QUETTA -- Local Pashtun tribes in Balochistan last week blocked a key highway and have since halted construction work on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project (CPEC) in the Bostan area to highlight their concerns.
Mineral-rich Balochistan, bordering Afghanistan and Iran, is geographically the largest of Pakistan's four provinces, but its roughly seven million inhabitants have long complained they do not receive a fair share of its gas and mineral wealth.
China is investing in the area under the $54 billion CPEC project, upgrading infrastructure, power and transport links between the far-western Xinjiang region and Pakistan's Gwadar port.
The western route of CPEC covers more than 293km and has long aroused misgivings from groups such as Baloch and Pashtun nationalist parties.
Pashtun tribesmen blocked the N-50 national highway in Balochistan on January 19 for several hours in protest against the project, and work on the road was still stopped as of Tuesday (January 25).
"Billions of rupees worth of agricultural lands have been destroyed in the name of development work under the CPEC project in our areas," said Farman Khan, a local tribal leader.
A major section of the CPEC route in Balochistan cuts through Khan's land in Bostan.
"We have stopped the work of this mega-development project as a protest. The government is not paying any attention to ... our problems," said Khan.
"It is a matter of deep concern for us that the federal government did not take the local tribes into confidence at the time of launching such a large project on our soil," he said.
Pashtun tribes cannot compromise their national interests for CPEC, he said. "If the government wants development, then it must first address our reservations regarding the development work of this project in our areas."
"We are in contact with other local tribes and forming a joint strategy for our concerns regarding ... development work," he added.
The government is attempting to seize tribal lands at low rates in parts of Balochistan for CPEC, say tribal elders.
"We are not against development, but we cannot sacrifice our interests in the name of development," Malik Sarwar Khan, who represents the Panezai area on Balochistan's CPEC committee, told Pakistan Forward.
"In Bostan and other adjoining areas, lands within the CPEC route are owned by local Pashtun tribes. The government is trying to buy these lands at the lowest rates to benefit China, which is a gross injustice," he said.
The value of the land in question is more than 800% higher than the price the government is offering, Khan said.
"We have been constantly rejecting all decisions made without consideration of our [the local tribes'] concerns," he added.
"On one hand, the government is calling CPEC a game-changer for the economic stability of the country, and on the other hand, locals are being made more vulnerable to economic instability," Khan noted.
"The relevant authorities are deliberately not paying any attention to the concerns raised by the Pashtun tribes regarding their lands. This kind of criminal negligence can make matters only worse," said Nadeem Khan, a Quetta-based regional affairs analyst.
"If the government uses force in the ongoing protests on the western route of CPEC in Balochistan, the situation in the already troubled province could worsen," he added.
The tribes are ready for negotiations; therefore, it is the need of the hour to settle the matter without any further conflict, he said. "The government cannot ignore the strategic importance of Pashtun soil in Pakistan."
"The strategy adopted by the federal and provincial governments to pave the way for foreign investment in Balochistan is contradictory in many ways," he said.
"Questions are also being raised in Baloch-majority areas about China's growing, extraordinary influence in the development sector of the province."
Many former top government officials in Balochistan have raised their own questions about the CPEC agreement with China.
Abdul Malik Baloch, who served as chief minister of the province from 2013–2015, on January 5 said that the central government tried to keep him in the dark about the deal.
"We were constantly ignored regarding CPEC agreements," he said during a news conference.
Meanwhile, Pakistani President Arif Alvi last Friday visited Gwadar, where he heard a briefing on the latest progress of development work on the project.
Baloch separatists previously claimed several attacks on CPEC projects -- taking advantage of local sentiment against Chinese influence.
Protesters in Gwadar late last year demanded an end to illegal deep-sea fishing by local and Chinese trawlers and the harassment of locals at security checkpoints leading to CPEC projects.
The protesters, led by local Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan leader Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, also demanded an end to water and electricity shortages and expressed opposition to potential fencing in Gwadar aimed at protecting Chinese-funded projects from Baloch separatists who oppose the CPEC.