Afghanistan’s National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA), announced Thursday, April 23rd, 2009, that the country’s first internationally recognized national park is in the works. Known as Band-e-Amir, the park will protect six deep, blue lakes, separated by natural dams made of travertine, a mineral deposit. Travertine dam systems are extremely delicate, and only found in a few locations throughout the globe. Situated in Bamiyam, a province west of Kabul, these lakes are surrounded by immense red cliffs, and are one of Afghanistan’s most impressive natural features.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) based in New York, conducted preliminary wildlife surveys, in addition to helping define boundaries for the park. Meanwhile, The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided key financial support.

According to NEPA, declaring Band-e-Amir a national park will provide the global recognition needed to help it become a destination for tourists worldwide, and achieve World Heritage Status, “The park will draw people from Herat to Kabul to Jalalabad…to be inspired by the great beauty of Afghanistan’s first national park, Band-e-Amir,” said NEPA’s general director, Mostapha Zaher.

The park will be managed by NEPA, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, along with the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee, which is composed of local representatives from 13 villages in the vicinity, who have equal input into all management decisions.

Band-e-Amir will likely feature unique cultural fixtures for a national park, including a Shiite Muslim shrine on a lakefront that will remain open to the public.

Many local residents are skeptical about the proposed national park. To the average Afghan, environmental conservation is a foreign concept. Natural resources are viewed as tools for survival, which means many locals are hesitant to alter their day-to-day consumption of resources that provide their livelihood, for the sake of environmentally friendly pursuits, especially without being offered compensation, or exceptions.

The challenges of war

The creation of a natural park in a war zone is no easy feat. The lakes were once the epicenter of fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in 2000, which means that clearing mines in the area must be made a priority. Getting to the park is also an issue, not only because of the mines, but also because of extremely rocky roads that have not been well taken care of in recent years. A paved road to make Band-e-Amir more easily accessible to visitors is planned, but could take years to construct.

A popular destination for Afghans, and tourists from the 1950s through the 1970s, visits for pleasure have since diminished a great deal, due in large part to the wars and political unrest that have been apparent since 1979. The violence and accompanying destruction has taken a negative toll on much of the park’s wildlife according to scientists from the WCS, who have been a large part of the government’s planning process. Despite the devastation, wolves, wild sheep, goats, various types of fish, and the Afghan snow finch, which is thought to be the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan, still inhabit the park. In the 1980s, snow leopards inhabited the area, however, as a result of over-hunting, the species has since vanished.

The park is situated near the Bamiyan Valley, where 1,500-year-old giant statues of Buddha stood, and were later destroyed by the Taliban.

It is a challenge to get the government in Afghanistan to direct the bulk of their energy towards protecting the environment when the ongoing war against the Taliban continues elsewhere in the nation.

A promising future for Band-e-Amir

“At its core, Band-e-Amir is an Afghan initiative supported by the international community. It is a park created for Afghans, by Afghans, for the new Afghanistan,” said president and CEO of the WCS, Dr. Steven Sanderson. “Band-e-Amir will be Afghanstan’s first national park and sets the precedent for a future national park system,” he said.

Each year Band-e-Amir is visited by thousands of Afghan tourists and religious pilgrims, in addition to many foreigners living and working within the country. As violence decreases in the area, grand plans for the locals, and the environment, are emerging.

“The park will provide employment, tourism-derived revenue, and ensure that local communities play a key role in protecting this world class landscape,” WCS wrote, in a press release published on their website.

The major hope of the parties involved is a rejuvenation of tourism in the nation, and the creation of a national landmark that will benefit, both residents and tourists, hopefully ensuring economic as well as environmental stability for years to come.