Excerpt from the Center for a Better Life:
Afghanistan is more than war and turmoil; it has a long and colorful history, strong cultures and a stunning landscape. It has enormous biodiversity, as it sits at the crossroads of what biologists call “biological realms.” The country, therefore, has plants and animals that also occur in Europe, northern Asia, India, south Asia and Africa. It has nine species of wild cats, which is the same as the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as an estimated 800 plant species that occur nowhere else in the world. In other words, Afghanistan is worth attention in terms of its biodiversity alone.
These natural resources are also critically important from the people’s perspective. After 30 years of conflict, more than 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population relies directly on natural resources for their livelihood. Most of the inhabitants are rural and desperately poor by world standards. Child mortality is the highest in the world, and their infrastructure is mostly broken down and inoperable. The economy is donor-dependent, and the Afghan government is still in its infancy. Outside the capital of Kabul, governance sometimes seems non-existent. As a result, movement away from the major population centers can be very risky due to the presence of various insurgent groups.
And yet, what is seldom mentioned in newscasts and media is that the Afghans are proud and resilient. They want what everyone else wants: education for their children, healthcare for the young and elderly, and reliable livelihoods to support their families. Then they want to get on with their lives in their own unique, culturally diverse way, free of violence and conflict.
Understanding these things is one reason why the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been successful in Afghanistan. When hearing of the Society’s field work in this war-torn country, most people are surprised. They wonder how, with its pressing problems, Afghanistan can afford the time, let alone the resources, to conserve its remaining wildlife and wild places. But this is one of the core strengths of WCS – to offer assistance in conserving natural resources at a practical level within a country in need, like Afghanistan. As one of the oldest conservation organizations in the world, with more than 100 years of field conservation experience, the Society has extensive seasoning under extreme circumstances. Currently, WCS has more than 600 projects in place with 3,000 staff; and, many of these projects are in the most remote areas of the world.
Since 2006, USAID has supported WCS’s work in Afghanistan within three geographical areas – the northeast in Badakhshan Province’s Wakhan District, Bamiyan’s central province and the eastern, forested Nuristan province. Experts chose these areas because they believed they held the largest numbers of untouched remaining wildlife; this presumption generally proved correct. Through the years, WCS has created trust by having conservation teams on the ground and working year-round with local communities. Similar trust has been established with the relevant ministries by WCS’ central office, located in Kabul, through continuous presence and assistance.
Results are impressive. More than seven pieces of environmental legislation were enacted; 10,000 Afghans received conservation training; the first biological surveys in 30 years were completed (which doubled as crucial skills development exercises for Afghan scientists); the first wildlife/domestic stock disease assessments were accomplished, with corresponding human health effects, plus many more exemplary achievements. One of the more intriguing results was WCS’ ability to build local governance in the most remote communities, thus connecting communities that had seen no real government representatives for years. This link extended to district authorities then to provincial authorities, and finally to the Kabul central government. This extension of Afghanistan’s rule-of-law is paramount because it improves governance, which is one of the more crucial strategic needs in the country today.
How was a non-governmental conservation organization able to contribute to governance and rule-of-law? It is simple. Wildlife conservation is usually a non-confrontational issue, and most people, when exposed to the process, take an active interest and express opinions. Rural people have grown up with and are surrounded by wildlife everyday; they have local knowledge and feel comfortable discussing how things have changed. They want to be empowered to make natural resource decisions in the areas in which they live. WCS staff encourages local people to discuss species protection with their local and provincial governments. In some instances, WCS workers have taken government officers into communities that cannot recall ever seeing a government official. These processes and contacts evolve and can be used as basis for non-conservation related discussion. These processes and relationships become the building blocks for extending governance and empowering local communities. And, the process works.
Continue reading on the Center for a Better Life.
David Lawson is the Wildlife Conservation Society Afghanistan country director.
Photo Credit: “Bamiyan Band-e-Emir,” courtesy of flickr user USAID Afghanistan. USAID and WCS have been working in the Band-e-Amir lakes region since 2006 to create a national park.