Ancient Ecological Calendars Find Way Forward in Pamir Mts.

The recent influx of climate change induced-changes, including warmer temperatures and melting glaciers, have wreaked havoc on the reliability of timekeeping systems of communities living in the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia. For centuries, the indigenous Pamiri people in Kyrgyzstan, China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have used ecological calendars to coordinate seasonal activities. The traditional form of tracking time allows them to track seasonal and environmental changes.

As environmental shifts, like migratory changes, render these ancient calendar systems unable to accurately keep time, local timekeepers are increasingly unable to rely on calendar cues for agricultural and cultural activities.

The Kassam Research Group at Cornell University, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Climate CoLab and the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) program of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), is partnering with six communities, including the Pamiri, to collaboratively find ways to reconcile and calibrate this traditional timekeeping method with today’s changing climate.

The three-year project, which received $1.35 million in funding from the Belmont Forum, began in December of 2015.

The Pamiri ecological calendar
(Photo: Kassam et al., 2011, artwork by Hakim Zavkibekov)

The ecological calendars at the center of the project link environmental cues, such as the arrival of a particular migratory bird, the last day of snow cover, the breaking of ice on a river, or the first appearance of a particular insect, with corresponding mnemonic body parts, much as many Americans and Europeans count to ten on their fingers, to keep time. Beginning with their toenail, timekeepers track the progression of the seasons by counting correlating body parts up to their head, the arrival of which signals the end of spring. With the first cue of the arrival of summer, counting resumes again. This time, timekeepers count environmental cues down their body.

Principal investigator Karim-Aly S. Kassam, a professor of environmental and indigenous studies at Cornell, told GlacierHub in a phone interview that the project is working to restore communities’ capacities to anticipate seasonal changes.

“The ability to anticipate time is a very simple concept. It’s done to establish stability, to create anticipatory stability,” Kassam said.

Pamiri farmer
A local farmer in the Pamir Mountains (Photo: Karim-Aly Kassam)

By tracking seasonal developments, Kassam says that ecological timekeeping systems lend communities the ability to anticipate agricultural activities and cultural practices.

But climate change-induced disruptions of seasonal markers that help the Pamiri communities maintain their routines has made them uneasy, Kassam says.

“The pace at which [climate change] is moving and its intensity is creating instability and anxiety,” he explained.

Perched between 2,000 and 3,500 meters in elevation, local communities in the Pamir mountains are especially vulnerable to temperature changes, glacial melt, and subsequent water source depletion.

Pamir Mountains
The Pamir Mountains, which tower as high as 7495 meters. (Photo: Karim-Aly Kassam)

Pamiri locals have reported increasing water levels in nearby rivers and lakes, a result of the quickened pace of glacial melt, said Kassam. Changes in temperature and precipitation have forced farmers to replace no longer thriving plants and fruits with alternative crops that are better suited to their changing environment.

The project is currently developing a mechanism to retune these ancient calendar systems so that they work with ongoing ecosystem changes.

Since its start last December, the project has begun mapping out communities’ seasonal cycles by inviting locals to identify their personal ecological indicators of changes in time.

“We invite ornithologists, duck hunters, maple producers, anybody in the local community that can help us map out these discrete processes,” Kassam said.

The project’s collaborators plan to hold a day-long discussion with each of the project’s partnering communities, in which project collaborators ask the community questions and later determine what their team can contribute using its scientific and technical backgrounds. Kassam expects the project to result in climate adaptation models for each partnering community.

“Our climate models and adaptation models are not specific enough,” he said. “They are produced on a global or regional scale. Instead, we need something that meets local needs.”

Kassam notes that the project’s focus on adaptation is somewhat ironic, considering that rural and alpine communities like the Pamiri contribute little to climate change.

“The people we are working with are not the causes of anthropogenic climate change,” Kassam said. “But they are feeling the changes.”

Kassam says that the impetus for the project sprung out of fieldwork he conducted along the Pamir mountain range in 2006.

“People were describing weather events having severe impacts on their timekeeping,” he said. Pamiri locals then reached out to Kassam for help to recalibrate their traditional ecological calendars.

Kassam reflected on the importance of the community partnerships.

Pamiri local
A Pamiri local (Photo: Evgeni Zotov)

“Our method of creating anticipatory capacity emerges from the ideas of communities themselves. It values the cogeneration of ideas, and encourages work in collaboration with people of different backgrounds, cultures, and ways of knowing,” he said. “This work cannot be done without the community itself.”

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