Development pathways in a biocultural context

Isolate, barren and inhospitable is one way to describe the Pamir Mountains (and indeed has been by British explorers Captain Francis Younghusband and St George Littledale in the 1890s). But the Pamirs are a profoundly human place, as cultures and languages co-evolved over millennia with the environment, producing pockets of life-giving soil giving rise to a unique agricultural biodiversity. The agricultural biodiversity of the Pamirs is not just important locally, but is also an important genetic resource for global food security. I’ve just arrived back in the Pamirs as the final part of my PhD, part of the SES-Link project and one of our case studies.

This empirical part of my research starts with this premise of a co-evolved landscape, or more specifically a biocultural landcape. The co-evolutionary aspect will come in more as I talk patterns of development in the Pamirs. The Pamirs in many ways are a biocultural refuge (Barthel et al. 2013), characterized as the far hinterlands of the Soviet Union, and remain one of the most inaccessible mountain areas in the world. While the Pamirs are still hard to get to… (pictures from my 16 hour car trip from Dushanbe to Khorog below)… they are have never been truly isolated.

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A close call – We encountered a Chinese caravan of trucks coming against us and had nowhere to go. Our skilled driver edged up to the side of the road and we sat tight to let the trucks pass. Afghan Badakhshan province is across the Amu Darya (locally known as Panj) river.

A thoroughfare of the Silk Road, the Eastern border of the Russian and British empires, and an exemplary Soviet outpost, external influences are anything but new to the Pamirs. Yet in the context of modern rural development, the Pamirs present a paradox. In a place so rich in agricultural and cultural diversity and human ingenuity – attributes that have been key to their survival for millennia – people remain the poorest of all Post-Soviet areas in monetary terms despite decades of intensive development interventions. While Pamiri identity remains strong, the social-ecological connections between people and their landscape which was a source of ingenuity to make life here over thousands of years, in many cases appear to have been severed.

Efforts to increase human-well being in the area (through e.g. improved seed varieties), has often resulted in a loss of biological and cultural diversity. There is one dominant development organization in the Pamirs (for many fascinating reasons which I can’t go into here!) whose reach is wide and deep. Over 7 years of working in the region, I have observed a noticeable shift in the development discourse, moving from more primary service provision, to facilitation and now to an approach focusing on uncovering endogenous development patterns and focusing explicitly on biocultural diversity conservation and innovation.

The overarching question of my research, thus [seems] to be shared with the dominant development actors in the Pamirs: how to reconcile the need for improving human well-being while not compromising the biological and cultural diversity.

I investigate this overarching question in two distinct research phases, one addressing the past, and the other the future.

Firstly I ask, how has the development discourse in the Pamirs changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union? Directly following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pamirs were engaged in a civil war with the rest of Tajikistan, until 1997. During this time the only connection to the outside world was through humanitarian assistance. My research focuses on the time after the civil war, once development programming began to be implemented. Here I start with a thematic content analysis of development strategies from 2003 (the first available) – 2020 (most recent strategy document); this document analysis is complemented with interviews.

I will also look deeper at a specific well-known intervention (an improved seed variety) that was characteristic of past strategies and investigate the rationale of the development organization for this intervention, and the consequences and responses from a community’s perspective.

The second part of the research is about how future development pathways are imagined by different actors in the Pamirs. I have selected two communities, one which has not had many developing interventions but has strong rituals to maintain ties to the land, or social-ecological connections; and another which has a formalized ‘Village Technology Group’ as part of a development project.

I am also interviewing various organizations and agents of change in Khorog who have varying perspectives of barriers of development in the region and future pathways. Ultimately I will organize a Dialogue in one of the communities over two days, where all these actors come together, and we choose some traditional food recipes from the book I co-authored (LINK), where we collect food together from the landscape, cook together and then open up conversations about what the future of the Pamirs looks like.

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Caption: Development is happening so fast here – you can literally see it rising into the sky in Khorog’s first high-rise building, demolishing the traditional houses which used to be here.

Stay tuned for more!