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Global Ideas

An unlikely fight to protect nature in war-torn Afghanistan

War doesn't only destroy human lives, but also land and ecologies - and therefore livelihoods. Afghanistan is a case in point. Enter a woman with a community spirit and a strong sense of what needs to get done.

When Farkhunda Ateel took to the stage of a Paris theater last December, it was not only her vivid traditional dress that held the auditorium's attention, but also the words she spoke. "Our planet is sick, our communities are sick - so how can we relax, how can we sleep, how can we live like this?"

She was there to collect the prestigious Equator Prize on behalf of the Rural Green Environment Organization (RGEO), which works in the remote Afghanistan province of Badakhshan to restore ecosystems, improve food security and create local jobs as a means of curbing illegal logging, fishing and hunting.

Accepting the award was a hard-earned moment that she says almost reduced her to tears. "But I told myself, you have cried enough in your life, now it's time to do something."

In fact, she has been doing rather a lot of "something" for many years - against the odds. With a life spent first as a child refugee in Pakistan, and later under the stifling influence of the Taliban and an abusive husband, she has devoted herself to helping restore health to the barren lands of her birth, and bringing hope to those who populate them.

The young mother says she used to think of leaving Afghanistan, just as her family did when it fled the Mujahideen in 1989. But after winning a four-year battle to separate from her husband and then securing the Equator Prize, she now sees plenty of reason to make her native country her home.

Foto: On stage with her father and two others to collect the award

Collecting the Equator Prize in Paris

"After this prize, everything changed," Ateel said. "I had been doing the work, unaware of the changes I was bringing to people. Suddenly, it was like a very strong shock, you suddenly wake up from a very deep sleep."

A leader's vision

Afghanistan is still recovering from the decade-long Soviet occupation, in which entire villages and woodlands were systematically razed and where deforestation and habitat loss became widespread problems. So she and her organization have a lot to do.

RGEO's work builds on decades of active reforestation and wildlife protection as introduced by Haji Awrang, the former governor of Badakhshan's Tagab district.
When Awrang returned to Tagab after the war in the early 90s, much of the region's natural resources had been erased from the landscape. According to the UNEP, 80 percent of Afghan citizens depend on farming, herding and small-scale mining, so this was catastrophic. Awrang came up with a recovery plan that considered both ecological and social needs.

He banned fishing and logging, imposed controls on grazing and hunting and recruited community members as volunteer guards to enforce the measures and report illegal activity to the police. Fearing continued scarcity, the local population went along with his vision.

Community accomplishment

By 2014, the community's combined efforts had led to the creation of a green oasis. When Aimal Khan, national coordinator of UNDP in Afghanistan, toured the region on a monitoring visit, he found reservoirs pumping water from foothills into the mountains to irrigate orchards replete with apples, apricot and nut trees. The coheseive concept devised by Awrang was quite literally bearing fruit.

Photo: An apple on a tree

Working together as a community can be fruitful for everyone

"The first thing I really liked was the community interest," Khan said, adding that by working together, they could produce concrete benefits. "That makes the whole thing sustainable."

To date, RGEO has managed to create approximately 6,000 jobs, construct 5 kilometers of irrigation canals, protect 2 kilometers of river, build 125 check dams and 120,000 meters of terracing - and plant more than 200,000 trees.

Progress and discrimination

These concrete accomplishments present an encouraging list, not least given the fact that achieving environmental stability is not a common national goal. “In a country like Afghanistan, I would say the top priority is security," Khan said. "There is less attention on [the environment]."

Currently, escalating violence, pockets of Taliban insurgents in the north and discriminatory rules against women and girls make it hard for Ateel to travel to Badakhshan. So for now, she conducts her work from Kabul while Awrang and her father Ahmad Seyer, who directs RGEO, oversee most of RGEO's projects in the field, implementing programs that train farmers to protect and manage tree nurseries.

Photo: A man tending a field

It's easier to work as a man in Afghanistan than a woman

Their outreach has also extended to the Taliban, and surprisingly the fighters appear to accept the organization's environmental mission.

"This is very hopeful," Ateel told DW. "The environment has nothing to do with Islamic beliefs. Mostly, they are very sensitive to women working."

That discrimination clearly affects not only her own activities, but also those of RGEO, which has relied on women to plant and care for young trees. Removing willing helpers from the mix simply because of their gender weakens a community and its ability to tackle environmental crises that are occurring as a result of climate change.

Climate change challenge

The 2015 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change says Afghanistan "anticipates the increase of extreme weather events, including heat waves, floods and droughts, as will climate change-linked disasters such as glacial lake outflows."

Ateel attests to that, and fears the sudden advent of late winters are a sign of more to come. "We used to have lots of snow in winter in Kabul, but last year we didn't have any," she said.

She added that there isn't enough rain right now, and that when it does come, it is so abundant that it causes flooding. On the other extreme, she sees summer temperatures soaring above their long-standing average.

That reality, as well as the insecurity in her country, serve to motivate rather than deter her. As she spoke in Paris, she referred to the terrorists and suicide bombers who kill thousands of people in the name of religion or belief.
"But I," she said, staring into the crowd, "am strong enough to live and give my life to save thousands of people."

There was no pathos in her message, just a clarity that highlighted her singular determination to raise awareness of problems, and how it is possible to work around them. "I don't want to be forgotten when I step off the stage," she said. Somehow, that seems unlikely.

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