shells and 2,30,000 rounds of small arms were reportedly fired from the Pakistani side, with similar responses from the Indian side, increasing manifold, post-Kargil. This also causes increased heating, hastening glacial meltdown. The Siachen glacier, known as the world's largest glacier outside the polar region, is now reported to be receding gradually.

Snow leopards and the ibex that could once be seen here have now been forced out of the main conflict zone. So sterile has this glacier been rendered that some members of the armed forces find it difficult to believe that Siachen ever supported any wildlife.

Siachen Peace Park

The area's wildlife has deserted it, temperatures have risen, glacial melt has begun, rivers have been poisoned — yet both sides continue to lose three soldiers per week to the elements and spend millions of dollars to maintain the Line of Control, a line which nature does not recognise or honour. Is there a solution to this deadlock?

India and Pakistan have not just been fighting each other. We have also been waging war against nature. What we don't often think about is how wars not only destroy human lives, but also wildlife and their habitats. The snow leopard's home is trashed simply by the presence of so many humans. Migrating geese, cranes and other birds lose their way in the noise and haze of war. Some land in oil spills and lose their ability to fly because their wings get oil-coated. Bombs and landmines destroy forests and release toxins that pollute and degrade ecosystems. War refugees are forced to encroach on wilderness areas to survive. By going to war, by engaging in combat in lands where humans were never meant to intrude, we commit war crimes on snow leopards and cranes and flamingoes and hordes of other species living on and around human warfronts.

The idea of the Siachen Peace Park (SPP) has come a long way among mountaineers and conservationists. The IUCN's World Commission on Protected Areas (Mountains), under the Chairmanship of Larry Hamilton, has an informal working group on the SPP; the Italian Ev-K2-CNR Committee which will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of K2 in 2004, has included the SPP proposal as part of this; the Durban World Parks Congress in September 2003 will have the idea presented, especially at the pre-Congress Workshop on Mountains.

In June 2001, the Himalayan Club, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and the Doon School Old Boys' Society, submitted an appeal to the Prime Minister of India just before his Summit Meeting in Agra with President Musharraf. Nothing came of it.

The question has not been discussed by the Indian Parliament, nor officially by any government organisation, neither in India nor in Pakistan. However, recently, Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary Asia reported that the Indian Defence Minister had been shown on NDTV News standing at Siachen and telling the interviewer that the "blood feud" that has caused so many deaths in Siachen should end and that the area should be dedicated to binding the countries of Asia.

There can be no question of establishing a SPP unless both governments decide that this should be done. Now that there is some improvement in Indo-Pakistan relations, we feel that we should be much more public and more active. Hence the idea of raising it at Durban and of collecting signatures for a petition that Sanctuary Asia is undertaking.

— Aamir Ali
Member of the IUCN-WCPA Working Group (Mountains) promoting the Siachen Peace Park.

The way forward

Siachen should be completely demilitarised and declared a Transboundary Peace Park. The park would be contiguous with the Central Karakoram and Khunjerab National Parks in Pakistan. Armies on both sides, along with the State Pollution Control Boards, must begin framing and implementing an ecologically sound garbage disposal policy to restore this unique habitat. An informal Working Group of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas will discuss this proposal at the Vth World Parks Congress to be held from September 7–17, 2003 at Durban, South Africa.

Over 169 transboundary parks have been declared around the world and have been shown to be successful even along disputed boundaries. The World Conservation Union has already formulated an elaborate "Draft Code for Transboundary Protected Areas in Times of Peace and Armed Conflict".

Once troops are withdrawn, a joint surveillance plan can be worked out together and a clean-up begun. The glacier would be dedicated to conservation, and both countries would benefit if they were to jointly promote sustainable tourism by regulating treks and expeditions to Siachen.

Wild roses will bloom again, the ibex will return and the elusive snow leopard will occasionally reveal itself.

"As a part of the normalisation process/confidence-building measures, the governments of India and Pakistan are urged to establish a Siachen Peace Park to protect and restore the spectacular landscapes, which are home to so many endangered species, including the snow leopard."

Statement adopted by participants of the IUCN-WCPA South Asia Regional workshop held in Dhaka on June 19-21, 2003, in preparation for the World Parks Congress, this September.

To lend your strength to the effort to restore peace, ecological harmony and dignity to India and Pakistan, readers are invited to send an e-mail in support of the "Siachen Peace Park Initiative" providing your name, city, country and the organisation you belong to or represent (if any) to

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