No Fishing with Hand Grenades in Afghanistan’s New National Park
Implausible as it may seem, the government of war-torn Afghanistan recently established the country’s first national park, timing the formal designation for Earth Day last April. Visiting this new park may someday be a lot easier and safer, but right now it’s more than routinely challenging for the adventure tourists who make the trek.
If you drive about ten hours west from Kabul into central Bamiyan province, navigating treacherous roads deep into the Hindu Kush (and climbing to around 9,500 feet), you’ll eventually arrive in the Band-e-Amir Valley. If you travel by scheduled bus or minivan from the provincial capital city of Bamiyan, you will get to Band-e-Amir in about three hours or so. However you get there, it won’t be easy or cheap.
At Band-e-Amir you will find a magical place where rare natural dams of white travertine have impounded half a dozen deep, strikingly blue lakes amid soaring red cliffs. Surely Band-e-Amir (“Afghanistan’s Grand Canyon”) is one of the prettiest landscapes on earth. And now it is a national park.
While you’ll surely see much to delight you at Band-e-Amir, you’ll not see many foreign tourists. The annual tally of foreign visitors has been running very low -- in the hundreds, I think -- and most are internationals employed in Afghanistan or stationed with the military there. It’s no secret why international tourists generally stay away from Band-e-Amir. It’s a troubled place in an impoverished land.
It wasn’t always this way. Band-e-Amir became a widely recognized tourist destination in the 1950s, and until the Soviet invasion in 1979 it was attracting thousands of domestic and international visitors a year, including religious pilgrims visiting nearby sacred places.
A national park might have been created at Band-e-Amir as early as the 1960s if the central government could have gotten its act together. Band-e-Amir has been nominated for World Heritage Site status, and might very well have achieved it already had it not been for its sorry circumstances.
Careless resource use and 30 years of on-again, off again strife (including the 1996-2001 period of harsh Taliban rule) have turned Band-e-Amir into a tourism pariah. Human sewage has polluted area waters, trash and litter have accumulated in heaps and windrows, wildlife populations have been badly depleted (with snow leopards completely eliminated), unregulated grazing has damaged vegetation and accelerated erosion, and the ravages of neglect are everywhere to be seen in this impoverished land. Perhaps worst of all, mines laid by the Taliban and the local militias (including many dug into and near the unpaved roads and less traveled footpaths), still pose terrible risks to the unwary. These problems and the pervasive lack of basic visitor facilities and services repel most domestic tourists and all but the most intrepid of adventure tourists from abroad.
Whether and when things will take a decided turn for the better at Band-e-Amir remains anybody’s guess. Park-related management should help a lot. Plans call for a new access road and improvements in the Band-e-Amir tourism infrastructure that will reduce travel time and provide badly needed amenities. Locals are supposed to build small shops, restaurants, hotels, and a campground. Outside investment may help. A French hotelier, for example, has entertained the notion of building a small hotel near one of the lakes.
If Band-e-Amir National Park is to become the international tourism magnet that its boosters envision, it will take more than just infrastructure improvements. Political stability must be restored, the mines must be cleared, and lots of international tourists must return from the place alive, intact, and happy.
There certainly has been no shortage of managerial brainstorming and planning for the park. USAID put up over a million dollars to get this park going and helped with some legal matters. An international NGO, the Wildlife Conservation Society, developed the park's management plan, helped the Afghan government design resource protection laws, and assisted in the hiring and training of rangers from the local population. Responsibility for managing the new park will be a domestic responsibility divided among Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, and the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee.
Environmental quality management remains a big question mark. The people of Afghanistan don’t have a tradition of careful environmental stewardship. However, if visitor-based industry follows through on its promise of creating more jobs and boosting the regional economy, perhaps a new environmental ethic will take hold.
If the national park is to fulfill its promise, officials must ensure that visitors and residents of the park’s 13 villages treat Band-e-Amir’s natural resources with some reasonable facsimile of respect. Towards this end, a comprehensive set of rules and regulations has been put in place. The traditional practice of fishing with hand grenades and electrical shocking devices has been banned n the park lakes. Park rules also promote wise stewardship of the park’s remaining wolves, ibex, urial (wild sheep), and other wildlife. Other rules ban harmful activities such as those that threaten the integrity of the fragile travertine dams impounding the lakes.
Enforcing the rules will be admittedly tough. There are only four rangers to patrol the park’s 215 square miles.