China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to open up new avenues for small farmers in Gilgit-Baltistan

Peer Muhammad
Ayub Shah,a farmer, lives in Thous village of Yasin valley in district Ghizer,Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan.He has been following the news about infrastructural developments, especially the road that is being built through his area. Given the good prospects it will bring, he is destined to switch from traditional farming of wheat and maize to commercial horticulture of cherry, apricot, and apple trees in his twenty kanal land.

Shah’s goal is to take advantage of improved road access that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Project (CPEC) is certain to bring about to take his produce—fruits and vegetables—to regional markets. Transporting and selling fruits, vegetables, and related commodities will become easier. The emerging markets can help transform the lives and livelihoods of countless farmers like him in the region. However, training would be required to build the resilience of farmer groups to deal with socio-economic and climate change impacts.

The land and micro-climates in most parts of Gilgit-Baltistan are well-suited to quality production of fruits and vegetables. However, a large chunk of the production never reaches the market but goes to waste as there are no cold storage, processing, and packaging facilities in the area. So the CPEC is seen as an opportunity to transform surplus produce into processed and packaged foods and beverages destined for distant markets.

The CPEC, a flagship project of the Chinese government, was launched in 2015 in Pakistan with an initial investment of USD 45 billion aimed at connecting Western China with Pakistan’s Gwadar Port via Gilgit-Baltistan. The amount was subsequently increased to USD 56 billion. The CPEC is seen as a game changer due to its geo-economic potential.

Most people in GB are not aware of what socio-economic impacts such a mega project will have on their lives and livelihoods. They are, however, confident that the project will contribute to their overall well-being by building a state-of-the-art road infrastructure though their landlocked region, thereby improving access for their fruits and vegetables to markets around the country, including in major cities.

Under the CPEC, a motorway has been built from Khunjerab to Raikot. Construction of the motorway from Raikot to Thakot is underway. In addition, the plan to build an alternate road, connecting Gilgit to Chitral via Ghizer, is the most encouraging step for the people of Ghizer, as this road, once completed, is sure to increase the possibility for locals to sell their produce easily and will also increase GB’s internal trade with the rest of the country.

The mountain ecosystems of GB are unique. Owing to unique mountain topography and ecology, the produce of the region is very special, although the average landholding per household is quite small. Increasing demand for the delicious fruits grown in the region would create pressure on the fragile ecology. While there are positive prospects that come with infrastructure development, there are points of caution too. Farming households need to adapt climate-smart horticultural practices not only to increase yield and quality, but also evolve practices to help with sustainable production and consumption. In the context of Ghizer, the resources of local farmers are underutilized. Currently, they cannot access attractive markets for their fruits due to poor road infrastructure, and lack of marketing skills and networks.Also, the lack of knowledge about value addition through processing and packaging means products which could have fetched higher prices in the market are not utilized.
According to the latest figures provided by the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), 167,752 tonnes of various kinds of fruits are produced annually in GB, out of which 65,020 tonnes go to waste. Out of 120,000 tonnes of apricots produced annually, 49,150 tonnes perish. Similarly, out of 18,943 tonnes of apples produced annually, 4,568 tonnes go to waste. 7,244 tonnes of grapes are produced annually, out of which 1734 tonnes are wasted. Likewise, several hundred tonnes of pears, peaches, cherries, and mulberries perish even before they can make it to the market.

“Once the proposed road infrastructure is developed under the CPEC project, we will be able to earn more from our fruits and vegetables. This is the reason I have planted cherry and apricot trees on my land,” Shah explained.

The proposal by Federal Government of Pakistan to establish an economic zone in GB under the CPEC project is a welcome development, although it is not yet clear what impact it will have on the locals.

In expectation of enhanced income, Shah has already planted over 100 cherry trees; he plans to add more next year. In addition to cherry, he also grows apricot, apple, and pear. In the future, when he achieves scale in terms of production, he wants to establish a processing plant in Yasin to process and package fruits for the market. He is optimistic to work closely with certain organizations like the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP)that are helping build the resilience of small farming communities in GB.

Hidaytullah , a farmer from Barkulti village, expects to earn a reasonable amount of money by selling apples and cherries that he grows on his 50 kanal land. Most of his fruits go to waste. At present, it doesn’t make economic sense for him to take his fruits to the market.

As he put it, “I have high quality French apples and cherries in my orchards. I often give them away to my relatives and fellow villagers. The reason is that we do not have access to good markets. Rather than see these fruits go to waste, it is better to give them away.The fruits from Swat and Quetta dominate the markets even though the quality of fruits from GB is, in general,much better.”

He noted that GB is cutoff from rest of the country, and that the Karakoram Highway (KKH) is way too long and in poor condition, and suffers from roadblocks just when fruits are ripe and ready to be taken to markets.

Ahmed Karim, a villager from Haiderabad village in Hunza, said that though they sell cherries, apples, and apricots in local markets and to some tourists, they do not get the right price for such organically-grown high quality fruits because they cannot sell them in large quantities in big markets due to the poor transportation system.

The KKH, often blocked in the summer, isn’t good enough for transporting perishable fruits long distance, so alternative or better road infrastructures are needed. He also said that the government should provide assistance to enterprising farmers to set up plants for grading, processing, and packaging dry fruits or fruit-based products (beverages, jams, and juices) for the market. Cold storage would increase the lifespan of otherwise perishable fruits and avoid wastage. Value chain activities would not only help kick start the regional economy of GB but also create local employment. Local people, including women, need to be trained so they can be gainfully self-employed.

Karamatullah , a social worker and development practitioner from GB, said that the CPEC project is bound to open up avenues for mountain farmers to sell their crops, fruits, and vegetables in distant markets. He urged the government to establish special economic zones, and assist small and medium enterprises in every district, perhaps even at the Tehsil level. He said that vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, and onions hold enormous potential in GB, but farmers do not grow them in large enough quantities due to market constraints. So the federal and provincial governments need to come up with pragmatic policies to raise horticultural and vegetable productivity and facilitate farmers, agri-entrepreneurs, and traders to deliver their products to markets.

“The government should send local farmers and agri-entrepreneurs to China to receive training in processing and packaging fruits and vegetables, so they are able to exploit opportunities that the CPEC project will eventually create,” he said.

Aisar Ali, Project Manager AKRSP, said that farmers should take advantage of the infrastructure-focused CPEC project to transform their lives and livelihoods for the better by targeting their production at emerging or existing markets. He was referring tothe Himalica project in GB, which has promoted the development of climate-resilient value chain son yak and sea buckthorn among farmers, including linking value-added products with markets. He emphasized that there is need for further up-scaling of climate-smart practices in horticulture, vegetable production, and livestock management. He acknowledged the support of ICIMOD in documenting and promoting good practices, as well as sharing knowledge and technical expertise, especially in the context of climate change in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.

Developing value chains for fruits and vegetables and scaling them up are ongoing challenges. However, there is good news. North Natural Pakistan, a lead private sector enterprise, is investing in making value added fruit-based products, and extracting sea buckthorn oil from seeds to make oil capsules. Ijaz Sharif, the owner of North Natural Pakistan, has already invested in a processing facility and transported the necessary machinery to Gakhoch. Hopefully, other investors will follow suit with the Government encouraging them

This story has been published under the HIMALICA Fellowship Program awarded to Gilgit Times Online by ICIMOD after a competitive process).