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Case Study: Shimshal, Hunza, Pakistan PM00000010000005230 7, 2008

Posted by Mыsofer in gojal, Gojal Pakistan.
Photo: Musofer:



By David Butz
I work in Hunza, Pakistan, in the Karakoram, mainly in Shimshal, a rural community of about 1500 people. Most of my research has focused on social organisation and social change in this community, especially in the context of trans-cultural interactions. A by-product of these interests has been some peripheral attention to natural hazards and the way people understand and cope with them. I’m not a specialist in hazards, and therefore some of what I say may seem obvious or old-hat. I hope that a couple of examples from this community may be a useful contribution.

I’d like to talk briefly about three sets of hazards the community has faced, each of which has its important cultural dimensions.

1. Every so often the Shimshal River gets blocked by an advancing glacier upstream from the permanent settlement. The resulting lake poses a significant threat to the permanent agricultural settlement, transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, trails), and other communities downstream. In the early 1960s the glacial dam burst, about half of the homes in the community were lost, much agricultural land was destroyed, and several people died. At that time the village was a nucleated settlement close to the flood plain, with agricultural lands spreading over a couple of alluvial fans; when the houses were rebuilt they were scattered among the fields, partly because the land on which the original houses had stood was washed away, and partly to de-intensify the risk of subsequent glacier dam bursts. In my understanding, this change in settlement pattern initiated something of a cultural change in the community. People relate this dispersal of homes to changes in understandings of family, community, privacy, property, and I have observed that people in Shimshal sometimes draw upon the current (relatively recent) settlement pattern in support of their identity as Wakhi, and to distinguish themselves from non-Wakhi inhabitants of northern Pakistan.

Question 1.1 asks how socio-cultural background influences attitudes and responses to disaster risks. I guess my point here is that it is probably also important to consider how disaster and responses to it inform cultural identity and practices. Recently, there has been some discussion of re-nucleating the settlement so that provision of potable water, electricity, etc. will be easier. Arguments within the community against re-nucleation seem to focus more on issues of identity (what Shimshal IS; who Shimshalis ARE) than on issues of disaster (even though the glacier dam lake continues to form occasionally, to much consternation). To the extent that ‘risk’ enters this discussion, it is the risks to identity that dominate. Meanwhile the community is aggressively settling the floodplain with schools and other buildings, tree nurseries, and fields, and seems to be relying mainly on the hope of an imported technological fix to deal with the threat of a dam burst flood. This may indicate the extent to which local culture has been colonised (or perhaps, less dramatically, influenced) by developmentalist and scientistic discourse.

More Detail at source: http://www.mtnforum.org/rs/ec/index.cfm?act=pst&econfID=16&econfThemeID=23&postingID=446
The importance of ethnographic approach
I have worked in the same small community in northern Pakistan for 20 years. I’ve spent nine research seasons of varying length there, and now that the nearest internet café is only a few hours away from the village rarely does a fortnight go by that I don’t talk to someone from the community. My comments below are so influenced by that positionality that I’m quite uncertain of their relevance to this discussion, but, for what they may be worth?

From the perspective I summarized above, and in response to Question 2.2, it seems to me that there is no substitute for long-term, frequent, multi-faceted and embodied interaction with the people and landscapes we are concerned with. I think it is important to have multi-faceted (perhaps holistic is a better word) preoccupations and interactions – ones that are not too narrowly or exclusively focused on risk, vulnerability or hazard – in order to understand lives and ways of life that exceed our hazard-related concerns, especially so that we don’t confuse our preoccupations and priorities with those of the people we are concerned with, and so that their preoccupations have some possibility of becoming ours. Long-term, frequent and embodied interactions are important for the same reasons, and also because they allow us to expose ourselves, to some extent, to the range of hazards, their socio-cultural context, and their effects as experienced by the people we are concerned with. They also allow us to relate what people say to what they do, over the long term and in different circumstances. If, over the long term, the circumstances and self-representations of the people we are concerned with bleed into our own identity, so that an ethic of care for them becomes internal to our own identities (what I have termed, in the context of Shimshal, ‘the colonization of my autobiography’), so much the better. I think it is possible to engage with communities over the long term in ways (material, interactional, emotional) that enable that mutual fellow-feeling, although not necessarily reliably.

I think a goal and almost inevitable outcome of this approach, if it is taken seriously, is to develop some recognition of ‘the cultural content and origins of [our] own approaches, and open them up to cross-cultural discussions’ (Question 2.3). I think this can be aided by close attention to theories of power, the crisis of representation and legitimation, etc. Hazards researchers have much to learn, I think, from the epistemological and ethical soul-searching that accompanied the cultural turn in the social sciences over the past several decades.

More detail at Source: http://www.mtnforum.org/rs/ec/index.cfm?act=pst&econfID=16&econfThemeID=24&postingID=507



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