A sweltering day in lush, tropical Cambodia may seem far from the barren mountains of Afghanistan where seasons are divided by what Kara Stevens, a Wildlife Conservation Society manager based in Kabul, calls “one, long difficult winter.”
But the six Afghans who visited Cambodia from April 5 to 13 on a study tour organized by WCS—an international NGO funded by USAID—found more similarities between the two countries than meet the eye.
Both post-Communist countries have survived three decades of conflict that drove most of the educated people out of the country. Both are still riddled with landmines and home to predominantly agrarian populations dependent on the country’s natural resources.
In terms of wildlife conservation, Afghanistan is where Cambodia was several years ago when WCS began collaborating with the government in 1999, and illegal logging and smuggling are at the forefront of each country’s program, according to wildlife officials from both countries.
“Each has a new government after years of chaos creating from scratch national parks and protected species laws,” said Edward Pollard, a technical adviser for WCS’ Seima Biodiversity Conservation Project in southern Mondolkiri province.
“What we’re doing with Phnong agricultural groups can’t directly translate to nomadic herders in high-altitude deserts,” said Pollard, “but the generals are very applicable.”
The necessity of working with the local community members to get their support is integral to the success of each country’s program, he said.
After a couple of days in Phnom Penh, the group of Afghans—made up of government, NGO and community officials—trekked to Mondolkiri province to check out the government’s protected area in Keo Seima and O’Reang districts along the Vietnamese border, home to the country’s only confirmed population of tigers.
Inayatullah, 27, a Kabul-based WCS field coordinator, said Cambodia’s focus on law enforcement in southern Mondolkiri province helped him sketch out the next steps for WCS Afghanistan, which is struggling to create protected areas where there are currently none.
In Afghanistan, “everyone says there is no law. There is law, it is just not enforced,” he said.
Habibullah Barat, 59, head of international environmental affairs for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, said that despite glaring difference in climate and culture, he learned much from assessing Cambodia’s progress in coordinating cooperation between government, police and NGOs.
“There is not as much cooperation in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the war in his country is still going on.
Aminudin, 30, an influential community member of Badakhshan province’s Wakhan district in northern Afghanistan near the Chinese border, talked about the necessity of fostering eco-tourism programs like Cambodia has done with bird-watching.
The Wakhan corridor has some of the last relatively pristine wildlife habitats in Afghanistan as well as threatened populations of Marco Polo sheep and snow leopard, according to WCS.
“If we save the wildlife,” said Aminudin, “the tourists will come and we will generate money.”