Amid War, Afghanistan Builds Its First National Park The Afghan government is working with Americans to create a park in the mountainous lakes region of Band-e-Amir. But it will be difficult to reach, and planners face other obstacles — both natural and manmade — to make it a reality.
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Amid War, Afghanistan Builds Its First National Park

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Amid War, Afghanistan Builds Its First National Park

Amid War, Afghanistan Builds Its First National Park

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In Afghanistan, outsiders are working with the government to create something that has never existed before in this country: a national park. It's a 220-square-mile site. It's hard to get to. It takes several hours by four-wheel drive vehicle on rocky roads that wind through mountains and across streams. But the drive is easy compared to the obstacles that planners face to make this park a reality. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently visited the remote site in Central Bamiyan Province.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Between 10,000-foot-tall mountains in the Hindu Kush range lies six sky-blue lakes. They have a lifeline of 15 villages where people live pretty much as they have for centuries. The lake region and its many streams, called Band-e-Amir, boast some of the most beautiful landscape in Afghanistan, like these crystal clear waterfalls, cascading over naturally formed dams that keep the lakes in place.

Such natural wonders make Band-e-Amir the perfect place to create Afghanistan's first national park, says Bamiyan Governor Habiba Surabi.

Ms. HABIBA SURABI (Governor of Bamiyan Province): This is one of our desires, one of our wish that at least we will have something for the tourism attraction or tourism destination for - in Bamiyan.

NELSON: Surabi and other Afghan officials have joined forces with the Wild Life Conservation Society, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other foreign donors to make the park a reality - not just as a tourist haven, but as a place where the country's fledgling conservation laws can take root. A planned paved road will make Band-e-Amir more accessible, although it could take years to build. Loren Stoddard is USAID's director of alternative development and agriculture office in Afghanistan.

Mr. LOREN STODDAR (USAID Director, Alternative Development and Agriculture, Afghanistan): There's just kind of a sense within the donor community, as well as the government, that this particular piece of natural resource was something that was so attractive, desirable and generally worthy of protection that it needed to be sort of made an example of.

(Soundbite of rushing water)

NELSON: When standing here, you can already see what some of the problem is of creating a national park. There are animal droppings everywhere, plastic bags are discarded, flutter about in the wind. There are also empty bottles that are littering the area.

Mr. SAYED HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Sayed Hussein runs a flour mill built three generations ago, next to some of the waterfalls at one of the lakes. The 60-year-old is one of many villagers who are nervous about the proposed park. To him and many others across Afghanistan, conserving natural resources is a foreign concept. Natural resources are what they depend on to survive. Trees are cut down for firewood. Landscapes are turned into farmland and pastures to grow food and raise livestock. Trash is hauled to the edges of one's neighborhood to be dumped or burned. Water is harnessed for consumption and power. So to Sayed Hussein, the waterfalls next to his mill aren't something beautiful to be gawked at. They are a way to power the heavy stone wheels that grind wheat into flour.

Mr. HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He is reluctant to consider how he might change his life to make the park work. Not take donkeys to drink and graze at the lake so that wildlife might return? Forget it, he says. The animals are the only way to transport his flour. Move the mill? Impossible, he says. How would he power it? But villagers do get a say in what happens here. Decisions about the proposed park and its rules are in the hands of a committee that includes not only the government in Kabul, but Band-e-Amir elders and other village representatives. Peter Smallwood, who is country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, says the aim is for the park to be a homegrown one, a national landmark that benefits residents and tourists.

Mr. PETER SMALLWOOD (Country Director, Wildlife Conservation Society): I don't think that our job here is to say - is to recreate an American park. In fact, other than gentle nudges, I don't really want to be saying here is the vision. You know, I want the vision to grow from theirs.

NELSON: So the park will have some features one doesn't usually see in the west, like a Shiite Muslim shrine on one lake front that will remain open. Even so, the committee's ideas on creating this park aren't necessarily popular with residents. Some accuse the Asian Development Bank, which built the park's first ranger station, of failing to pay the owner for the land. Others complain that the committee has yet to come up with a new location for the marketplace that was moved from lake front area last fall. A local teacher, Roghiah, says that park planners should also hurry up with a plan for the herders of sheep, goats, and other livestock who take their flocks to the lakes to drink and graze on nearby mountainsides.

ROGHIAN (Teacher): (Through translator) Our entire livelihood depends on farming and livestock. But no one, not the government nor the committee, has given us any real assurance with regards to how we can continue living here.

NELSON: American proponents of the park say those decisions must come from the Afghans themselves. Smallwood of the Wildlife Conservation Society admits its slow going, like getting the Afghan government to establish a general set of rules for protected areas. That's the last hurdle before the park officially opens. With the ongoing war against the Taliban elsewhere in the country, he and others say it's hard to get the government to focus on protecting the environment.

Mr. SAYED ZAHER (Park Ranger): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Band-e-Amir park ranger Sayed Zaher says he and the other three rangers assigned here have not been paid in four months, since the government took charge of them from the Wildlife Conservation Society. But he adds that he believes in what he has been hired to do, and that he's having some success in getting fellow Band-e-Amir residents to cooperate with conservation measures, like persuading them not to hunt or fish, nor allowing their sheep and cattle to spend too much time at the lakes.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Band-e-Amir.

INSKEEP: Looking at a photograph of some of these waters in Afghanistan. Hard to believe that water can be that blue. You can get a look at an audio slide show of this proposed national park in Afghanistan by going to npr.org.

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