Over the past three decades that has seen Afghanistan caught up in heavy conflict and associated depletion of its natural resources, most of the knowledge and skills relating to land management and wildlife conservation have been lost. The political unrest resulted in an exodus of Afghanistan’s skilled and educated work force, a collapse of the educational systems across the country, and a loss of memory in both the government institutions and academic community. Even entire collections of species and data from scientific exhibitions prior to 1978 have been damaged or destroyed, reducing available information on wildlife and habitats to virtually zero. As the country now enters a period of reconstruction and development, building up knowledge on wildlife populations and the state of the environment is critical, since conservation measures cannot be developed or enforced effectively without such information, and reconstruction is dependent on environmental sustainability for a populace highly reliant on natural resources for their survival.
The process of building knowledge and capacity however, is challenging in itself. After so many years of conflict, the educational systems in Afghanistan are having to rebuild themselves, using basic school and university curriculums as their foundation. Unsurprisingly, conservation biology does not feature high on the list of priorities for the curriculum and the students’ education often does not sufficiently prepare graduates for a career in this sector. WCS staff have been addressing this issue since the beginning of our work in Afghanistan by including our Afghan counterparts in research design, hypothesis testing, brainstorming and problem solving – all skills which will help governments, academics, and rural communities to make realistic and responsible decisions affecting natural resource management in the future. Overall, more than 10,000 Afghans at the local and national levels have been trained in the tools and skills necessary to enact sustainable resource management under WCS’s comprehensive training and capacity development program. This is most usually done under our “Afghan First” mentoring program whereby counterparts are taught the basics by WCS and are then guided through the implementation of certain activities until they are ready to take complete ownership of the process themselves. Furthermore, WCS realizes the importance of working closely and coordinating with Afghan stakeholders from the outset, particularly when drafting policies and plans. This avoids duplication of efforts, creates a sense of responsibility from the stakeholders which will be sustained long after WCS withdraws from Afghanistan, and prevents WCS from implementing projects that are not suitable within the unique political and natural environment in Afghanistan.
In Kabul, WCS continues to focus training and capacity development towards the central government who are directly answerable on natural resource management matters in Afghanistan. Often through the collaborative design of comprehensive Training Management Packages (TMPs), WCS has organized computer and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) training for technical staff in the ministries, legal training with the Afghan Lawyers Union, the Ministry of Justice and other members of the legislative drafting group to help build legal instruments necessary for improving natural resource management such as the Wildlife Trade Regulations, and public outreach training for staff in the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) to encourage staff towards building important links with their provincial counterparts and rural communities. Alongside these formal training efforts, WCS has provided continual training to the current generation of government personnel, enabling the government to comply with international treaty requirements and participate in environmental conventions such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). WCS also facilitated the designation of the first Management and Scientific Authorities for CITES in Afghanistan, and high-level officials attended their first international CITES meeting in 2008 under WCS guidance. WCS has also provided study tours to Cambodia, Indonesia and at other sites in Asia to build understanding within the government staff of international best practices with regards to protecting biodiversity.
As part of the city’s Municipality, Kabul Zoo has received multiple training programs from WCS aimed at increasing the capacity of the veterinarian staff and the education team. Animal health and husbandry training has been extended to the Central Veterinary Diagnostic and Research laboratory (CVDRL) in Kabul where, for example, WCS developed and advanced the laboratory’s serological screening methods. Capacity in emerging wildlife diseases has been built at MAIL, Kabul Veterinary School and other partner organizations, through seven WCS training courses including wild bird identification, sampling techniques and technical training on Avian Influenza. Another major recipient of WCS training programs has been Kabul University. Since 2006, students and professors here have been mentored on conservation issues in Afghanistan including training in wildlife species protection, how to conduct scientific research and the basic principles of conservation biology. WCS also assisted the University in saving a rare and newly discovered herbarium containing over 20,000 specimens.
Out in the provinces, WCS has been promoting local stewardship by investing in both public education/outreach and technical training programs. These focus primarily on land-use management and sustainability, natural resource mapping, wildlife-human conflict resolution, and alternative livelihoods development. One of the most significant achievements for WCS has been the development of community-based governance institutions and technical tools for resource management in over 55 communities across rural Afghanistan. A successful result from this community empowerment was the creation of the Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee (BAPAC) and the Wakhan-Pamir Association (WPA) which both now function to bring rural communities in touch with the national government and help the protected area planning process run effectively. Community conservation education workshops in 21 Wakhan villages have been organized by WCS, engaging almost 1,500 Wakhi men and women in community management of natural resources.
