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Hunza Valley’s Emerging Environmental Leaders Advocate for a Greener Future

Article and Photographs by Nyal Mueenuddin

for Vertex International Magazine


A famous view out onto the Hunza Valley from Karimabad, the cultural and historical heart of the valley.


Ten o’clock came and passed, and as our production team looked out onto the natural splendors of the Hunza Valley, perched in the gardens of Karimabad’s Serena Hotel, we wondered if the community leaders who had agreed to meet with us the day before would actually come. Twenty chairs covered with red velvet seat covers had been placed at our request in a circle under the canopy of a large apricot tree, and our cameras were ready to roll. But forty minutes after the arranged meeting time, we feared that perhaps there was simply little interest in the topic we wished to discuss and document: the future of Hunza’s environmental and cultural heritage.

Two weeks earlier, I had been commissioned by Elizabeth Kanaan, a Pakistani-American environmental activist and owner of Islamabad’s Hunza-inspired restaurant, Wild Thyme, to join her on a trip to Hunza to film a documentary about the state of Hunza’s environment, and how an uncontrolled influx of domestic tourists is degrading the once pristine mountain valley. With only a limited number of days to shoot, I prayed the community members would show up soon.

Ali Madad, owner of the world-famous Eagles Nest Hotel and president of Hunza’s Hotel Owner’s Association, was the first to arrive. He greeted us warmly, and seemingly unconcerned about the number of empty seats, settled into a chair to begin making calls. Several short but direct conversations later, our circle began to fill in as the valley’s principle business leaders arrived, seemingly pleased to have been gathered together to deliberate a dilemma that faced them all.


After a quick strategic discussion amongst themselves, followed by a round of introductions, Salman Khan, president of the Aliabad Business Association, spoke first. In general but impassioned terms, Khan explained that in the past two years, the number of tourists arriving to the valley has dramatically increased as major improvements to the Karakorum Highway were completed, and the Babusar Top Pass opened to general traffic. Shaving four to five hours off the journey into what used to be some of the most remote, inaccessible and untouched areas of Pakistan, tourists were now arriving in cars from all across the nation.

“This increase in tourism has given a real boost to our local economy, but at a heavy cost to our environment and culture,” Khan said, citing unmanageable amounts of garbage and single-use plastic, noise pollution from the heavy traffic moving in and out of the valley, and a notable decline in water and air quality, all taking a heavy toll on the health of the local population. “If changes are not implemented soon, Hunza Valley will become like any other polluted city in Pakistan. If this happens, what will continue to draw people to our region?” Nods of approval were seen around the circle at his saying.






Later that day, we met with an astoundingly impressive group of local youth leaders – the directors of the Hunza Girl Guides and Boy Scouts. As we would later find out, nearly every child born in the region joins the ranks of the Scouts and Guides at a young age, and remain within them through childhood and adolescence, developing practical, social and leadership skills. With a legion of nearly ten thousand youth members across the valley, they also happen to be, by far, the most active, widespread and passionate advocates for environmental protection in the region.


As we sat around a low table in the dripping apple orchard of our

guesthouse, sipping cups of mixed chai, Naila Jabeen, head of

the Hunza Girl Guides’ environmental programs, was the center

of all attention. Her speech was confident and tactical, and her

knowledge of the valley’s issues rock solid. She spoke of solutions

to the environmental problems of the valley, as well as the realistic

obstacles each would face.


To our surprise, the Girl Guides had been working on finding alternatives to the plastic that plagues the valley for over a year. Their initiatives included creating reusable bags made from recycled cloth; weekly volunteer-based garbage cleanups in the valley’s principle towns and dumpsites; awareness raising campaigns in schools and communities to conserve water and stop littering; and even a program to shine light on illegal wildlife poaching.


“Through these programs, we create the spark needed to take on our biggest issues,” Jabeen said. “But these initiatives then need to be picked up and supported by our local government or NGOs for them to be sustainable.”


And this was the point that echoed through all the conversations we had during our investigation. That while individuals in all sectors are prepared to put in the work in the capacities that they are able, ultimately it will take the true support and commitment, organizational and financial, of the local government to make any of these changes stick.


Today, Hunzakuts are taking the initial steps needed to put up a fight to protect their home, not only for themselves and their children, but for all who come to catch a glimpse of this remaining natural wonder. Now it is time for the rest of us, particularly tourists and government officials, to stand up and take responsibility too.


The concern and motivation with which these businessmen spoke about protecting the local environment was inspiring, but it also made sense – money was flowing into their community now, but if the resources were not managed carefully, their futures would turn bleak. This was a matter of ensuring their long-term investments. But then, the conversation turned more personal, and as they reflected on their childhoods and their hopes for their children and grandchildren, one sensed also a more sentimental and nostalgic motivation to bringing a change. The combination of these two impulses gave me hope that a successful movement could be organized to protect this special place.

Punjabi tourists take selfies at the Eagles Nest and Baltit Fort in Hunza Valley.

A young boy stands in front of a raging plastic trash fire in Karimabad, sending plumes of black smoke up into the valley's crisp mountain air.


Heads of Hunza Valley's business community gather for a discussion on how to reduce environmental impact of the valley's growing tourism industry.

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Naila Jabeem, head of Hunza Girl Guides' environmental speaks about how to reduce plastic in Hunza Valley during an interview with our crew. 

August 2018


Fatimah, a local girl guide, sits for a portrait by a water channel in Karimabad.

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