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Conservation and Governance

By Peter Zahler | Wildlife Conservation Society | March 10, 2010

CREDIT: Tim Williams (CC).

Television and other media portrayals of Afghanistan often present a country traumatized by over a quarter-century of near-constant warfare—a devastated landscape, barren except for the desperately poor people trying to eke out a living in this ostensibly postconflict environment. Yet Afghanistan contains a surprising diversity of life, with 10 species of hooved mammals—ranging from delicate gazelles to giant Marco Polo sheep—and nine species of wild cat, the same number as is found in all of sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, until only 50 years ago, the Asiatic cheetah and now globally extinct Caspian tiger were also found in Afghanistan.

The reason for this rich diversity of wildlife is that Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of three biogeographic realms—the Palearctic (Europe and northern Asia, which bestowed such species as brown bear and wolf ), Afrotropic (providing such species as gazelle and hyena), and Indomalayan (which brought such species as leopard cats and giant flying squirrels). This unique species diversity is why conservation in Afghanistan matters to the world—even more true as the decades of conflict and its many consequences threaten.

Yet conservation matters for more than just wildlife: it can, and should, provide a way for postconflict rural Afghan communities to manage their natural resources. This is particularly important because unsustainable resource use in Afghanistan can ultimately have local, regional, and even global repercussions.

The Importance of Natural Resource Governance

For many developing countries, natural resource management is still the single most important aspect of the lives, livelihoods, and survival of rural communities. Poor and marginalized people are usually directly dependent upon environmental services. Forests provide firewood, building materials, and a host of foods and medicines. Functional grasslands provide grazing for livestock. Streams and rivers provide water, fish, and irrigation. And wildlife provides food, clothing, and goods to trade. Natural resources also serve as an important economic buffer by allowing rural people to keep their capital—often livestock—for the longer-term production of wool, milk, and offspring, rather than slaughtering it for food. Given this reliance on natural resources, rural village or community-level governance structures are often built around the need to manage land, forests, water, grazing, hunting, and fishing, and to solve group resource use problems.

Unfortunately, war often destroys these local governance structures. Many people are killed and others flee, becoming internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries. Local physical infrastructure such as water channels, crop fields, storage buildings, local markets, and roads are destroyed, and historic systems of resource management crumble. If the conflict continues for years, or in some cases even decades, cultural memory of these local governance institutions also disappears. Repatriated communities may no longer remember how they once managed the land and resources, and this may be exacerbated by an influx of new settlers with different cultural and resource management practices. In Afghanistan, for example, over 4.5 million refugees have returned from neighboring countries since 2002, with millions more people internally displaced during the wars. These shifting waves of people have torn the very fabric of tribal tradition that once defined and controlled local governance institutions.

Even in situations where conflict has not entirely eradicated traditional practices, local governance may fail due to a combination of population growth, natural resource depletion, and external economic interests. In postconflict settings, international donor agencies interested in reconstruction may pressure local communities to open their societies and join global economic markets that they neither trust nor understand. Traditional systems of governance are rarely capable of dealing with these new stresses unaided.

Partnerships for a Sustainable Future

Into this rural "governance gap" has stepped the conservation community. While this may come as a surprise, it should not. The simple fact is that landscapes and biodiversity worthy of protection do not choose their political context, so if conservation organizations are to protect these landscapes and biodiversity, they must go where the need for conservation exists. A recent study has found that most modern conflict occurs in regions that are highest in biodiversity, and not surprisingly this often leads conservation organizations into, or has them already situated in, conflict or postconflict settings. Once there, organizations must deal with the threats to wildlife and resources, and often those threats come from people trying to survive in these areas. Yet at the most basic level, conservation organizations are interested in sustainable natural resource management—an interest which matches the needs of these same poor rural communities.

Since the 1960s, the international conservation community has progressively recognized that local communities are integral to the effective stewardship of their land and its biodiversity. To promote local stewardship, conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have invested in education (especially focused on sustainable land use), technical training, natural resource and political mapping (e.g., landownership), resolving wildlife–human conflict, developing alternative livelihoods, improving production and market access, and building local institutions to improve resource management.