WCS also established the first school-based and gender-balanced environmental committees in communities in Bamyan and Badakhshan with full approval of national and provincial education officials. These committees oversee projects that link students to the natural environment, helping to foster understanding about sustainable natural resource management and a certain pride in the natural resources. Furthermore, WCS facilitated 12 schools in Wakhan to present a “Parents Day”, enabling students to showcase their environmental work to over 2,000 people. WCS has also organized community conservation outreach and consultation meetings in 17 communities within central Nuristan Province.
Since 2006, WCS has been providing training to provincial government staff in Bamyan and Badakhshan on relevant field and office-based computer skills (focusing on data acquisition and management), and to district government authorities - including the border police - on conservation-related issues. WCS’s comprehensive ranger training program has been very effective in the provinces over the past five years, with 23 government and 67 community rangers now recruited and actively patrolling Band-e-Amir and potential protected areas in both Bamyan and Badakhshan. WCS continues to train these rangers in skills ranging from first aid and hygiene to mapping natural resources using Global Positioning System (GPS) instruments and recording data on wildlife and livestock populations. Recently, WCS successfully trained community rangers to collect data using pictograms – a valuable exercise when it comes to teaching those who are not literate. Rangers are now successfully conducting wildlife surveys and patrols without WCS supervision and have even begun to train their peers.
Community members are actively engaged in much of this provincial capacity-building, with WCS assisting the training and equipping of local paraveterinarians so that they can continue with livestock vaccination campaigns throughout the year. Over 7,000 livestock were vaccinated in Wakhan and the Pamirs, including approximately 5,000 cattle and yak during the first systematic mass vaccination against Foot and Mouth disease carried out in this district. WCS survey teams also teach local herders how to collect information on domestic livestock grazing patterns – a program aimed at reducing wildlife-human conflict in rural areas.
In terms of alternative livelihoods capacity building, WCS has facilitated the training of almost 400 women in new stove technology in Bamyan and Wakhan. These women now visit their local communities, teaching other women on the many benefits of using environmentally-friendly stoves (which range from decreasing time away from the home collecting fuel, to improving health for families in their homes from lowered levels of smoke and particulates). Furthermore, craftsmen will be trained to produce the stoves locally, creating additional economic benefit to communities. WCS has supported the re-opening of a gem cutting and polishing center in Wakhan as part of a coordinated effort to increase community income from handicrafts and other local production. Communities surround Band-e-Amir National Park have also benefited from a hygiene and sanitation training program developed by WCS.
Aside from direct knowledge of skills related to wildlife conservation, the other significant challenge relates to suitable translation of conservation concepts into the local languages and the prerequisite English language skills for this. It is important that those working in natural resource management and conservation in Afghanistan have at least a basic grasp of the English language, with the multilateral environmental conventions that Afghanistan is party to being conducted in English and the success of the international tourism trade in Afghanistan somewhat dependent on this. Proficiency in the English language also enables the Afghan government and public to access and engage with the international community in Afghanistan (donors, partners, and media representatives in particular). This gap in language skills was identified early on by WCS, and much effort has since been invested in developing English language training courses both within the Central and Provincial Government offices and in the communities themselves (such as for school teachers, business owners and park rangers). A significant step forward has been the development of English-speaking skills by budding Afghan tourist guides and expedition cooks. Ecotourism training has also been provided by WCS for 24 individuals nominated by the Wakhan village councils, helping to place some with international tour operators as paid interns.
Education and training are long-term endeavors in which the impact on resource
management goals is not always immediately evident. Therefore, monitoring and evaluation projects feature prominently in our work in Afghanistan. WCS selectively tests trainees on their retained level of knowledge in the fields of wildlife health, protected area management, mammal and bird surveying techniques, rangeland conservation, community governance, and ecotourism. Continued evaluation of participants is necessary to determine which investments have been most fruitful and to formulate future directions for resource management training in Afghanistan. WCS also conducts formal and informal needs assessments within government agencies, helping staff to develop the most suitable training programs.