For Conciliation Resources, supporting cross-LoC trade has meant providing a conducive environment for dialogue to resume in the region while bringing people closer together. We have been involved with this initiative since the start, helping to establish an infrastructure and building connections among all those involved.
Even as a barter trade limited to specific routes across the LoC, the volume of goods traded and the influence of the trade continues to increase. As highlighted in a 2016 report we co-produced, for the period 2008-2015 commodities worth $699 million (US) were estimated to have been traded. Cross-LoC trade has brought tangible economic benefits to the traders, the truck drivers but also to the wider communities living along the LoC.
Beyond these livelihood and business opportunities, it has increased cultural exchanges and the connection of divided families. The villages where cross-LoC trade takes place, have seen a reduction in violence, renewed economic activity and lives transformed.
After 10 years of supporting cross-LoC trade as a means to foster peacebuilding in the region, we reflect on the 10 things we have learnt. Recognizing the differences in each context, these lessons provide interesting insights on the potential of trade for peace:
1. Trade is a creative way of building connections between different sides: Cross-LoC trade has been able to advance peacebuilding and dialogue where other efforts were failing. People-to-people contact has contributed to bridging divides, addressing negative perceptions and reconnecting broken families. This has been all the more effective because no agenda has been imposed, and people have not been asked to renounce their own identities.
2. This initiative provides a tangible and non-threatening opportunity: Promoting cross-LoC trade has proven to be a very innovative way to create connections and bridge prevailing divides in a sensitive environment. As a non-political and tangible initiative, it has provided a space for different local groups to reflect on the situation in a non-threatening way.
3. Trade is able to engage many different groups: Cross-LoC trade has not only brought tangible economic benefits to the traders, truck drivers and surrounding communities, it has also contributed to rebuilding emotional capital in the region. In particular, it has engaged a very specific community – former militants who, by being involved in the trade, have been further reintegrated back into their societies.
4. Political-level buy-in is important: At the highest level, cross-LoC trade was introduced by both Indian and Pakistani governments as a means for building confidence. Both countries have interests in keeping it alive. Trade has become a hook which could one day make dialogue over Kashmir possible. The costs and risks associated with dismantling it could prove higher than keeping it.
5. Local ownership is key: A key success factor behind the cross-LoC trade is the fact that it has been led by people and communities within Jammu and Kashmir. It could not have been sustained for so long without sufficient buy-in from all the different groups, including political and business leaders on both sides, as well local communities. While the impetus was begun by the governments, its longevity is attributed to local efforts and motivation.
6. A flexible and incremental approach works: Our support to the trade has contributed to connecting different groups beyond the traders and business community. A systemic and incremental approach has meant that awareness on the positive impacts of the trade and the potential for expanding such confidence-building measures into other sectors, such as travel and tourism, has been gradually built. Cross-LoC trade as a structure remains flexible enough to be able to adjust to local realities. As a result, its growth and development haven’t further alienated people previously not in favor of the idea.
7. Supporting trade with formal structures helps ensure its sustainability: To strengthen the cross-LoC trade and make it more formal, we helped to set-up the first Jammu and Kashmir Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry. By bringing Chambers of Commerce and Industry from both sides, and the associations of traders together, this structure is contributing to improving the policy environment enabling cross-LoC trade to take place.
8. Such initiatives can sustain even during tough times: Due to its broad appeal, cross-LoC trade has sustained, even during periods of heightened political tension and unrest in the region. When trade along the Poonch-Rawalakot crossing was stopped in July 2017, local lobbying efforts were able to push for and advocate for its reopening four months later.
9. What the trade represents is enough to overcome practical hurdles: Ten years later cross-LoC trade remains a barter trade limited to specific goods. The registration process is lengthy, and the numerous checks for the truck drivers make it a cumbersome process. Without the intangible benefits behind it and the symbolism it holds for local communities, it would have most likely not prevailed.
10. Such initiatives require significant investment and consideration: Ultimately, we have learnt that supporting cross-LoC trade requires a significant investment – in resources, time and capacities. Despite the energy and resources already invested, there is the potential to prioritize its growth still further. Moving forward and to continuously strengthen it, we need to continue to invest in supporting this initiative and in ensuring that the process is as inclusive of different voices and people as possible.
This article was first published by Peace News.