Afghanistan bets on peace with park

Officials hope tourists will flock to chain of lakes

A unique cascade of turquoise lakes nestled in bleak mountains near the heart of Afghanistan was touted as a national park in the 1970s, long before three decades of war drove the tourists away. Yesterday Afghanistan declared Band-e-Amir its first conservation area, hoping nature-lovers will return.

For decades, the area deteriorated along with so much else in a country consumed by war. The last of Band-e-Amir's magnificent snow leopards were hunted down some time in the 1980s while Soviet troops were battling the mujahedin. The Taliban blew up spectacular ancient giant Buddha statues in the nearby Bamiyan Valley in 2001.

But today the area is far from any fighting and Afghan tourists have started to return. Authorities hope foreigners who made Afghanistan a stop on the "hippy trail" in the 1970s will one day come back too.

The chain of lakes sit around 9,500 feet above sea level and the park is spread across 230 square miles. To get there it is a bone-jarring day's drive from Kabul over dirt roads that are considered unsafe for foreigners. There is only a dirt airstrip at the nearest town.

But the giant natural dams, formed from slow-growing deposits of travertine stone that hold back each pool of startlingly blue water, are a unique natural treasure.

"There is nothing else in the world that looks like that," said Peter Smallwood, Afghanistan country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has helped set up the park. "There are some travertine dams that are bigger but nothing so vertically sheer. It is so thin and tall it looks almost unreal."

Wetlands at the edge of the lake are a haven for migrating birds in an otherwise arid zone, and boast a rare species which lives only in the area – the Afghan snowfinch. Although the Buddhas are gone, the Bamiyan Valley is still breathtakingly beautiful, and is scattered with other historic sights.

Local entrepreneurs are hoping that official national park status will bring a steadier stream of Afghan tourists to their doors throughout the summer months. "We are very poor people. If this opens a gate for the rich people to come and visit, at the very least we will have a chance to see what they look like," Sayid Abdul Jafar, a villager from inside the park, said with a grin.

Persuading the 20,000 people who live in what is now Band-e-Amir park to support the project has been a challenge. Park rangers try to control overgrazing of the shrubs around the lake edge which poor local farmers rely on.

"Their life is almost entirely dependent on the natural resources, so it is a big deal for them to make this commitment, especially when they are still not entirely sure it will benefit them," said Mr Jafar, who was chosen to represent his neighbours on the park management committee.

The local practices that are now banned include fishing with hand grenades. Four rangers enforce the unpopular rules for salaries of less than $60 a month, and are often on duty for 24 hours at a time. They were decked out in new uniforms when they were interviewed before the park's launch, but grumbled that they don't yet have everything they need.

"We feel that after a year and a half on the job, we are at the same place we started – with a lack of equipment, expertise and government support," said ranger Haji Zahir.

Always lurking is the possibility that increased unrest in other parts of Afghanistan may spill over into Bamiyan. "The risk is not trivial," acknowledged Mr Smallwood. "But if the whole situation does devolve, afterwards there will be another rebuilding. In some ways the most important thing we're doing is not any laws we get passed or policies or institutions, it's the ideas we are planting."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas