© James Hopkirk 2008
In the foothills of the Hindu Kush in northern Afghanistan, Haji Awrang pauses on a rocky outcrop to let me catch my breath.
"Twenty years ago, this was all desert," he says, gesturing down at the forest below. "Nothing grew here, it was barren." It's hard to believe. Our hike has taken us past snow-capped peaks and grassy slopes, mountain springs and woodland, home to wolves, foxes, deer, ibex and the elusive snow leopard. It looks more like an alpine valley than the stark panoramas that dominate this ravaged country.
We're in Tagab district in Badakhshan province, tucked away in the north-eastern corner of Afghanistan, hemmed in by the borders of Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. Haji is governor here, and I've come to find out if the whispers from Kabul are true: that over the past 15 years he's introduced a startling array of environmental reforms that have nursed his district's decimated natural resources back to health. And, all the more extraordinary if it's true, that he's done so without any government or NGO support.
The story begins in 1989 when the Russian tanks finally rumbled back to Moscow, defeated, after nearly ten years of occupation. They departed with more than a million dead Afghans in their wake and a bloody new civil war brewing.
But they also left a legacy of environmental devastation behind them. The war had taken a heavy toll on the country's forests and pastures, and desertification was sweeping across the country. Thanks to loss of habitat and hunting, much of the country's impressive indigenous wildlife was on the verge of disappearing altogether.
Environmental decline may seem a frivolous concern in the wake of years of bloodshed, but in a country where 80% of the population make their living from farming or herding, grazing land and forests are resources the people here simply cannot survive without.
With the Russians gone, a new era of violence erupted as warlords fought the Taliban for power in Kabul and beyond. But despite the Taliban's eventual victory, Badakhshan was the only province never to fall into their hands. So while war raged at its borders, Tagab escaped this second wave of destruction. Today the province is largely untouched by Taliban influence.
Haji served as a political figure in the Mujahideen during the war, and spent his time travelling back and forth across the Pakistani border, dodging Russian helicopters. But when he was finally able to return home to Tagab he was horrified by what he found. The Soviet bombardment, along with the Afghans' scorched earth policy, had laid waste to the woodland and pastures of his youth.
Confronted with the ruins of his homeland, Haji began writing notes that would form the basis of his future environmental policies. "The fighting had hurt the people, the economy, the land," he remembers. "We had lost so much, so it was our duty to restore it. I sat down with two friends and we wrote down all our ideas in a notebook."
In 1992 he signed these handwritten pages and took them to the local mosque where he read them to the assembled people of Tagab. "We had two main objectives," he says. "To bring back the forests and allow the wildlife to recover."
Since then, and with the apparent blessing of his people, he has introduced strict controls on grazing, hunting, fishing and logging, carved an extensive network of irrigation channels into the mountain slopes and is actively reforesting the area.
He's recruited 38 volunteer forest guards to patrol the valleys and report illegal logging or poaching to the police. And recently, with no government support in sight, he's turned his attention to the possibilities of eco-tourism in the hope of attracting foreign money to the area.
So why did his people trust him in the first place when banning hunting and logging must have removed much-needed sources of food and income? "The land was barren, and they understood that serious changes were needed," he tells me, as we sit cross-legged, sipping tea on the floor of his simple sitting room. "During the Jihad I was working for the foreign ministry of the Mujahideen, I was a decision-maker, not a soldier. That is why the people accept me and listen to what I have to say, because I use reason, not force."
We're in Tabag-I Keshem, the village where Haji was born, by the side of the only road that leads in or out of the district. Haji's compact walled compound sits on the floor of a river valley, surrounded by towering, craggy peaks and with a few acres of his replanted woodland on the opposite bank.
As the son of an illiterate farmer, he defied his parents' expectations when he left rural life behind him to study economics in Kabul. Now 47 and married with seven children, he was elected an MP for Badakhshan in 2005 in the country's first parliamentary poll in 30 years. As a result he now splits his time between Tagab and the capital, where he chairs the government's under-funded environment sub-committee.
Haji may be no warlord, but his slight 5'5" frame, softly spoken manner and wry smile belie a magnetic presence. His quiet confidence and intellect seem to inspire enormous respect and loyalty from his people - but, from what I can tell, not fear.
In the days I spend traversing Tagab's spectacular peaks and passes, visiting some of the isolated villages that house the district's 36,000 inhabitants, the fruits of his labour are all around us. He guides us past forests, orchards, grape vines, wild flowers and pastures, delighting in being able to name each new species he spots.
It's a peaceful, idyllic place that feels utterly detached from the violent headlines of Helmand province and the south. But it's easy to forget that for all the natural splendour, the people here are still desperately poor.
In the village of Malahasan, a collection of a dozen mud-brick houses scattered along a slope in one of Tagab's more remote valleys, I meet Abdul Qadr. A 45-year-old sheep herder with a wife, seven children and an impressive grey beard, he explains over tea how life has changed since he returned from fighting with the Mujahideen.
"Life is very hard here," he says. "Especially in winter, when there is very little food. But when I came back from the Jihad there was nothing left - no trees, no grazing land. It has taken many years for the land to recover. It is better now. It is beautiful, of course, but there are good pastures for our sheep, and the trees help prevent the floods."
Every spring, when the mountain snow melts, flash floods are common here, some powerful enough to wash away entire villages, but trees and vegetation mitigate these effects.
In nearby Kotabala I ask Qumaden Rahimi, a father of six, what life is like now for his family and the other villagers. "It is better, but we are still very poor," he says. "We all support Haji, but he is one man, he cannot do everything alone. We need help from the government, from NGOs."
It seems extraordinary in a country where western governments are desperate for success stories that Haji's regeneration work hasn't received even a token amount of support, especially if his claim that no poppy has been grown here for 25 years is true. So why has Tagab been ignored?
"We have asked the [Afghan] Government for help many times," he says with a shrug. "Every time they say yes, they will help, but then nothing happens. We have asked NGOs to bring household income projects, to build a fish farm here, something that can bring money to this area. But they have done nothing."
When I speak to Dr Peter Smallwood, the head of US charity the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Afghanistan, he puts the problem succinctly. "The whole country is in crisis management mode, which means you go to where the worst problems are," he says. "Unfortunately that means sometimes you miss where there's real progress being made. There's an Afghan saying: ‘What have we got to do to get some help around here - grow some opium or blow something up?'"
Peter is on loan to WCS from the University of Richmond in Virginia, where he's an ecology professor. He first came to Afghanistan in 2006, but has been based in Kabul full-time since January as part of an 18-month tour. It was through Haji's position on the environment sub-committee that he first heard of his work in Tagab. He's unequivocal in his praise. "If there's one place in the country where the environment laws are being enforced, then it's in his area," he says.
WCS is funded by USAID, the US government's foreign aid arm, and he explains that because their grant proposal is so precisely specified it gives him little room to manoeuvre. "It makes it extremely difficult to take [money] out of other projects to put towards his work, although I desperately want to." Their grant isn't up for renewal until the end of 2009, so the earliest Haji could see funding from WCS is in 2010 – if their grant is renewed at all, that is.
Asif Zaidi, who heads the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Afghanistan and who recently sent a team to Tagab to assess the area, agrees with Peter's verdict: "It's an exemplary project in the sense that there is no direct government support, no significant donor support, and yet still the community is managing its own environment in terms of conservation."
The picture across the rest of the country is less rosy. When UNEP first arrived in Afghanistan in 2003, its first task was to establish what natural resources the country had left. One of the biggest problems their researchers faced was finding comparison data: there were no significant past studies of rivers, forests, wildlife, land, climate or atmospheric conditions to judge the current situation by.
But from satellite images dating back to the 1970s they discovered that in three provinces alone forest cover had decreased by 52% in the last 30 years. And in their follow-up report this year they concluded that at the current rate of decline all forests would be gone in another 30.
An incredible 75% of the country has been deemed vulnerable to desertification, with pasture most at risk, and severe soil degradation is currently affecting 16% of all land.
Aside from a single study of Marco Polo sheep in the 1970s, there are simply no reliable statistics for wildlife numbers, so as the research teams continue to build up their own data they've had to rely on anecdotal evidence, most of which points to vastly reduced numbers of nearly all large mammals.
In 2005 UNEP helped the interim government establish the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), Afghanistan's first environmental policy-making body. In the same year the country's first piece of environmental legislation, covering conservation, biodiversity, pollution and natural resource management, was signed by President Karzai. In 2007 it was finally passed by the National Assembly.
Enforcement, however, is another matter.
"Any environment law you bring in here is good because the country doesn't have legislation," argues Asif. "But the more important challenge is how to enforce that, and it's difficult. NEPA doesn't yet have the capacity [to enforce it] at district level. But even if it did, whether the country has enough of a rule of law culture for it to happen is a difficult question to answer."
A senior official in another environmental agency, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing what little international funding he gets, believes there is little appetite in the west for environmental projects in Afghanistan. "Right now, the environment is at the bottom of the priority list," he says. "But that's hardly surprising. Even in developing countries that are not post-conflict, the environment is at the bottom of the agenda.
"The dominant view within the ministries of economy and finance here seems to be ‘development today, environment tomorrow'. But how can this country possibly develop if we don't protect its natural resources?"
Back in Tagab I travel to Aut, a village of two-dozen simple buildings perched 3,000m up on the side of a mountain. Aut is where this particular valley's bumpy dirt track comes to an abrupt end.
Here I meet Mohammed Layeq, who at 62 has been volunteering as one of Haji's forest guards for seven years, in addition to his work as a farmer. "I want to see my community recover, my country recover," he explains, when I ask what motivates him. "I feel very sad when I see people who are cutting down trees, fishing and hunting, and it makes the people in my village very angry. When one man cuts down a tree it affects us all."
Haji is quick to applaud men like Mohammed. "These people are farmers, shepherds, labourers," he says. "They are volunteers, no-one is forcing them to do this work on top of looking after their own families and livestock. They give their time for free because they want to help their people."
In the same village I talk to Khojamad Agha, a farmer and former hunter, and ask him what he thinks of the ban. "Before Haji declared the ban, we hunted many animals, birds and fish here," he says. "I killed a snow leopard once with my Kalashnikov and sold the skin in town for 100Afs (about £1)." In Kabul's Chicken Street, famous for its carpets and furs, a snow leopard hide can fetch up to £600 – in Moscow more than double that.
"But we must not hunt now, or we will be punished by Haji," he continues. I ask if the people here are afraid of Haji. "We are not afraid of anyone," he replies, firmly. As a former Mujahideen warrior, it's not hard to believe him. "But we are committed to the law," he adds. "It is part of our religion. God wants us to protect the animals, so it is our duty."
The people of Tagab are devout Muslims, and faith seems to be at the heart of both Haji's obsession with restoring his homeland, and the people's acceptance of his reforms. "This world is for the sake of God," the MP reflects. "The last generation handed the world over to us, and we have a responsibility to God to hand it over to the next generation intact."
This is a philosophy that western aid agencies such as WCS are starting to adopt as part of their environmental strategy. "I think using the Koran has a major effect," says Peter Smallwood. "We have education specialists from Pakistan who share their religion and can speak in a language that they not only understand but revere. I think reminding them that they are obligated to be good stewards of the wildlife and the land has a real impact."
Driving back to Haji's house after an intense day of village-hopping, our Toyota suddenly jerks to a halt by the side of a river. By now Haji has left for Kabul and I'm accompanied by Gaul Mohammed, one of his forest guards. A short, stocky 38-year-old, who looks closer to 50, he leaps out and sprints down to the riverbank. Amid the sudden frenzy of activity at first I can't tell what's happening, until he grabs a fishing line from a sheepish local and tosses his catch back into the water.
Later, he stops two other villagers leading donkeys laden with firewood. Their names are recorded and will be passed on to the police and the department of agriculture. If it's a first offence they'll get a ticking off and have the wood confiscated, but if they've been cautioned before they'll be fined between 500 and 1,000 Afs (roughly three times the price of their haul).
They appear to accept their punishment without argument, but Mohammed, the forest guard from Aut, tells me it's not always so easy. "Sometimes I have problems with people when I stop them hunting, they fight with us. Once I had to go to hospital because I was beaten with a stick." All of Tagab's forest guards operate unarmed, as only the police can carry weapons here.
"A few are from Tagab," he says of the people he catches, "but many come from other districts secretly to hunt and take wood." It seems Tagab's story is starting to spread.
But Haji sees advantages to his district being seen as a success. "What you learn from your neighbour is an early morning wake-up call," he insists. "Warsaj district has now started to follow our lead and has banned hunting and logging. So we hope that these ideas will travel."
