Afghanistan has its first national park

High in the mountains of central Afghanistan is an area of relative peace and majestic beauty — a chain of six lakes so vibrantly blue that they are clearly visible in satellite photos.

It's called Band-e-Amir, and this year it was turned into Afghanistan's first national park after the U.S. government spent nearly $1 million to help establish the landmark.

But there are no paved roads to the 228-square-mile park. All of Bamiyan province, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, has just slightly more than 1 mile of paved roadway and no reliable electricity. Some residents question whether spending money for a remote, hard-to-get-to park was a wise venture in a country fighting a war against Taliban militants.

William Frej, mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan, defends the project, saying thousands of Afghans visit the site every year.

"The U.S. commitment to the Afghanistan people has always been seen as a long-term investment in security and democracy," he says. "Like much of the country, road construction in Bamiyan is underway, and our work in Band-e-Amir is a collaborative step in restoring national hope and pride."

Habiba Sarabi, the provincial governor — the first and only woman to lead an Afghan province — has spent years pushing to establish the site as a national park, which had its formal dedication in June.

She says most international aid goes to other areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban has a stronghold. So creating a national park is a way to attract funding to Bamiyan. The park and surrounding tourism businesses that eventually will crop up will create needed jobs, Sarabi explains. The fee charged to enter the park will go toward infrastructure and development of the area.

Community has other issues

Syed Kazim, a community leader, says people here would be better served with more schools and hospitals. He says only one clinic exists for about 20,000 people who live in the mountains.

"During the winter, it takes four to five hours to reach that," he says.

Jawad Wafa, 22, an eco-tourism guide in Bamiyan province, says spending on the park is "like throwing money away. We need a road. We need electricity. We need an airport," Wafa says.

Sarabi answers criticism from community leaders and others by saying, "The park is for their future. It's for their children. We should protect the park. After that, they can have, of course, many other good things like clinics, like schools."

The drive to Band-e-Amir from the Afghan capital of Kabul, 150 miles away, takes as long as 12 hours over rocky roads. Trucks easily overturn, and the talc-like dust of the high desert regularly chokes the air filters of even the heartiest vehicles. The closest city, Bamiyan, is 50 miles away — a three-hour drive.

Amir Foladi, head of Bamiyan's eco-tourism program, which helped set up the park, says at least four local entrepreneurs have bought land to build hotels and businesses near the park. He says bids have gone out to build a campground. Those will bring tourists and service-sector jobs that could provide a livelihood for many poor residents who now depend on subsistence farming.

Foladi says the chain of lakes attracted up to 40,000 Afghans, plus 4,000 foreign tourists, in 2005 and 2006. But visitors dropped off as much as 40% the following year as security concerns increased.

'Victim of its own success'

Bamiyan province, with a population of about 400,000, is known for the gigantic Buddha statues carved into a cliff 1,500 years ago that the Taliban blew up in 2001.

Now, nearly eight years after the ruling Taliban regime was ousted from power by U.S.-led troops, this part of Afghanistan has virtually no signs of war — no mortar attacks or gunfire.

"Bamiyan is a victim of its own success," says Robert Watkins, the United Nations deputy envoy for Afghanistan. "It's probably the most secure and stable province in the entire country, and for that reason, there's less attention from the international community."

He says funding goes to areas where countries have troops fighting — in eastern and southern Afghanistan, where the current U.S. offensive is focused on Helmand province.

Frej of the USAID agrees. "A higher percentage of U.S. government resources is being shifted to unstable areas where U.S. soldiers are sacrificing so much for the Afghan people," he says. "We are finding that Bamiyan and other stable regions are progressing rapidly, and thus are able to make better use of the resources they receive."

Kazim, the community leader, was among a handful of villagers who met recently with Sarabi and U.N. officials to press for more aid to help local farmers.

He says the land management rules for the new park prevent farmers from planting crops near the lakes or from gathering shrubs needed for fuel.

"We are not allowed to cultivate wheat around the lake, so we do not have any other alternatives," he says.

Sarabi explains that in addition to the jobs it will create, Band-e-Amir is a place where local residents will be able to sell their products.

She acknowledges that the lack of a paved road is a problem, but hopes that a road — like the park — will eventually be built. "We are working on the road side," she says. "I will not stop lobbying."