On the Edge: Afghan Kyrgyz Migration in an Era of Climate Change

Lying at the northwestern end of the Himalaya range, the Pamirs have long been known and exploited for their outstanding pastures, as Marco Polo and other Chinese and European travelers have recounted. In the 1920s, a small group of about 2,000 Kyrgyz pastoralists settled there when military forces progressively closed borders drawn from afar. Since then, desires of outmigration and participation in conflicting national and international exchanges has fragmented their supposed ethnic cohesion. At the same time, aspirations for relative autonomy are constantly thwarted by opposing affiliations.

The Afghan Pamirs resemble typical colonial anomalies – they are contemporary leftovers from the original designs of a buffer zone between Tsarist and British empires. Primarily used as summer pastures, the climatic and political pressures that people face there are extreme. Winters are marked with lows easily reaching -40°C and the rugged and mountainous plateau lying above 4,300 meters failed to shield the region from war and the series of conflicts that have now ravaged Afghanistan for more than 40 years. If Afghans count among the world’s largest refugee population, it is worth noting that no major outmigration has occurred from the Pamirs since its 1978 Soviet occupation.

“Prisoners of the Roof of the World”, as a famous documentary title called them, the fate of these Afghans is far from being determined by national, environmental or socioeconomic boundaries. Despite the impression of extreme remoteness conveyed by the Afghan Pamirs, the place is not disconnected from global flows. Major IOs and NGOs tie Afghan Kyrgyz livelihoods to global discourses through development, humanitarian and conservation initiatives. Being on many cusps opens opportunities that conventional analysis scales do not grasp.

The Afghan Pamirs’ pastures constitute an important ecological niche; each faction of the Afghan conflict shares a stake in a pastoral economy that opens to China by Pakistani traders. Important marginal gains arise from a proximity with international borders, which are important sites of control and exchange.

Recently, a tiny door opened to Kyrgyzstan through a highly mediated and contested repatriation scheme. 

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