In the past, international development and aid organizations have assumed the responsibility of reaching out to poor, rural, and postconflict communities. However, conservation NGOs can also make important contributions. Rather than simply building infrastructure such as a bridge or school, conservation NGOs are interested in helping communities improve long-term, sustainable resource management—the foundation of rural people's very survival. To do this effectively means facilitating governance at all levels, often by helping to rebuild and strengthen traditional governance structures that have dissolved or are not working, or by creating new institutions in areas that may not have had forms of political involvement more complex than the extended family. This work can range from helping establish resource committees to co-drafting the bylaws through which the communities can more sustainably manage their natural assets.

Local villagers from the Ajar Valley, who in the recent past were caught up in waves of conflict, are now performing wildlife assessments. CREDIT: Chris Shank.

Unlike development projects that are rarely on the ground for more than two or three years, some conservation NGOs work at sites for many years, promoting long-term changes. To do this, conservation NGOs first earn the trust of local communities and then work to build capacity for better natural resource management. In the process, NGOs can become valued partners and advisers as these communities work through what are often traumatic social and political changes.

At the same time, large international conservation NGOs have the ability to gain access to high levels of the central government and can act as facilitators between rural and often marginalized communities and central government agencies. By providing this link, conservation NGOs can help local communities cross the geographic, cultural, and political barriers of the national landscape, assert their legitimacy, and join the broader process of democratization. Of course, many other international aid organizations, such as those that focus on education, work with the similar goal of long-term change. However, organizations that attempt to provide support in more politically explicit sectors, such as human rights or even straightforward governance reform, often meet with strong cultural resistance, in part because of the overt appearance of "external" pressure brought to bear on long-standing traditions.

Conservation, on the other hand, can be more widely accepted. Wildlife, forests, and resources are shared concerns, and extinction—especially of culturally iconic or economically important species—is a touchstone that can cross political and cultural boundaries. This can be true even in the case of dangerous predators. For example, in Mongolia, surveys have shown that while nomadic herders on the steppe do not want large numbers of wolves threatening their livestock, neither do they want the wolf to disappear, as it is culturally revered and respected (and the trade of its fur and body parts can provide a source of income).

Conservation, Governance, and Stability: The Afghan Context

Afghanistan and its environment have suffered enormously from nearly 30 years of conflict. Desperate people have leveled forests and overgrazed grasslands, and the coupling of an influx of modern weapons with increased poverty has dramatically depleted wildlife populations. Since 2002, the global community has poured enormous resources into Afghanistan's reconstruction. Unfortunately, little funding reaches outside the capital Kabul, and thus, while the central government has made some progress in the past few years, these improvements have had little effect on much of the country.

With the vast majority (over 80 percent) of Afghans living in rural areas and depending directly on the natural resource base for their very survival, conservation should be a critical component of reconstruction in Afghanistan. Importantly, long-term stability will depend upon sustainable management of the country's natural resources and the new governance structures that support this. Afghanistan lies within arguably the world's most volatile political region. If local environmental degradation continues, people will no longer be able to carve a living out of the fragile steppe, desert, and mountains as they have for centuries. Poverty will spread, communities and cultural practices will dissolve, and rural migration will further destabilize neighboring communities, regions, and even states.

Recognizing this, the UN Environment Programme performed a post-conflict assessment [PDF] of Afghanistan in 2002. Subsequently, the US Agency for International Development provided funding to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) for conservation initiatives to help improve local and central governance for natural resource management. This includes collecting the first baseline data on wildlife in decades, helping the new Afghan government draft the country's first modern environmental laws, and training government officials. WCS is also working with 50 communities in the northern Wakhan region, the central highlands of Bamiyan, and the province of Nuristan along the Pakistan border to help rural villages strengthen, reform, or rebuild governance systems for sustainable resource management and economic development.

The Wakhan region is a pencil of land stretching east into the Pamir Mountains bordered by Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan. Most of the Wakhan lies above 14,000 feet (4,200 m) in elevation—well above treeline—and while it supports critical populations of snow leopards (Uncia uncia), Himalayan lynx (Lynx lynx), Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon), ibex (Capra sibirica), and brown bears (Ursus arctos), it is also a cold, harsh, and easily disrupted environment.

On this "roof of the world," environmental degradation can affect more than the wildlife and soils. The vast majority of both Wakhi and Kyrgyz peoples who live here depend directly on local ecosystem processes for their survival. These agropastoralists take livestock up into high pastures in the spring, moving back down to lower elevations before the snows of winter. Some farm plots are hewn from the sides of steep mountains, providing critical local food production as the terrain makes transport of products prohibitively expensive and, when rains or frequent earthquakes block the few roads with landslides, impossible. The long-term survival of Wakhan communities and the entire Pamir environment depends on local people successfully managing their natural resources.

