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Afghanistan: recupero ambientale e ricostruzione

5 maggio 2009

Environmental protection initiative a sign of hope for reconstruction

Di Aunohita Mojumdar: 5/04/09

When Mustafa Zahir was growing up, he recalls meeting people who had traveled thousands of kilometers out of a desire to breathe Kabul’s invigorating air. Back then, Afghanistan was a tourist destination that enjoyed renown for its crystalline lakes, spectacular mountains, flowering gardens and fruit-laden orchards. Both affluent families and backpacking hippies visited. “Now,” says Zahir, the grandson of Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, “if you breathe in the Kabul air, your lungs fill with poison.”

Zahir has channeled his frustration into hope. On April 22, in his capacity as the head of the country’s National Environment Protection Agency, he proclaimed Afghanistan’s first national park in an area encompassing the spectacular Band-i Amir lakes in the country’s central highlands.

Afghanistan’s ongoing conflict, urgent humanitarian needs and chronic poverty make it difficult to focus attention on long-term requirements like environmental protection. However, efforts over the past several years appear to be finally paying off, laying the foundation for a broad-based conservation effort to preserve and regenerate a quickly disappearing national resource. Unlike many other countries that have tried and failed to enact a conservation program by relying on a top-down approach, Afghan officials have embraced a bottom-up strategy, in which local residents have a stake in the success of environmental protection endeavors.

Band-i Amir is arguably not the most logical spot for the inaugural biodiversity conservation project, given the fact that much of the area’s wildlife has suffered from acute depletion during the past three decades of tumult, points out Peter Smallwood, Afghanistan Country Director for the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). What led to the choice of the site as Afghanistan’s first national park was its popularity, he says.

Belinda Bowling, program manager with the United Nations Environmental Program, who was central in helping push through environmental legislation, agrees. “There are few places in the world that have this visual natural beauty. It is a unique geologically aesthetic site. In terms of its biodiversity, it is not particularly important, but it is by far the most visited site in Afghanistan,” she told EurasiaNet.

Legend holds that the succession of pristine blue and green lakes and giant travertine dams of the area were created by Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. That folklore, combined with the location’s stunning natural beauty and relative safety make Band-i Amir attractive to visitors both local and international. Despite the ongoing violence in other parts of the country, the Band-i Amir area is relatively secure, and already possesses some tourism infrastructure. This makes it possible to visibly demonstrate the linkage between preservation and income generation.

The people of the Ajar valley – a thickly forested area north of Band-i Amir and the former hunting ground of the king – who were openly hostile to the idea of a protected area at first, have now asked for help after seeing the benefits accruing to the people of Band-i Amir, says Smallwood. Ajar may become the country’s second national park.

Mohammad Ayub Alavi, who works with the WCS as a conservation specialist, exemplifies the community-based approach. With a masters degree in geology, Alavi is among the small and privileged group of Afghans who learned English while studying abroad. He possesses the skills to find far more lucrative employment in Kabul, or even abroad, but he chose to remain in Band-i Amir in large measure because his work produces an abundance of satisfaction. “I hope making this a national park will mean there will be job opportunities for others as well,” he said.

During the past decades of strife and deprivation, economic factors have fueled the depletion of Afghanistan’s natural resources. The giant old walnut trees of the richly forested Nuristan area date back two or three centuries. “Those trees end up being sent to Pakistan and being trimmed into beautiful furniture and sent to the Gulf states,” says Smallwood.

In the Wakhan corridor, an area rich in biodiversity in northeastern Afghanistan, the subsistence-level pastoral economy has led to over-grazing. There, a dead Marco Polo sheep, an endangered species, is worth more than a live one, laments Smallwood. “It is free meat that if it had lived would have eaten the grass that could be fed to livestock,” he points out. The challenge is to make that sheep valuable while alive, by linking its presence to the idea of attracting tourists to the area.

In Band-i Amir, relocating the small shops polluting the lakeside was not easy. Here the sheer force of will of Bamiyan’s leader, Afghanistan’s only female governor, Habiba Sarobi, prevailed. To provide an incentive, those who shifted quickly were provided with bricks and roof beams. Small gestures can often make the difference between community acceptance and hostility. “We need a community based approach,” says Alavi. “The major hope for us is the ecotourism project. Without it, this project will fail.”

The country has a long way to go before it has a fully fledge environmental protection framework; even the declaration of the first national park still requires parliamentary approval. But its initial efforts have already been noticed in an important way. For the first time since the years of conflict began, says Smallwood, flamingoes have been returning to Afghanistan. Even Siberian cranes, an endangered species worldwide, have been sighted. For Afghanistan, still facing political and economic uncertainty, the reappearance of such species serves as a powerful expression of faith in the country’s future.

Editor’s Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.


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