Afghanistan has a new protected conservation area – the Shah Foladi: 2,700 square kilometres on the north side of the Koh-e Baba range of the Hindu Kush in Bamyan province. This mix of irrigated valleys, upland rangeland and high peaks is important for wildlife (270 species of birds, including many seasonal migrants, and many flowering plants found only in Afghanistan) and part of a nationally important watershed. As Kate Clark reports, it is very much a human landscape – it was the interaction between nature and the area’s 5000 inhabitants, which partly gained Shah Foladi its protected status. Also critical was the good security which means the area can actually be protected, unlike many other areas of Afghanistan equally or more important for conservation and biodiversity.
Walking in the Sumara Valley of Shah Foladi, it is obvious how much of the beauty of the landscape is down to human interaction. Meltwater irrigation keeps the valley bottoms green. They are planted with crops – potatoes, wheat, alfalfa – and stands of trees, especially fast-growing poplar, essential for roofing beams. Above the irrigated line, the land turns abruptly to rangeland. At this time of year, the high slopes are covered with flowering plants which later die back in the summer heat. People are out gathering plants, returning loaded down with small bushes used for fuel. Millennia of livestock grazing has also had an impact on the types of plants which prosper – those which are shrubby, spiny, aromatic or poisonous tend to predominate. The rangeland is crucial for villagers’ economic survival – for grazing, sowing rain-fed (lalmi) crops in fields cut into the mountainsides, and as a source of fodder, food, fuel and medicinal plants.
With the valleys verdant and full of birds, it is difficult to imagine how hard his place is to live in year-round. But the growing season is short and the winter gruelling and land that is both flat enough and not too rocky to cultivate is in short supply; only two per cent of Bamyan province as a whole can be irrigated. Rangeland, on the other hand, accounts for more than 90 per cent of the land area of the province. Above the high pastures lie the always-snowy peaks, the highest being the Shah Foladi mountain itself at 5050 metres above sea level.
Shah Foladi was given its protected status as a ‘human landscape’, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature:
The interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.” (1)
The half dozen valleys of the Shah Foladi are tributaries of the more familiar, main Bamyan river valley where the provincial capital is sited. Bamyan city, itself a UNESCO world heritage site and tourist attraction with its (now empty) Buddha niches and ancient ruined cities, also has the main bazaar, government offices, university and routes out to the wider world. Shah Foladi is also part of the Koh-e Baba mountain range, which, with its heavy snowfall and perennial snow cover, is a nationally important watershed that feeds into nearly all Afghanistan’s major river systems, including the Harirud, Helmand, Kabul, Kunduz and Balkh rivers.
What makes Shah Foladi special?
Flowers, crops …
The area is “biogeographically unique,” says the document arguing the case for protected status, “The Justification for the Proposed Shah Foladi Mountain Landscape Conservation Area” which was put together by the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (document not available online, but seen by AAN). The Justification describes the wide diversity of plants and habitats (including the Afghan semi-desert eco-region which, in global terms, is critically endangered): (2)
Most notable of these plant communities are the alpine rangelands where the summer flocks are grazed; and then the subalpine zone spreading down and merging into the semi-desert foothills. In both these lower zones dense, cushion-like thorny plants termed ‘tragacanths’ are found. They form one of the most characteristic features of the Central Highlands. Then within these zones are specialized communities such as those inhabiting scree slopes, gullies, fenland and flood plain meadows. Finally, spreading upwards to various levels and merging other floral communities is a variety of habitats with their specialized plants, such as the plateaus which have characteristic flora in the spring, caused by moist soils and relatively high air humidity in addition to higher temperatures. In these plateaus one can find a large number of species flowering, in particular annuals and geophytes [plants such as iris and tulips with bulbs or tubers].
