A Critical Ethnography of the Shimshal Road

Department of Geography




A Critical Ethnography of the Shimshal Road

Shimshal is a farming and herding community of about 110 households, located at 3,000m in the Karakoram Mountain Range, in Pakistan’s Northern Areas (Butz 1996). For most of the community’s 400 year history, travel between the village and its nearest neighbour required a walk of at least a week along a difficult footpath that was impassable even for donkeys and yaks. It was several more days’ travel by pony track to Baltit, the capital of the fiefdom of Hunza, and an additional week or so beyond Baltit to Gilgit, the largest centre in what is now northern Pakistan and historically a staging point along the fabled Silk Route (Butz 1998). While these difficulties of travel did not wholly prevent interaction between Shimshal and the rest of the region, they did have a strong limiting and mediating effect. Throughout the 20th century Shimshal’s relative inaccessibility increased, as jeep tracks and metalled roads were constructed throughout the region, but not to Shimshal. By the late 1970s Shimshal was one of the least accessible permanent settlement in Pakistan’s Northern Areas; it was still a week’s walk from the nearest road (the Karakoram Highway, which establishes a road link, through northern Pakistan, from the Punjab to Western China). In 1983 the community began to construct a road from Passu (their nearest neighbour, on the Karakoram Highway) to the village of Shimshal, initially with the assistance of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, an NGO operating out of Gilgit, and later with funding and engineering support from the Government of Pakistan (Ali & Butz 2005). As road construction proceeded, the time required to travel between Shimshal and Passu decreased, with a commensurate increase in traffic. When I first visited and conducted research in Shimshal in 1987, it was a long four-day walk, which included fording several streams and crossing a glacier. By 1995 the trek was down to three days, and then two days in 2000. When I visited the community most recently in 2007, I traveled the whole way by jeep in three hours; the 40 kilometre road was completed in November 2003, twenty years after construction began. The trip from Shimshal to the regional centre of Gilgit, which would have taken at least two weeks as recently as the mid 1960s, now takes less than ten hours.
 

The potential implications of this increase in accessibility for Shimshal are great, in terms of the movement of people and goods, the introduction of ideas and technology, the infiltration of government bureaucracy and commerce, the incorporation of the community into a regional economy and political structure, and so on (Butz 1993). One of the advantages Shimshalis identify in ‘getting’ a road so late, and taking so long to construct it, is that it has given them time to think about how to manage these potential effects with reference to the community’s observations about what happened in other communities that went through a similar period of drastically increased accessibility a decade or two earlier. Indeed, the community set up its Shimshal Nature Trustin 1987 largely in anticipation of stresses associated with the completion of the road, and I have been involved in many discussions in the community, at various levels of formality, which focused on how to manage the effects of the road (Ali & Butz 2005, Butz 1995, 2006).


After two decades of informal observations and conversations with Shimshalis about the road, Nancy Cook (Brock, Sociology) and I have recently begun a more comprehensive, historically-grounded ethnography of social change in Shimshal in the context of increases in accessibility facilitated by the road’s construction. To the extent that our study will rely heavily on community-members’ own perspectives and experiences, it will also be an autoethnography of social change (Besio & Butz 2004, Butz & Besio 2004).


The results of this research – currently in its very early stages – will be important for several reasons. First, road building is a significant aspect of NGO development work and government infrastructure initiatives in northern Pakistan and throughout the developing world, but with little attention to micro-level implications for community members and with the assumption that effects will be generally positive. When implications are studied, they tend to focus strictly on economic benefits without considering social implications, and they seldom attempt to understand the perspectives of the people whose lives have been most directly affected by drastically increased accessibility. Second, while mountainous northern Pakistan is nearing the end of a period of rapid and intense road infrastructure development, little effort has been devoted to assessing whether the predictions of the meso-level models upon which this development was based are borne out on the ground. This study, while not aspiring to provide a regional-level evaluation of the social effects of infrastructural development, will develop a detailed case study that contributes to the early stages of that process of assessment. Third, because we have interview transcripts from a couple of years before the road was finished, which we will complement by conducting interviews a few years after the completion of the road, we will be able to describe shifts in villagers’ perspectives and concerns across a crucial transitional period. This is not a systematically longitudinal research project, but it does have a valuable longitudinal dimension that is rare in studies of this sort. Fourth, most studies of accessibility in rural parts of the developing world treat communities super-organically, and thus fail to tease out the variable implications of increasing accessibility for different group within a community. Our study will do that because we will have in-depth qualitative information, and because we already have a strong sense of social (economic, political, gender, household, etc.) organization in the community. Fifth, while Shimshalis have struggled long and hard to construct a road to their village, they are clearly also concerned about its implications for their lives. The results of this study will provide the community with an analysis that will allow community members to plan more carefully and knowledgeably for their future. Sixth, the study will provide a detailed analysis of an indigenous community in a rapid phase of transition. As such it will be a valuable contribution to ethnographic scholarship on the Karakoram region of Pakistan, and also to larger bodies of critical scholarship on development and modernization in rural parts of the developing world.

Bridge on Shimshal Road
Bridge on Shimshal Road

We're excited to offer a monthly series of conversations where our researchers discuss and debate topical issues that matter to you.