The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been working in Afghanistan since 2004, beginning with wildlife surveys conducted by Dr. George Schaller. In 2006 WCS received funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for a comprehensive project entitled Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management in Afghanistan and then, in 2010, USAID provided funding for a follow-on project entitled Improving Livelihoods and Governance through Natural Resource Management in Afghanistan. The ultimate goal of the WCS Afghanistan Program is to enhance rural livelihoods by improving the scarce and valuable natural resources, with a particular emphasis on preserving Afghanistan’s unique biological diversity. Our work is focused on the three provinces of Bamyan, Badakhshan and Nuristan, with a parallel-running program investigating the health of Afghanistan’s ecosystems and a national capacity building component in Kabul where our Country Headquarters are based.
In a country where 80% of the people depend economically on the natural resource base for their survival, and with an environment that has been badly degraded through 30 years of conflict, WCS Afghanistan sees sustainable resource management as key to improving livelihoods and providing long-term stability for Afghanistan. The most urgent threats to the country’s fragile environment currently include over-hunting, deforestation, dry land farming, water diversion, over-grazing, land encroachment and climate change. An ever-growing human population and overall poverty adds further pressure, with impoverished communities seeing no option but to continue using up valuable resources in order to survive. WCS and our partners in Afghanistan also face the challenge of limited technical capacity at both the community and government level to implement sustainable resource management projects. This is further complicated by weak linkages between these local communities and government institutions so that the reach and rule of law across the country is often compromised.
WCS’s work in Afghanistan is cross-cutting and concentrated around five major pillars: the creation of community governance institutions; facilitation of community livelihood development; building of capacity to manage the health interface between livestock, wildlife and humans; strengthening of laws, policies and institutions; and development of technical capacity for natural resource management at all levels. Since 2006, WCS has helped Afghanistan implement their first biodiversity assessments in over 30 years, creating a critically-needed baseline for sustainable resource management decisions. The status of rangelands are continually assessed and key focal species for wildlife surveys include the snow leopard, a range of high-altitude and wetland bird species and mountain ungulates such as the Marco Polo sheep, ibex, urial and markhor. Socioeconomic surveys have also been conducted among the Wakhi and Kyrgyz communities in the remote north. These biological and demographic data helped WCS to conduct an intensive analysis of Afghanistan’s biodiversity, the results of which have been used by the Government to prioritize certain protected areas. This prioritization was organized through the National Protected Area System Plan, whereby WCS assisted the Government in systematically planning for a physical network and creating the necessary legal, financial, management and development system practices required for the sustainable operation of that network. One of the major successes of the program to-date was the creation of Afghanistan’s first-ever officially protected area – Band-e-Amir National Park in 2009.
WCS Afghanistan has facilitated the drafting of a suite of new environmental policies aimed at creating the country’s rule of law on natural resource management; another success for Afghanistan was the country’s first official Protected Species List declared in 2009. The government’s reach has also been extended through WCS developing community-based governance institutions and technical tools in over 55 communities across rural Afghanistan, and then linking these institutions to the central government. Throughout our work, we have also trained more than 10,000 Afghans at the local and national levels in the skills necessary to enact sustainable resource management.
As a direct result of our Afghan program, in particular the ranger patrolling and wildlife, rangeland and community initiatives, over 1.2 million hectares in strategic watersheds are now under improved natural resource management across Afghanistan.
The WCS Afghanistan program received three more years of funding from USAID in 2010. This will allow us to continue combining field-based science, training, and governance building to ensure sustainable community-government co-management of natural resources and encourage a real involvement in protected areas so that tangible benefits flow back to the communities and the environment. WCS believes that sustainable environmental management is a critical part of reconstruction in Afghanistan – providing improved livelihoods, jobs, and protection for the country’s unique biodiversity over the long term.