Species of flowering plants, which are endemic, ie found nowhere else in the world, are especially common in Afghanistan, an evolutionary response to isolation and micro-environments. (3) That high number is evidence also that the region has been an evolutionary centre for flowering plants. Many endemics are found in the Shah Foladi as shown by the number of species with ‘bamianica’ in their names. (4) Villagers’ knowledge of local plants is extensive – necessary given that foraging is essential for survival. Important plants include those which are eaten, such as rhubarb, mullein and giant hogweed, those used for fuel or fodder, like the different species of Artemisia, and medicinal plants, such as liquorice and asafoetida (a digestant and killer of parasitic worms and, when used in irrigation water, potato pests). (5) The rangeland supplies as much as 60 per cent of household income through the sale of livestock (sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, cows). Animals are grazed for six to seven months of the year on the high pastures (often with people also moving to rudimentary summer settlements called ailaq) before, because of snow, cold and predation, being brought to grazing areas nearer the villages and eventually in the coldest months, inside to be stall fed.
A cousinia (Haeckeliae Bornm.), not from Bamyan but from Nuristan, found by a German expedition in 1935. Photo: from the botanical expedition report.
Local varieties of crops were also part of why Shah Foladi was given protected status. Bred to suit very particular micro-climates and growing conditions, these very local varieties are known as ‘landraces’. They generally crop less heavily than modern ‘improved’ varieties, but need less fertiliser and other inputs and are less vulnerable to disease and bad weather. Afghanistan and its region is a centre of crop origin, one of the so-called Vavilov Centres, after the Russian scientist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov who first identified eight regions of the world where food crops were originally domesticated from wild plants. From the Afghanistan and the Central Asian region came bread wheat, chickpeas, peas, flax, cotton, hemp, alfalfa, clover, apple, pear, pomegranate, quince, sweet cherry, melons, grapes, pistachio, onion, garlic, spinach, carrot. This means some of the crops grown here today have close cousins in the wild. Preserving the rich genetic diversity of the landraces and the wild ancestors of food crops is of global importance, given commercial over-reliance on a few varieties and in the face of climate change.
… birds, mammals …
Shah Foladi is also important for birds, especially migrants. Bird Life International, estimates 273 species of birds are likely to occur in Bamyan province; the International Union for Conservation of Nature List of Threatened Species has said 17 of these species are classed as ‘of global conservation concern’. These include the sociable plover Vanellus grgarius (critically endangered) and the white-headed duck Oxyura luecocephala (endangered), as well as seven vulnerable species and eight near-threatened species. The Afghan snowfinch (Montifringilla theresae), Afghanistan’s only endemic bird species, has also been documented in the Shah Foladi – it lives on stony mountain slopes, plateaux and open hillsides at altitudes of 2,575–3,000 metres above sea level. (For more on Afghanistan and its birds, see AAN’s dossier.)
As for mammals, in 2012, a preliminary assessment by the non-governmental Conservation Organization for Afghan Mountains (COAM), found evidence for (with Latin and Dari names in brackets): urial sheep (Ovis orientalis, ahu nekshir; red fox (Vulpes vulpes, robai-ye surkh); long-tailed marmot (Marmota caudate, tabarghan), stone martin (Martes foina, dala khafaq), weasel, (Mustela nivalis, rasu) and wolf (Canis lupus, gurg). Villagers also spoke of sightings of leopards (presumably, the subspecies of Persian leopard, Panthera pardus ciscaucasica, palang), Himalayan lynx (Lynx lynx isabellina, siyah gosh) and Pallas’ Cat (Otocolobus manul, peshak-e kohi) – all species under threat. However, COAM counselled that further scrutiny was needed:
This assessment represents a very modest first step in better understanding the distribution of carnivore species in the Shah Foladi region of the Koh-e Baba mountain range. Village interviews provided information related to abundance trends, local perceptions of large carnivores, and where best to focus subsequent field surveys. Claims of leopards in the Shah Foladi may or may not be confirmed, but clearly, further study is warranted given their conservation status.
