Rethinking development

Humaira Gul Saeed on an initiative that encourages communities and academics to think creatively about nature and culture – for a sustainable future

Rethinking development
Across Pakistan, agricultural land is being swamped by high rises, resource-rich plateaus are developed into housing estates and the high mountains in the north are being overtaken by roads that meander endlessly. For the communities in these areas, constant upheaval is ridding them of traditional practices that were once central to their lifestyle. Decidedly, the development atmosphere emphasises large scale development models over ones that are more inclusive and engaged with local communities. As a result, the development atmosphere can be thought of as a hopscotch of confused values.

Amidst this malaise of development practice, an Islamabad-based organisation is bringing an essential and necessary change in Pakistan’s current development paradigm.

Founded in 2007 by Zahra Hussain as an undergrad at NCA, Laajverd arose from the felt urgency to create a more sustainable future. Hussain, now a PhD researcher in Cultural Geography at Durham University, is passionate about creating change in the creative industries and sustainable development atmosphere in Pakistan. She has conceived a practice-based research project called Laajverd Visiting School (LVS), an outreach program and multidisciplinary research project for areas undergoing crisis or change.
Integral to LVS is its teaching staff, which is made up of researchers and experts in the field of architecture, disaster management and anthropology

By visiting post-disaster and post conflict areas, LVS brings together participants, locals and academics to think creatively with nature and culture for a more sustainable future. The ten-day visiting school visited Laspur Valley in Upper Chitral in 2018 for workshops, field research and presentations to bridge the gap between mainstream development practices and sustainability. Previously undertaken at Attabad Lake, Neelum Valley, Kaghan Valley and Gojal Valley, in 2018 LVS toke its 18 participants to Laspur Valley, Upper Chitral in North-West Pakistan from 29th July to 7th August.

In 2018 the LVS site was in close proximity to a 8.2 richter scale earthquake that battered Chitral in 2015. LVS 2018 was held to in the region to understand natural-social relations in the midst of natural hazards, environmental degradation and slipshod development in the region. Its focus this year was on exploring ethno-ecologies, which Hussain explains as, “to identify correlations, interdependencies and potential synergies between cultural and natural landscapes in order to envision a shared future”.

LVS is for participants to interact with local communities and to create a learning model that benefits the community, the individual as well as academic discourse on development through intensive research processes. LVS aims at participatory forms of development that take into consideration the vulnerable environmental condition of regional landscapes. By inviting participants from the creative and development faculties, LVS seeks to understand the way communities undergoing change and crises remain resilient. Regarding conditions of ‘crises’, Hussain emphasizes them as instances of “shifting modalities that establish points of change in a multilayered program”. By co-working with local communities at such points, LVS has the potential to steer them towards exploring and retaining culturally sensitive and geographically suitable approaches to development. Differing from convention, LVS emphasises working ‘with’ the locals rather than ‘for’ the locals, and the idea forms a core workshop of the LVS, on Creative participatory action research (C-PAR).

In practice, C-PAR forms a cornerstone of LVS. It proposes an inclusive form of development – one that works on development through a regional perspective rather than a top-down approach that disregards community values at the regional and community level.

So how does LVS work in such a development landscape?

Hussain, its founder proposes that the LVS is a two-way learning model where students and mid-career professionals engage with local communities to analyse the issues faced in the geography and community of the area. Working with community members at the sites LVS visits is an essential part of the visiting school. Selected participants visit areas that have undergone crises and work with community members to solve local issues relating to the changing socio-economic landscape they are situated in.

Alongside, they document local practices that promote sustainability. To this end, Hussain has initiated the Indigenous Practices and Patterns Catalog (IPPC) that documents the intangible cultural heritage in the areas visited. Later, these are documented into an extensive catalog for academic and development practice use.

For participants the workshops are an eye opener into fostering inclusive development, that allows their experience to be put to use for real community issues. LVS pegs onto individual features of the communities they visit to introduce students and professionals to local methods of engagement while fostering greater community engagement with methods indigenous to their culture. This practice serves to strengthen the local communities’ reliance on traditional practices, leading to greater confidence and self-reliance in the face of conflict and crisis. Furthermore, local leadership that inculcates traditional values is less likely to be influenced by elements that are out of touch with local issues; as such ones that may be motivated by the monetary value or the intention to inject foreign ideas into isolated parts of Northern Pakistan. The visiting school also engages with practices of eco-tourism, pertinent in areas prone to increasing tourism and accessibility in Northern Pakistan. By exposing participants to a remote regional landscape, LVS aims to detach students from the predominant discourse of development and realign their interests towards alternative and sustainable development. As a result, the two-week program is an immersion course that drastically changes the mainstream thinking of most participants.

Danial Khyzer, a regular LVS participant reflects on the program, “LVS gave me an opportunity to learn and research in detail about the land and culture we live in. For me infrastructure development was the most important element for the growth of any community, however, after joining LVS I realised that the cultural identity of any land, its history and natural features, practices and patterns are more important. These features act as the spirit and soul of any community and its identity and development without these features can result in complete disaster.”

In practice, this is done in LVS through a focus on individual student projects which they begin to form mid-way through the course after workshops by academics and practitioners. This focus on individual projects is perhaps the most rewarding part of the LVS for its founder and the most illustrative of what students get out of the two-week immersion program. Regarding the findings of individual projects, Hussain says, “Participants come with specific ideas about development which change as they visit the field and work with communities. Often the projects they propose in the beginning of the course change by the end as they are encouraged to develop projects in response to the conditions and concerns of the local context.”

Integral to LVS is its teaching staff, which is made up of researchers and experts in the field of architecture, disaster management and anthropology. Somana Riaz, convener for the disaster management workshop describes LVS as a, “Dynamic program that requires unconventional research methodology and approach. As a convener I find the visiting school an opportunity to connect to indigenous mountain communities, learn about their challenges and mutually work out feasible solutions for them. It’s a mutual learning process for me as a convener and the participants. LVS is a unique initiative that enhances in depth understanding of an area and broadens the horizon of young researchers and benefits remote mountain communities.”

LVS pegs into the local knowledge of the area by engaging with community leaders and tour guides acquainted with the area. A local from Laspur Valley, Sultan Salahuddin remarked, “LVS aids in documenting endangered culture, and preserving traditional housing designs. They also create more appreciation in the youth for their culture and crafts.”

Responding to how LVS manages to create trust amongst the locals, Hussain assures me that the LVS does not only “take from the communities but also gives back to them in equal measure. For example, in 2015 LVS was held in NeelumValley, LVS identified improper garbage disposal and organised a cleanliness drive that was attended by school children and locals. This helped to create more trust amongst the local community.”

Laajverd responds to a need for change in the development atmosphere in Pakistan. Development needs to be in tune with the structure of communities in Pakistan. With sixty-three percent of Pakistanis living in rural or regional areas, and scarce dependence on government for most primary needs, community inclusive models of development are much more likely to create cohesive and constructive communities that rely on each other for decisions.

LVS is an intensive ten-day cross-curricular and interdisciplinary intensive held in a remote environment, that seeks to do just that. It brings together students and professional from diverse backgrounds to interact with locals in small communities. It fosters an understanding of sustainable development different from the textbook methods that are taught at university level. It attempts to give participants a unique understanding of traditional communities being the centers of change. Laajverd is promoting an understanding of development like no other organisation; as an organic and interactive process, through which the measure of success lies not in imagined models of progress but it the rooted connection with traditional practices themselves.

The writer is a freelance journalist and editor with interests in economics, environment and culture she tweets @SaysHumaira and can be contacted