Why Conservation Matters in Conflict Zones


The snow leopard is one of the species the Wildlife Conservation Society is working to protect in Afghanistan. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

It's easy to be cynical or pessimistic about the spotting of a rare type of bird, the creation of a national park, or the establishment of a protected species list in a country such as Afghanistan. Where violence and poverty are rife, why should time, money, and energy be spent protecting animals or landscapes? Isn't such work at best futile, at worst detracting from meeting real needs? To such questions, the founder of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)'s Afghanistan Program has offered a compelling defense.In the midst of its suffering, WCS Asia Program Deputy Director Peter Zahler writes:

Afghanistan contains a surprising diversity of life, with 10 species of hoofed mammals -- ranging from delicate gazelles to giant Marco Polo sheep -- and nine species of wild cat.... Conservation in Afghanistan matters to the world, and it matters for more than just wildlife: it can provide a way for post-conflict rural communities to manage their natural resources.

Rural Resource Management Gone Awry
More than anyone else, Zahler writes, poor and rural communities are "directly dependent upon environmental services" -- clean water to drink and cook with, enough forests to provide firewood and building materials, and healthy grasslands on which to graze their livestock. War not only takes lives but also destroys "local infrastructure such as water channels, crop fields, storage buildings, local markets, and roads" and causes "historic systems of resource management [to] crumble" as desperate people level forests and overgraze grasslands.

The WCS sees its work in Afghanistan as an effort to fill this "governance gap," by helping create the institutions needed to protect both the natural environment and the vulnerable people who depend on it. Though 80 percent of Afghans live in rural parts of the country, little reconstruction aid has reached areas outside the capital city of Kabul. "If local environmental degradation continues, people will no longer be able to carve a living out of the fragile steppe, desert, and mountains," Zahler writes. "Poverty will spread, communities and cultural practices will dissolve, and rural migration will further destabilize neighboring communities and regions."

The Current 'State of the Wild'
Zahler's essay, "Conservation and Governance: Lessons from the Reconstruction Effort in Afghanistan," appears in the organization's third State of the Wild collection of writings on what the WCS terms "the world's most pressing conservation challenges." Though the essays cover everything from the status of forest elephants in Asia and Africa to the importance of ocean ecosystems, the book places a special focus on war and other human conflicts and how they impact wildlife and wild places -- and how conservation can contribute to peace-building and reconstruction in post-conflict areas.

"Conservation requires a commitment to saving our natural wonders in times of war and peace," WCS President Steve Sanderson wrote in a statement announcing the book's recent release. "Conserving the world's wildlife and wild places is a part of ensuring long-term security. The essays in State of the Wild address this crucial connection."

More about conflict and the environment:
Nature Iraq's 'Second Creation Story' (Video)
Peace Could Prove Problematic For Migratory Birds
Linking Water, Conflict, Gender, and Migration: Day 2 at the World Water Forum
Conflict's Unexpected Link to Conservation
Wildlife Preserve Planned for Korean Demilitarized Zone
Massive Herds of Animals Discovered Flourishing in Southern Sudan

Tags: Animals | Conservation | Developing Nations | Endangered Species | Poverty

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