Villagers in the Sumara Valley of Shah Foladi told AAN that hunting was now banned and hunters should be reported to the authorities. Actually hunting has been banned nationally since 2009, but the message was made afresh when the area got protected status. There has been hunting, locals told AAN: “It was Pakistanis or Afghans from outside the province employed by Pakistanis who used to come to capture falcons and other birds of prey.” The birds fetch high prices when sold on, particularly to Arabs from the Gulf where falconry is popular (see AAN dispatch on the hunting of the houbara bustard). Finches and other song birds are also captured and sold in Bamyan bazaar as pets. Big cat fur can also bring in huge (for locals) sums of money.
The rangeland itself is also vulnerable to over-grazing and over-foraging. Especially problematic is the pulling out of fuel crops with roots intact (the roots also burn); if roots are left in the ground, the plant may well grow back. Degraded rangeland would be a disaster for locals’ long-term survival, as well as making the much more vulnerable to flooding. During the Taleban-era, the author spoke to locals around Panjab – to the south-west – about the growing scarcity of certain medical plants which were then being over-foraged. Their sale – ultimately the main market was in Pakistan – had, traditionally, been a major source of cash income for people. That trade appears to have fallen off – it is not clear why. Currently, getting a system of sustainable use of medical plants is being developed nationally: places like Shah Foladi, where there is both local expertise and security for research, should be useful in drawing up workable criteria.
… people …
If the protected area status is to work, it will depend not so much on the state banning activities like hunting or over-foraging but because the idea has been embraced by local people who see the overall benefits of being the custodians of the environment. There have already been two years of ‘early action’ work, and five more years of support is in the pipeline. Such work includes not only scientific surveys and research, including locals participating in research and environmental education, but also vocational training and valley-level planning, micro hydro-electricity schemes and projects to do with sanitation, water storage, pathways, orchards, woodlots, improved stoves, solar lanterns, solar kettles and tandoors (bread ovens) that use less fuel.
When AAN visited the Sumara valley, flood protection work had just finished – barriers of stone and gabions (large stones held in wire netting) had been installed at key points along the river, where it is particularly liable to flood or to protect important buildings such as the mosque or school. At especially vulnerable points, triangular structures using willow sticks around large stones had been built; the willow roots into the soil making an immensely strong barrier to flood water. Bridges had also been built up higher to escape flood water.
Protecting areas despite the conflict
Shah Foladi is the third area of Afghanistan since 2001 to get protected area status, (6) joining Band-e Amir (2009) which is also a national park, and the Wakhan (Big and Little Pamirs) in Badakhshan (2014) (see AAN on the Kyrghyz of the Wakhan). All three areas are certainly ecologically important. However, they were also chosen for pragmatic reasons – they are places where there is government writ and/or people are friendly towards both state and foreign assistance.
Other areas have been proposed, but protected status would be of little practical value while the armed conflict continues. In the Central Highlands itself the warmer, southern slopes of the Koh-e Baba are likely to be as or more ecologically important in terms of diversity and numbers of flora and fauna as the northern-facing Shah Foladi, but they are more difficult to access because they border insurgent areas in Wardak province. As yet, they have been little surveyed. As to watersheds, veteran agriculturist Anthony Fitzherbert, a Briton who has been working in Afghanistan since the 1970s and is due shortly to publish an illustrated field guide to traditional fodder and forage crops in Afghanistan, told AAN, “Shah Foladi gives birth to the head-water streams that give life to the historically important Bamyan valley and is a significant (but certainly not the only or even the most significant) source of water feeding into the Kunduz system.” However, he adds, “Really the whole of the Koh-e Baba range, not just the Shah Foladi, is significant as the main ‘water tower’ of central Afghanistan that gives birth to several significant river systems (part of) the Kunduz, the Harirud, the Helmand, and (part of) the Kabul system (feeding into the Indus).”