Marco Polo sheep live on the steep, snowy slopes of the Pamir Mountains. Trophy hunters prize them for their impressive horns. CREDIT: Beth Weld.

The first step to ensure sustainable local management of resources in the Wakhan region is to help communities recognize the severity of threats (such as overgrazing and unsustainable hunting) and identify practices to alleviate those threats. Community-level conservation education is a simple and direct way to encourage dialogue on environmental concerns. WCS works with Wahki people from Pakistan to give presentations in the local language about biological and conservation principles regarding their resources, unsustainable activities, and alternatives, and particularly techniques to regulate overgrazing and hunting. The dialogue helps villagers see that loss of wildlife and rangelands threatens their ecosystem, culture, and future economic opportunities. This conservation education program also collects information from local stakeholders regarding traditional knowledge, uses, and rights. Although the program's focus is on adults, there are now also 56 environmental education school committees in all 13 schools in the Wakhan Corridor, with 526 students and 82 teachers collecting data relevant to community resource decision making.

The next goal has been to enable communities throughout the Wakhan Corridor to achieve consensus on changes in resource use and sustainable management. Community-based institutions are required by the Environment Law of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which calls for the creation of community development committees (CDCs). However, these committees, when functioning at all, are not focused on resource management, and so WCS has worked within the CDC system to incorporate environmental decision making. WCS also works with these committees to develop environmental bylaws and hire and train wildlife rangers with the expectation that they will become staff of the provincial agencies (and eventually central ministries).

The work in Bamiyan, the second focal region, entails similar education and community resource management planning and has included the development of Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan's first national park. This beautiful set of six deep blue lakes set off from each other by natural travertine dams attracted tourists—both international aid workers and Afghans—even through the years of conflict and instability. WCS helped create the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee (BAPAC) to co-manage the park with the provincial government, with plans for park revenue to be transmitted through the BAPAC governance structure to improve local livelihoods.

WCS's work in the third region, Nuristan, is much more difficult, but perhaps the most important for Afghanistan's biodiversity. Nuristan, by dint of its location within the northwestern edge of the South Asian monsoon belt, has some of the highest species diversity in Afghanistan. Thick conifer forests, similar to what might be found in the mountains of southern Colorado, contain some of the last populations of Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), markhor (Capra falconeri), Persian leopard (Panthera pardus), leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), and yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula) in Afghanistan. However, Nuristan's proximity to the volatile Pakistan border area makes it especially vulnerable to unsustainable management. The current "lawlessness" and economic isolation of this region has restricted or cut off normal market access and has put extreme pressure on communities to exploit their resources unsustainably—for example, selling rights to the remaining forests to illegal timber operations in Afghanistan or across the border.

Unfortunately, due to the security conditions along the Pakistan–Afghanistan border, there is no chance for international experts to work in this region. Instead, WCS has focused on training Nuristanis in wildlife survey, forestry, and community conservation techniques, and has encouraged them to open dialogue on natural resource management within their own communities. If institution-building efforts in Nuristan are successful, these systems will enable local communities to improve their livelihoods while sustaining the resource base upon which they depend. It may also bring these communities into the larger political process in Afghanistan, all of which will go a long way toward providing stability in a region long renowned for almost continual conflict.

Conservation's Role in Postconflict Governance

The conservation community has stepped into the role of building governance institutions and is working in conflict and postconflict settings, addressing both direct threats to biodiversity and the governance institution building necessary for long-term conservation. By facilitating natural resource management and environmental decision-making, conservation NGOs are also often contributing to the process of democratization, whether intended or not. This carries with it a heavy responsibility, with implications and consequences for the communities, the NGOs, and the regions in which they work. Because of this, international conservation NGOs and their staff need better training in the myriad subjects related to governance at the community level, such as cultural anthropology, political science, civic engagement, comparative democratization, and transitional government. To refuse to engage at these levels would condemn some of the last great wild places and their unique biodiversity to becoming just another casualty of human conflict.

This essay is excerpted from State of the Wild 2010–2011 by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Copyright © 2010 Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

The largest of six lakes in Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan's first national park. CREDIT: Alex Dehgan.

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