MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Financial hardship after a failed apple crop forced Aqeel Ahmed to give up his studies aged 20 and join a militant group fighting Indian rule across the border in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
His family, as in many remote villages in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, had banked on earning half a million rupees ($5,000) from their orchard that year. But a sudden cold snap followed by torrential rains and a frost wrecked the apple blossom, dashing their hopes of making enough to buy food.
“I went from pillar to post to find any work I could to help my family come out of crisis after the crop loss, but I failed due to having no references or contact with government departments or businesses back then,” Ahmed, now 46, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Eventually he was tempted by supporters of a militant group who were going round colleges to recruit students. They gave him a few thousand rupees for his family and took him to a training camp in Afghanistan for three months.
In 1998, Ahmed - who declined to give his real name - sneaked into Indian-administered Kashmir on the first of three trips to plant explosives and attack Indian forces in border towns.
Eventually, in 2006, he managed to get a job as an assistant in a government department, helping feed his family of nine.
He is one of hundreds of other Pakistani Kashmir youth who have joined militant groups as a result of poverty which is often made worse by crop failures linked to extreme weather, experts say.
“If we look at the history of 2,000 years of human civilisation, the base of the problem of human suffering is poverty, and the major cause behind so-called terrorism is poverty,” Zabta Khan, chairman of the biotechnology department of Quaid-e-Azam University, told a conference in Muzaffarabad last year.
Floods, droughts and other climatic stresses - expected to intensify as the planet warms - are making people poorer and more vulnerable to being enticed into insurgency and militant activity, he said.
“When a poor person’s child or mother is dying from a disease or hunger, and someone offers him 100,000 rupees ($1,000) and a future in the world…after death, then who will not avail themselves of such offer?” said the professor.
“We say to (these people) do not cut down trees because it provides us with oxygen, and let your children die due to the cold in winter. This is the treatment meted out to forest communities in our country,” said Khan, who hails from Pakistan’s tribal areas, where militancy is widespread.
In the tribal culture, people are proud to sacrifice their lives for their children or parents, especially when rewards are offered in the afterlife, he added.
Climate change is directly affecting agriculture and inflicting losses worth millions of dollars on Kashmiris, while health impacts from air pollution and shifting disease patterns are reducing human productivity, trapping people in poverty, said Nisar Hamdani, director of the Kashmir Institute of Economics.
Muhammad Hafeez, who teaches environmental chemistry at Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) University, said global warming is increasing snow melt in the mountains and water vaporisation from the sea.
These phenomena are contributing to floods that have devastated communities and left them more open to recruitment by militant groups, he said.
“In the rural areas of Pakistan’s most populated province, Punjab, people are still living a backward life - naïve and mostly uneducated - relying on agriculture,” said Hafeez. “Terror groups mislead them about religious teachings under cover of helping them.”
Many of Pakistan’s banned groups are based in Punjab, which is also known as the country’s food basket.
As climate change is a key driver of poverty, disseminating scientific research on how to ease its effects is essential to stem negative consequences such as the rising risk of militancy, said environmental expert Khawaja Anser Yasin, a professor at AJK University.
“If you do good scientific research and even win a Nobel Prize but a farmer in your area does not get the benefit of your work, then it’s useless,” Yasin added.
His university is running training for young people to equip them with skills to protect the environment, reduce air pollution and provide safe drinking water, which would benefit their communities, he said.