Yet creating an effective network of protected areas in Afghanistan is hugely difficult, said a research paper by M F Johnson and others (7), “given the ongoing violence, which hampers both on-the-ground collection of data and the institutional presence necessary to develop protected areas.” War and insecurity, local politics and power inequalities all make Afghanistan a difficult place to work in. The authors describe the dozen or so areas proposed for protected status before the outbreak of the war in 1978 and, examining them again in 2012, find they still rank as the ecologically significant areas of Afghanistan. Yet, while the Big Pamirs are now legally protected, equally significant Nuristan (both were at the top of Johnson’s 2012 rankings) is too conflict-ridden for the environment (or indeed much else) to be protected by the state (see this recent AAN report on the war there).
Band-e Amir came further down in the rankings, along with areas like Dasht-e Nawar, a meltwater-fed shallow lake in Ghazni where flamingos used to flock, the horizon red with “gigantic swarms” of them, according to Emperor Babur, founder of the Moghul empire. This author travelled through Dasht-e Nawar in spring 2002 when heavy winter snow and good spring rains had followed several years of drought; it was flower-filled, one of the most beautiful areas she has seen in Afghanistan. Dasht-e Nawar itself is free of conflict, but Ghazni province as a whole is embroiled in insurgency. So we return to the choice of Shah Foladi, which, incidentally, did not appear in the pre-1978 list. As Fitzherbert comments, it is a place where security makes it possible to establish a conservation programme and undertake scientific studies and research:
I can think of many, many other equally deserving locations in Afghanistan that merit being designated for special conservation interest and protection, but at the present time they are just not accessible or secure. With limited financial resources it has been necessary to select the possible and as things are at present in Afghanistan Shah Foladi ticks those boxes.
A different model from Band-e Amir
Shah Foladi is close to – just an hour or two’s drive – but very different from Band-e Amir, which is both a protected area and national park. Band-e Amir has a globally rare and, each time you see it, breath-taking geology, one of only half a dozen instances in the world of travertine lake systems. The calcareous dams create lakes of pure water, which are jewel-like in colour – turquoise, aquamarine and emerald. For many Afghans, Band-e Amir also has religious significance; they believe the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, for Sunnis, his fourth and, for Shias, his first rightful successor, Hazrat Ali, travelled here miraculously from Mecca. After performing several marvels including carving out the lakes with his sword, Zulfiqar, and praying, he left behind waters which were blessed with healing powers. A lovely small shrine marking the spot where Hazrat Ali is reported to have prayed is built on the shores of Haibad or the Awesome Lake.
Women, especially those having difficulty having children, travel sometimes for days. This author met women from Kabul, Daikundi, Ghor and Mazar who had come to get lowered into the water with ropes round their waists (as most cannot swim) in the belief that the water’s barakat or blessings would help them get children. The wonders of Band-e Amir – both natural and spiritual – attract masses of visitors. Band-e Amir is far more of a mixed attraction and a comfortable place for women to come to than others in Afghanistan, which tend to be male-only or male-dominated. On the last Friday before Ramadan, when AAN visited the park, 4000 or 5000 visitors had come, a mix of pilgrims, picnicking families and young men setting up barbeques and dancing.
That Band-e Amir has been developed in benign, useful and popular ways, able to support huge and increasing influxes of tourists while not being overwhelmed or damaged, seems a miracle in its own right. Bamyan used to be a three to four hour drive away, but with a new road, is now just an hour distant, and the crowds flock to the lakes. Greater numbers have been held back only by the insecure roads from Kabul – although some Kabulis continue to drive here. The park’s management plan and committee have been hugely significant. Those with a stake in the national park – representatives of the 13 villages round the lakes, the Ministry of Agriculture, National Environmental Protection Agency and the non-governmental Wildlife Conservation Society – all signed off on a management plan when the national park was established. They meet regularly with the Bamyan governor chairing – former governor Habiba Sarobi was singled out as particularly supportive of the national park.
The management plan is an actively used document, implemented and adhered to. It has prevented chancy businessmen with letters of permission from random senior government officials from building new hotels on the hill above the shrine or on the skylines round the lake or grabbing community-owned concessions. At the same time, it has encouraged the building of public facilities for tourists. There are public toilets and, for women, washrooms, including under the waterfalls where they can bathe in private. There are litter bins and litter-pickers, as well as park rangers, including women rangers. Income from the park goes to the municipality which recycles some back to the park. Benefits, such as concessions and employment, are distributed between the 13 lake-side villages, rather than the lion’s share going to those near the tourist attractions. So, for example, each village gets to provide equal numbers of labourers.