I ask him how serious he thinks the possibility of tourism is here. While Tagab, and much of Badakhshan, may be relatively safe, surely the reputation of the country is still too off-putting for westerners? "Tourists have already been here," he says, proudly. "Last year three groups of Italians came to photograph the wildlife. But they came as guests – we need them to come as tourists, and pay."
Traditional Afghan hospitality demands that even the poorest of villages must lay on food and shelter for visitors, irrespective of how wealthy those visitors may be. And it would be a grave insult for any foreigner to refuse, or to offer money in return. So how can the people here get past this cultural impasse?
"We need to be taught how to look after foreign tourists," Haji says. "The people must learn how to become hosts. We need a little help, and then we will be able to look after ourselves."
One guesthouse has already been built near Haji's home, with plans for further accommodation, a car park and - perhaps somewhat ambitiously - a cable car, if funding ever does materialise. He believes that tourism is the key to bringing money to Tagab's remote communities. "These people can be guides, porters, they can run guesthouses," he says. "They just need training, and a little funding to help them get started."
Eco-tourism may not be as unlikely as it sounds. In 2007 Lonely Planet published its first guide to Afghanistan, while the Wakhan Corridor, to the far east of Badakhshan, is already seen as something of a trekking Mecca, with around 100 intrepid tourists passing through each year.
The Aga Khan Foundation, a development agency that operates in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, is working in the Wakhan, training locals how to cope with the strange demands of foreigners, and is helping to establish a network of simple guesthouses – all in anticipation of rising visitor numbers. And for wealthier travellers one US-based operator is now offering luxury tours to the district, starting at £7,000 a head for an authentic Afghan wilderness experience.
Peter Smallwood believes Afghanistan's rural population is starting to wake up to the financial possibilities of eco-tourism. "The idea of a sustainable economic opportunity for some of these people, that commands attention," he says. "But what does not is the idea that you need to chase local people out of these areas so that National Geographic subscribers can look at pretty pictures of Afghanistan's wildlife.
"One of the things I really like about WCS is that they understand that conservation in countries like this is only going to work if the people who live in and around that wildlife tangibly benefit from protecting it."
In Malahasan I ask Abdul how he feels about tourists coming to his village. "We would love to guide tourists here, we would welcome them," he beams. But what about Russians, I wonder. He laughs. "If they come here as tourists we will welcome them. But if they come here as soldiers then we will fight."
There are signs of progress in other parts of the country. Earlier this year the spectacular lakes of the Band-e-Amir valley in central Afghanistan, home to the giant Buddha statues before the Taliban destroyed them, were declared the country's first national park. There are ambitious plans in the Wakhan to create a trans-national park, straddling the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. And in its 2008 report UNEP found that since its initial assessment in 2003 the rate of deforestation had slowed.
For all the problems, Peter believes there is hope for the environment here. "For the two provinces I work in (Badakhshan and Bamiyan), I'm guardedly optimistic," he says. "The problem is that those two provinces don't exist in a vacuum. So if this current government falls, and we have a new government, I don't know if we have to start from scratch or not.
"But one of the things that keeps me going is that, in the long run, the most important thing we do here is not the laws we help to set up, but the ideas that we leave in the minds of the Afghans. I think the idea of conservation as a religious obligation and an economic opportunity will remain whether we're here or not."
And there may be some good news for Haji at last. Following UNEP's investigations, when I return to the UK I hear that Asif has plans for Tagab. "We're looking at opportunities to provide livelihoods for people to increase their income," he tells me. "Whether it's fisheries, use of rangeland, orchards… we need to pinpoint exactly what will work there and then look towards assistance. But by early next year we'll have a few initiatives up and running."
For now, Afghanistan's environmental prospects hang in the balance. Haji's achievements in Tagab, the national parks, the new legislation and the fledgling tourist industry are all reasons for hope. But head south of Kabul to the battle grounds of Helmand and Kandahar and the idea of environmental regeneration is meaningless, ridiculous even - and will remain so until some semblance of peace returns.
In my last conversation with Haji before he leaves for Kabul I ask him about his legacy. Will his children carry on his work when he's gone? "Not just my children," he corrects me. "All the children must continue this work to protect Tagab, and all of Afghanistan. Otherwise there is no hope for this country."