Summits, Snow Leopards, Farmers, and Fighters: Will Politics Prevent a National Park in the High Pamirs of Tajikistan?

By Cunha, Stephen F. | Focus, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Summits, Snow Leopards, Farmers, and Fighters: Will Politics Prevent a National Park in the High Pamirs of Tajikistan?


Cunha, Stephen F., Focus


The Pamir Mountains are a high altitude region of Central Asia located mostly in Tajikistan on the disputed frontiers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the former Soviet Union. Tajikistan is the smallest, poorest, and one of the most culturally diverse of the former Soviet Republics. The Moscow government used this mountain region, strategically located between the Hindu Kush and the Aral Sea, to buffer the Russian heartland from China and Afghanistan. In the process the Communists dissected ethnic homelands, depopulated the Western Foothills, and exploited water resources for large scale cotton production. Today, the Pamirs are home to numerous mountain peoples, several species of rare wildlife, and many of the world's highest summits. In 1989 a group of Tajik government officials and businessmen promoted the idea of a national park in the center of the High Pamirs. The Russian Academy of Sciences and others suggested in 1991 that the region be included in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Program. However, Tajikistan is waging a brutal though relatively unpublicized post-independence civil war that will influence the future political, economic, and ethno-religious stability and direction of Central Asia. This article briefly describes the physical and cultural geography of the Pamir Mountains; reviews recent legislative action taken to create the proposed park; and outlines the recent civil strife.

A great complex orographic node

The modern state of Tajikistan is 143,100 square kilometers, of which 90 percent is mountainous. The east-west axis stretches for 700 km; the north-south distance is 300 km. Almost half the 3000 km frontier is shared with China (430 km) and Afghanistan (1030 km). The narrow (15-65 km wide) Afghan Wakhan Corridor separates eastern Tajikistan from Pakistan, as seen on the map.

The Pamirs form the great complex orographic node where the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Alayskiy, and Tien Shah ranges converge. Strongly folded Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous sediments of principally marine origin surround the mountain core. Fragments of Precambrian basement rock and granite mass of various ages mix among overlying Mesozoic formations. All orogenies - mountain building periods in geologic time - beginning with the Byelomorian and ending with the Alpine took place here. Extensive highland glaciation and the erosive action of the Amu Darya (Pamir and Pianj Rivers) and Syr Darya river systems, have carved the Pamirs into some of the most deeply dissected topography on earth.

The 1991 proposal suggested a 1.5 million hectare national park within Tajikistan that includes four distinctive regions:

* Western Foothills: Four independent spurs, the Peter the Great, Darvaz, Vanch, and Yazgulem, align latitudinally from the plains of western Tajikistan to the High Pamirs. Deep gorges dissect each range, creating numerous topoclimates. This is the most densely populated region in the Pamir Mountains.

* High Pamir: The Western Foothills abruptly intersect the Academy of Sciences Range (Academia Nauk) near the 72 [degrees] E meridian. The Academia stretches north-south for 180 km and includes numerous summits above 6000 meter elevation. This was the highest region in the former Soviet Union. The more arid Trans-Alai radiates eastward from the northern extent of the Academy Range. The summit axis forms the international frontier with Kyrgyzstan to the north. The High Pamirs attract only seasonal alpinists and scientists.

* Southeastern Pamir and the Pianj River Corridor: Numerous deep canyons (some blocked by landslides), an arid climate, and a complex ethnic mosaic define terrain east of the Pamir crest. The precipitous Pianj River gorge at the southern margin marks the Tajik frontier with Afghanistan, and supports most of the regional population. Elsewhere, Mountain Tajiks (Pamirians) cultivate fluvial terraces and graze stock on upland meadows. This region and the Pamir Plateau described below, comprise the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast. …

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