Mountain guardian wins Stanford’s top environmental award

Aisha Khan, winner of the 2019 Stanford Bright Award, combats climate change while promoting economic resilience in the high-altitude mountain regions of Pakistan.

In 2001, Aisha Khan took her first trekking trip in northern Pakistan’s Karakoram range, the grand, glacier-filled home of K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. While on her trek, Khan saw that tourism in the area had produced a shocking amount of pollution – and she was determined to do something about it.

Aisha Khan meets with community leaders in Askole village in 2003. The village is on the access routes to Baltoro, Biafo and Hisper glaciers in the lofty Karakorum range of Pakistan. (Image credit: Mohammad Hussain)

“Witnessing the environmental degradation of that magical landscape was perhaps the turning point in my consciousness,” said Khan, who is founder and chief executive of Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization (MGPO) and founder and executive director of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC), both based in Pakistan. “It was then that I fully understood the elemental power of nature and felt compelled by an inner urge to preserve and protect the environment.”

Since then, Khan has led and coordinated multiple efforts to restore and preserve the high mountain regions of Pakistan in ways that benefit local economies and empower their people. She has also brought together organizations, individuals and governments in what she calls a “whole society approach” to combat climate change in Pakistan.

In recognition of her activism and accomplishments, Khan has been awarded the 2019 Stanford Bright Award. This annual $100,000 award, Stanford’s largest environmental prize, recognizes exceptional contributions to global sustainability and is given to an organization in one of 10 rotating regions each year. The prize was made possible by a gift to Stanford Law School from Ray Bright, Stanford Law School class of 1959, a lifelong conservationist, and his wife, Marcelle. This is the seventh year the prize has been awarded.

“We are grateful to the Bright family for entrusting Stanford with locating unsung heroes of environmental conservation, giving them the recognition they deserve and providing them with the resources and attention they need to take their work to the next level,” said Jenny Martinez, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School.

Saving mountains and communities

Aisha Khan

The 2019 Stanford Bright Award is being awarded to Aisha Khan for her efforts to protect the environment while helping the residents of Pakistan’s high mountain regions. (Image credit: Mohammad Hussain)

Inspired by her trekking revelation, Khan established MGPO. Her first project was organizing six weeks of cleaning trails and campsites on the path to K2, followed by six weeks of creating three sustainable campsites, which are managed and maintained by local residents. The campsites were finished in 2004 in time for the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of K2.

Khan’s experiences working in the mountain regions led to MGPO’s more integrated approach to environmental protection, which includes addressing education and the provision of basic needs and services to local villages.

“As I spent more time in the mountain areas of Pakistan and lived in remote villages cut off from the mainstream population, I realized the full extent of the dependence of mountain communities on ecological goods and services,” Khan said. “Living far from my own comfort zone and being part of the community, I realized that it is not the poor and the marginalized who degrade the environment but the rich and the privileged who take environmental assets for granted.”

Beyond environmental protection, MGPO collaborates with locals to understand how their needs can be addressed in environmentally conscious ways. Past projects have involved irrigation and clean energy infrastructure, flood protection, and improved access to health care. Following a 7.6-magnitude earthquake in Azad Kashmir in 2005, Khan and MGPO led efforts to rebuild 25 schools and three health care centers that had been destroyed or damaged.

Khan has also pushed for the inclusion of women and youth in MGPO’s projects, which can be controversial in these traditionally male-dominated societies. It’s an ongoing challenge, but she has seen promising changes in women’s social capital and in the mindsets of young people in MGPO’s partner villages.

Aisha Khan and children in Testay village, Pakistan.

Aisha Khan is greeted by children in Testay village in the upper Braldu Valley, Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan, during a 2011 needs assessment visit. (Image credit: Mohammad Hussain)

“Transforming social values and age-old tradition is not easy,” Khan said. “But my conviction that complex issues in a changing environment require all sectors and all actors to collaborate, consult, engage and work with and through each other makes me pursue the agenda.”

Khan also founded CSCCC, a membership-based networking platform that connects individuals and organizations concerned about climate change in Pakistan. Experts predict that Pakistan will be hard-hit by climate change and is likely to experience increased drought and flooding along with extreme heat.

“Pakistan is a country with a population of 208 million people. As a country, Pakistan’s carbon footprint is miniscule, yet it pays a disproportionately high price in economic losses associated with climate change,” Khan explained.

In addition to building partnerships, CSCCC provides policy reviews and recommendations and facilitates conferences and workshops. Through her role, Khan has participated in multiple United Nations Climate Change Conferences. She also helped organize the Pre-COP21 stakeholder meeting to develop recommendations for framing Pakistan’s agenda for the Paris Agreement in 2015.

“Witnessing the successful end to the negotiations following the two weeks in Paris was a moment of hope and exhilaration for me,” Khan said.

Perseverance, integrity, sincerity

For the first six years of her environmental activism, Khan had no funding or organizational support. Those years were a struggle, but she believed in the power of persevering with sincerity and integrity. The immediate rewards from certain projects, like the K2 campsites, and the support of those around her also helped keep Khan motivated.

“I feel a special gratitude for those who believed in me and supported my work when I was striving to make a difference with nothing other than passion to guide my actions,” Khan said. “I never thought of winning an award or getting recognition for the work I do but now that it has come, I have to admit that it feels very good.”

The Bright Award will give Khan an opportunity to spread her message of broadly inclusive climate change activism and expand collaborations between environmentally conscious communities, individuals and organizations in Pakistan. It will also fund future efforts by both MGPO and CSCCC.

The 2019 Bright Award for Environmental Sustainability will be presented to Aisha Khan on October 3, 2019, at Stanford Law School. As part of the presentation, Khan will give a public lecture and will participate in a panel discussion followed by a reception. This event is open to the public but RSVPs are required. For more information and to RSVP, please visit the event website.