Some deft design features in the park are a delight. A deep ditch separates a new road and paved path, allowing pedestrians to walk without being bothered by car drivers, while the drivers are also stopped from straying onto the dam itself. When this author first visited Band-e Amir in 2000, she drove straight across the fragile dam to park near the shrine and what was then a little hotel next to the lake. The area that she drove over, just downstream from Band-e Haibad, has now been fenced off so that livestock cannot graze there; trees have also been planted. It is already regenerating. Plants and wildlife are returning and what was a bare, grazed and driven-over area of streams and travertine is recovering to what in Afghanistan is a rare, watery ecosystem seen also between the higher lakes (Zulfiqar, Panir and Pudina). This author saw orchids and candytuft, frogs and a range of birds – hoopoes, red-shanks, warblers (including the clamorous reed warbler, an undistinguished brown bird till it opens its mouth – all red gullet – to sing raucously), an Indian roller and common dipper, while a cuckoo called from trees further down the valley.
Fish have also returned to Band-e Haibad after fishing was banned. In 2000, when I was the only visitor and the hotelier and keeper of the shrine, Haji Ismael, had only memories of the glory days of tourism in the 1970s, (8) there was fish for breakfast, lunch and tea. After the fall of the Taleban and the return of the internally displaced, refugees and tourists, overfishing with explosives and electrocution devastated stocks. Now the ban has taken hold and the fish are back: you can swim with them.
Sadly, the numbers of park rangers, employees of the ministry of agriculture, have been cut back. Only four of 14 are left – the others were paid for, it seems, out of a temporary project, rather than being part of the ministry’s regular staff. However, it is clear a mass tourist attraction like Band-e Amir needs its rangers, if only for public safety. While this author was there, a young man drowned, a death that could have been prevented if a ranger – who are all trained in first aid including mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – had been on hand. Given the amount of money the park makes out of entrance fees alone, it would seem they could be afforded.
Tourism in Shah Foladi?
Shah Foladi is also close to a major tourist centre, Bamyan city, and has had some promotion as a tourist area in its own right – skiing in the winter and a Shah Foladi trail marked through the mountains, traversing the valleys and with designated homes in villages along the way where hikers can stay overnight. I walked a little part of it and would have been happy to walk more: the flowers and views were stunning and local people friendly and chatty. It has few takers at the moment and it is difficult to imagine it having mass appeal any time soon, given the insecurity on the roads getting to the province and the fact that hiking is a growing, but still minority, pastime for Afghans. However, for those interested in ecology, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, horseback riding and birdwatching – the area is potentially extremely attractive, both for day or afternoon trips from Bamyan or multi-day hiking.
Protection during conflict?
As Johnston et al, authors of the research paper on the difficulties of creating protected areas commented, “Protecting Afghanistan’s unique natural heritage after decades of conflict and continuing political turmoil is one of the most challenging issues facing Afghans today.” It is also one of the most important given that the conflict laid and continues to lay the conditions for a decimation of the country’s natural resources, particularly forests. Yet, say the report’s authors, “Protected areas can be one of the most important mechanisms to conserve biodiversity and can stimulate social and economic development after decades of war.” (See also UNEP’s assessment of Afghanistan’s biodiversity and the importance of maintaining it. Moreover, in a country where most people are dependent on natural resources, the future of communities and the environment depends on finding ways to harness local insight and inventiveness and prevent grabbing of resources such as land, forests and water by the powerful or over-use of them because of population increase and poverty.
It is difficult to find fault with this latest government initiative – unless it is that other areas of Afghanistan are equally deserving, but too troubled for such a project or that other parts of the Hazarajat are even poorer and more in need of special support. Shah Foladi is poor by Afghan standards, but not compared with other parts of the Central Highlands. Even from the point of view of spending on projects related to the protected status, costs seemed low; the work AAN saw were community projects with a mix of local volunteers and paid labour, with the benefit of expertise and advice from technical experts. It was also relatively low tech. Compare this with the last project that AAN looked at in Bamyan, the greatly delayed, ‘white elephant’ designation of the city as South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)’s 2015 Capital of Culture where 400,000 dollars were spent on an opening ceremony and precious little was left to show for it all.
(1) Such a ‘conservation area in a human landscape’ is known as a ‘category 5’ protected area. Protected areas generally are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as:
A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.
(2) This 2009 report, “Identifying Priority Zones for a Protected Area Network in Afghanistan” is an interesting read with some useful maps and has more detail on the Afghan semi-desert eco-region and other eco-regions in the country.
(3) The flora handbook for Afghanistan is by S W Breckle and M D Rafiqpoor, “Field Guide Afghanistan: Flora and Vegetation”, Scientia Bonnensis (2010) ISBN 3940766305, 9783940766304. Sadly, it is not commercially available. In Kabul, a reference copy can be read in the AREU library and an AAN review here.
(4) They include (with English names, where appropriate, in brackets): Cousinia bamianica (a ‘thistle’, a term which covers members of various ‘tribes’ of plants) Silene bamianica (campion), Anabasis bamianica, Salsola bamianica (saltwort) Eremostachys bamianica, Phlomoides bamianica (mullein), Linaria bamianica (toadflax), and Scrophularia bamianica (figwort).
(5) AAN earlier compiled a list of the ‘top ten foraging plants of the Koh-e Baba’:
1. Wormwood, ikhaq/rawana, Artemisia leucotricha, a family of shrubs scented with aromatic oils, some gathered for fodder, some for fuel;
2. Rhubarb, chukri/rawash, Rheum ribes, eaten;
3. Liquorice, shirin boya, Glycerrhia glabra, roots boiled to make a tea to treat stomach ache;
4. Gheghu, Umbuliferae ferulus, a fodder plant from the carrot family;
5. Giant hogweed, baldarghu, Heracleum mantegazzianum, also carrot family, gathered for food;
6. Mullein, shirish, Verbascum, food and medicine;
7. Cannabis, chars, Cannabis sativa, medicinal;
8. Asafoetida, (h)ing, Ferula asafoetida, used in cooking and as an effective digestant, anti-flatulent; also killer of intestinal worms and, when added to irrigation water, potato pests;
9. Caraway, zira-ye kohi, Carum carvi, another spice;
10. Wild apples, Seb, Malus Sieversii.
(6) The Afghan legal framework is the 2007 Environment Law, which called for a national protected area system and a comprehensive plan for the establishment and implementation of that system. Johnson et al commented:
The Environment Law was the first piece of legislation passed under the interim Government after the fall of the Taliban and was intended to provide a regulatory framework from which more detailed legislation would evolve. It provided an important starting point in a chaotic regulatory landscape, and its emphasis on protected areas made the planning and development of parks a priority for implementing agencies (primarily the National Environmental Protection Agency [NEPA] and the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock [MAIL]).
(7) M F Johnson, Nina Kanderian, Christopher C. Shank, Haqiq Rahmani, David Lawson, Peter Smallwood, “Setting priorities for protected area planning in a conflict zone – Afghanistan’s National Protected Area System Plan. Biological Conservation (2012).
(8) I filmed Haji Ismael for a BBC piece on tourism which aired in October 2000: he showed me round the shrine which had been built by his grandfather before giving a TV interview while floating in the icy waters of Lake Haibad:
I opened this hotel forty years ago… My nick-name’s The Diver – I used to be a champion swimmer until I lost my leg in fighting with the Soviet army. We left for Iran as refugees and only came back seven years ago when I re-opened the hotel. We’d love to see foreigners here again.
A few months later Haji Ismael would be one of the almost 200 civilians killed in a massacre by the Taleban in January 2001.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020