Afghanistan Opens First National Park

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We're used to the idea of our national parks being embattled with problems. But at least rangers at Yosemite aren't caught in real battles. But Americans working with the government in Kabul to help establish Afghanistan's first national— including the effects of war — while trying to jump-start a nascent Afghan tourist industry and conservation effort in Central Bamyan province.

Afghanistan's proposed Band-e-Amir National Park will cover a 220-square-mile section of the Hindu Kush mountain range that hosts six pristine lakes, numerous streams, and spectacular waterfalls pouring over natural dams. But the Afghan government, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other foreign donors will have to overcome some serious hurdles before anyone gets to see it.

"There are animal droppings everywhere. Plastic bags that are discarded flutter about in the wind. There are also empty bottles that are littering the area.

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."

Still, despite the cultural trepidations and threats to a traditional way of life, some Afghans like Bamyan governor Habiba Surabi remain eager for Band-e-Amir to become a reality.

"This is one of our desires, one of our wish that we at least will have something for the tourism attraction, the tourism destination here in Bamyan," he says.

Wildlife Conservation country director Peter Smallwood insists that the locals will have a say in the creation of their park, and it may retain features not commonly found in Western national parks — like a Shiite shrine by the side of a lake.

"I don't think that our job here … is to recreate an American park. And in fact, other than gentle nudges, I don't really want to be saying 'here is the vision.' I want the vision to be grown from theirs," Smallwood says.

Even if everyone comes to a conclusion about what a national park should mean to Afghans, it might not matter to a country embroiled in a protracted war with the Taliban. Currently, the only thing keeping the park from opening is getting the Afghan government to establish a general set of rules for protected areas. But they've got a war to fight, and have trouble focusing on national park priorities. Until they can, Band-e-Amir Park Rangers like Sayed Zaher will wait in vain for both payment and an official park to protect.

— Ted Alvarez

Amid War, Afghanistan Builds Its First National Park (NPR)