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Pakistan: Climate activists pay a high price

Mavra Bari
February 15, 2023

The devastating floods which hit Pakistan last year raised the pressure on the government to fight climate change. But many climate activists have faced retaliation from the state for speaking out in the past.

A group of young people holds up a sign which reads: Fridays for Future, Gilgit-Baltistan
Climate activists say political parties often attempt to silence and discredit those who speak outImage: Pervez Ali

Baba Jan, an activist, is becoming something of a household name in Pakistan-administered Kashmir's Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region. He first caught the public's eye by campaigning for the victims of 2010 and 2011 floods to receive compensation. Then, he was arrested on "terrorism" allegations and served almost a decade in prison, finally regaining his freedom in late 2020.

Jan and over a dozen other campaigners were only freed after their families staged a weeklong sit-in. The 45-year-old is now the president of the Awami Workers Party in GB.

Activists demand 'revolutionary' change

Pakistan is very vulnerable to changing weather patterns, and it ranks among the 10 countries in the world most affected by climate change. The devastating floods which hit the country last summer are sure to increase this vulnerability score even further.

While GB is not constitutionally part of Pakistan, it is an administrative territory with a de facto province status. It boasts a unique but delicate ecosystem and is home to some of the tallest mountains in the world, including the mammoth K2 peak.

Activists such as Baba Jan say political parties often attempt to silence and discredit those who speak out.

"My activism is against climate change fueled by capitalism, which is breeding destruction and inequality. We demand revolutionary political, economic, and social changes, because the current system is taking away our home," Jan told DW.

Pakistan seeks funding for flood reconstruction

Lawyer Yasir Abbas, who serves as coordinator to the chief minister of GB, told DW that he believes that the case against Jan and other protesters was "mishandled" and that Jan did not deserve the penalty he received. Abbas also pointed to several sustainability campaigns in which the current GB government is investing. He added that he was hopeful climate activists would be met more favorably in the future due to a rising number of young people speaking out.

Attam Lake — from climate disaster to dream destination

Jan started focusing on activism following the Attabad Lake disaster in 2010, when the village of Attabad in the Hunza Valley was hit by a huge landslide, burying 20 people and rendering 6,000 villagers homeless.

With disastrous flooding following just months later, Jan focused on criticizing people in power and drawing attention to missing compensation funds for flood victims.

Today, the lake's dark history is almost forgotten. It has become a premium holiday destination and is surrounded by hotels. But activists remain wary.

"Economic progress is not the only progress, these big hotels are not for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, as these businessmen are making profits for themselves only and destroying our ecosystems. That will make our children's lives more difficult," Jan said.

He worries that the unchecked development at Attabad Lake can spell more climate disasters in the future.

Anam Rathor, co-founder of Climate Action Pakistan, sees Attabad Lake as a prime example of how corporate interests are greenwashing development projects under the guise of "community economic uplift" and "sustainable tourism" in GB.

Jan, Rathor, and other climate advocates are calling for a return to indigenous wisdom and culture, as well as customary laws and practices during development planning.

Climate protection 'has its price'

Activist Pervez Ali also looks back to 2010 to explain his stance against climate change. That was the year when a flash flood wiped out his entire village in the Ghizer district in GB, making him and his family climate refugees. He was seven years old at the time.

Now a 19-year-old, Ali knows what challenges face the 33 million people who were forced to leave their homes due to the 2022 floods. After coordinating the country's "Fridays for Future movement" and representing Pakistan at the COP27 climate summit last November, he can also speak from experience about pressure on climate activists.

The forgotten victims of Pakistan's floods

"A person from GB is always at risk, I have been getting threats from private numbers. I had to seek help from Climate Defenders that help activists under threat," Ali told DW. "In Pakistan, if you are talking against powerful forces and in the interest of communities and not profit, then activism has its price."

'Reparations are not a solution'

Last year, the climate change conference COP27 ended with a historic deal to create a new fund, which would see countries historically responsible for high carbon emissions compensate vulnerable and affected countries, such as Pakistan.

However, climate activists say the focus must be on cutting carbon emissions to prevent crossing the global heating threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit), which will compound climate change even further for vulnerable regions.

"Reparations are not a solution, [they are] a bandage," Baba Jan stressed. "It would be much better to not emit the carbon that leads to disasters, than pay for the damages later that are impossible to fully calculate anyway. We need a systemic change to do no harm to the environment in the first place rather than destroying ecosystems."

Activists are also concerned by reparations being distributed on a global rather than local level. While representatives from the government of Pakistan were one of the key negotiators for the "Loss and Damage" Fund, activists like Jan were met with force by local government for demanding the same for community reparations.

"Climate activism is treated very differently when demands are made to the Global North than when made internally. The government supports reparations for Pakistan as a low emitter country, but if we criticize local development projects that are profitable but bad for ecology, then our voice is stifled," said Rathor.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic