NEGOTIATING CHANGE: Recognizing the Role of Customary Laws for Sustainable Livelihoods and Development in Gilgit-Baltistan

Most of the valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan are ruled by customary laws. This proved conducive to local communities to manage their affairs related to land, pastures, water, minerals and community assets. The paper maps major customary laws governing resource management in Gilgit-Baltistan. In terms of land it provides historical overview of land laws under the rule of Mirs (ruler), colonial and post-colonial period. Also, it discusses typologies of land tenure in Gilgit-Baltistan. Typologies include: private land, Khalsa land or state-owned land, Shamilat or community lands and pasture lands.

The theme of water is dealt in detail. Water management is the most sophisticated and elaborate system in traditional mode of governance with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. It encompasses both individuals and tribes hence, closely linked with the livelihood of people. It is found that except major towns water is still managed through customary laws in the villages, particularly non-settled ones in Gilgit-Baltistan. An attempt is made to document the use of water, rights holders, laws, management and adaptation to changed times.

The section on livestock documents the process of implementation of laws related to grazing rights, pasture distribution, penalties and roles and responsibilities. Special attention is paid to analyse patterns of herding in different sessions during the whole year. It is noticed that the practice of keeping herds of livestock diminished during the last few decades, yet many of customary laws still remains in practice.

Under the theme of biodiversity, the study covers the themes of forests, timber and wildlife. Since forests are scarce in Hunza and Nagar, mostly people utilize them as pastures during summer. For fuel and construction purpose, people use dead woods in orchards and popular trees respectively. Most of the community-owned forests are managed by tribal council. Like forests, wildlife under the customary laws are treated as a part of pasture; the rights given to the subjects on pastures accompanied rights over the usage of wildlife within. The research paper also sheds light on sacred position of wildlife in the traditional worldview that was prevalent in Gilgit-Baltistan, and how the rules stem from this worldview and influence people’s attitude towards wildlife.

As with other natural resources, the Rajas/Mirs exercised full power and authority over the mineral resources in their domains, but received no significant benefits out of it except for the gold procured by nomadic sonaywals /gold-panners. There were no separate rules or regulation for minerals in nullahs/pastures; rights on pasture included all resources therein.  

It is felt that many of the customary practices prevalent in Gilgit-Baltistan contain many of the broad elements existing in statutory laws. This research shows that the ideas of justice, equity, accountability, fairness and respect for gender are integrated into conceptions of customary laws. One common feature across all customary systems is the immense emphasis on restorative justice. Modern conceptions of retributive justice as practiced by contemporary nation-states and in Pakistan is less important than the restoration of honor of the individual transgressor and preservation of community harmony. The liminal status of Gilgit-Baltistan has direct bearing over the practice of customary laws and its clash with modern laws.

This study reveals the liminal or unclear status of Gilgit-Baltistan and enables governments to regulate and rule the region through different policies and procedures in various parts of Gilgit-Baltistan. As a result, Gilgit-Baltistan presents a case where the land is regulated through anomalous and paradoxical laws cohabiting the same space and time in the region. To overcome the contradictions within the existing system it is suggested that the customary laws should be formalized so that communities of Gilgit-Baltistan might be able to keep the communal spirit alive instead of disintegrated into individuals following different laws at the same time.

Product details
Date of Publication
November, 2017
Heinrich Böll Stiftung Pakistan
Number of Pages
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