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Preserving Land and Wildlife, to Restore the Afghan Identity
By Stacey Stowe

The New York Times


Since June, Alex Dehgan has spent most of his time in Afghanistan, working to protect the country’s wildlife and develop its first official system of protected lands.

The premise of the three-year project run by Dr. Dehgan, a behavioral ecologist and conservation biologist, is that conservation is critical for recovery and stability in a country where 80 percent of the population lives in rural surroundings and directly depends on local natural resources for survival.

The goals of the project, a joint effort by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Afghan government and financed by a $6.9 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development, are ambitious: a legislative review of environmental policies, a baseline on wildlife populations, help for local communities to manage natural resources and aid for conservation efforts with neighboring countries.

Home to the Hindu Kush range and the Pamir Knot, a region where four ranges come together, Afghan alpine ecosystems support species like Marco Polo sheep, the world’s largest; Himalayan and Persian ibex; flying squirrels; and birds like griffon vultures and golden eagles.

Dr. Dehgan, 37, was born in Iran and moved to the United States when he was 2. Since receiving his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2003, he has worked on conservation and foreign policy issues around the globe, most recently helping to rebuild the science culture in Iraq, including a natural history museum.

Dr. Dehgan was in the United States earlier this year, lecturing at the Bronx Zoo, where the Wildlife Conservation Society is based, before returning to work in Afghanistan.

Q. What kind of environmental problems does the country face?

A. By 2002, 52 percent of the forest cover had been lost. There is soil erosion, overgrazing and disease transmission between livestock. The Afghan government has almost no information. Its records were lost. Its data was lost.

We’re trying to restore information and digitalize manuscripts. We just completed surveys of avian and large mammal incidence in Big Pamir and Little Pamir. We identified 22 new species in Wakhan Valley.

Q. You talked about trying to do conservation with pastoralists, agriculturalists — people who are worried about the military seizing their animals or the taxes if they disclose the true number of their livestock. How do you incorporate these pragmatic concerns?

A. The financial part of conservation is essential to its success. To the extent possible, we have to get them to see linkages of what the natural environment provides to the people and what sort of services they are getting from that natural environment.

Q. Does that entail going house to house?

A. We cross rivers in the middle of the winter. We get on yaks. We get on donkeys. We get on horses. And we go to them and we sit down and we talk to them. Part of it is understanding how they are dependent on those natural resources. Their entire wealth, their entire survival in a very harsh part of the world is livestock and the few crops they grow in support of being able to feed that livestock.

If that livestock is overgrazing the land, that livestock population can crash, and they can lose animals, because there’s no food to survive through the winter, and that loss affects the survival of people, particularly people who are nomadic.

Q. An entire generation displaced by war has grown up in Iran and Pakistan. Three million Afghans remain refugees in Pakistan. What is the relationship between conservation and the identity of the Afghan people?

A. The Afghan people are very closely tied to their land. And reacquainting them with wildlife and wild lands in Afghanistan is a way of restoring identity, particularly if you go to some of these houses where they have these symbols of the wildlife for their decoration. There’s a historical legacy of the wildlife that has been there for these people. So just on that fundamental basis, to know the things that are Afghan, this assemblage of animals, is part of their culture.

Q. How do you communicate an understanding of existing laws and policies to rural people?

A. The people want to restore management practices for natural resources. We have to work with local communities and get them to understand the interrelations between how they are managing their resources and what the downstream impacts of those things are. We do conservation workshops in cold weather and heavy snowfall. The fact that people are willing to attend astounds me.

One hundred percent of the 21 villages we asked to participate in the program said yes. We’re training Afghan vets. We’re working with the Kabul Zoo. The zoo itself is not a bad institution. It’s partnered with the North Carolina Zoo. But half of its administration building is missing. Yet what it makes up for in its lack of infrastructure and bricks and mortar are its people.

One of the things we do with the government ministries is sit by side by side with them at the national level and local level. We include them in our training. If we give them control over their natural resources, they can defend against other incentives.

Q. Such as the profits from illegal trade?

A. Yes.

Q. Hamid Karzai outlawed the trading of animal pelts by presidential decree, yet such trading persists. How do you address the problem?

A. We don’t want to do things by presidential decree. We want to have laws passed by Parliament, because that’s how the balance of power works. So we’re working on that. Animal skins from animals such as snow leopards are sold in Baghdad, and the expatriates and military forces are buying it. There is also illegal timber trade.

Q. Explain the reaction of Afghans to your program.

A. Extremely positive. One of the things science gives us is a common language that transcends culture. The respect for science is tremendous in the Islamic world. You look at the biological process the same way, no matter what your religion.

You can’t overpromise, because the Afghans in the last five years have been promised a lot of things, and not a lot of things have followed through. One of the things we established is a reputation for following through. We have to be mindful of the fact that we are guests in this country, which means respecting the local culture and tradition, not coming in with an imperialistic perspective.

Q. You are working on revenue from admission at national parks being returned to local communities. How is tourism a viable industry in Afghanistan?

A. Prior to 1979, tourism was the No. 2 source of income. There’s mountain climbing and river running, Marco Polo sheep. What is it worth to people to see those today?

One of the things we’re trying to do is talking with these conservation committees — three or four villages participate in each — to manage tourism and work with tour operators to make sure that they benefit from tourism that’s going on and to help train people to work with tourists. Because as soon as people see there are tourists to see that ibex or that Marco Polo sheep, I think they have an incentive to conserve.

Q. Three years is a relatively short time. What are your measures of success there?

A. The idea is that I will be replaced by an Afghan.

Q. Given the challenges, the risk and the scope of the task, why do conservation at all in a place like Afghanistan or Iraq?

A. Because I think this is the path to security. The path to security in Afghanistan and Iraq is not going to be achieved through guns. They depend on natural resources and identify with wildlife. It’s an element of who they are.

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