Afghanistan’s women rangers
When the Taliban dynamited the famous giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, they were not only aiming to wipe out the ‘un-Islamic’ idols, but also the global fascination tied to them. From the late 1950s to the 1970s, foreign travellers, many of whom were following the ‘hippie trail’ of the Hindu Kush, would come to visit the towering ancient statues.
On this journey, they would stop at Band-e-Amir, a nearby natural site of equal wonder, and marvel at its six sapphire-coloured mineral-rich lakes.
This is when the local villagers of Band-e-Amir first came to understand that tourists were an economic blessing and that the jaw-dropping beauty of their surroundings was an opportunity for a better life.
The Afghan government first attempted to declare Band-e-Amir a national park in 1973, but political unrest followed by decades of war halted its plans. At its worst, the park’s roads were heavily mined by local militias, with villagers forced to flee to higher ground or to Iran.
In a country crippled by war, conservation hasn’t been at the front of people’s minds.
Those who stayed exploited the park in order to survive: hunting its wildlife, chopping down its wood and using damaging fishing practices, such as the use of hand grenades, to fish its fragile lakes.
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Afghan government was able officially to declare Band-e-Amir a national park. It became a recipient of the Global Environment Facility, an environmental fund used and implemented by the United Nations Development Progamme (UNDP) worldwide.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, a global organization specializing in environmental protection, was brought in to advise and assist the park’s 14 villages, each with around 500 residents, take collective major decisions for the park – to this day, they have the most important say in the site’s future.
It was also a local collective which decided the park needed female rangers. With over 6,000 local tourists visiting the park every year, many of them women and children coming to bathe in what are believed to be Band-e-Amir’s healing waters, it seemed like a no-brainer.
Four local women, all former housewives, have been given their first jobs, not only as park rangers, but as Afghanistan’s first female rangers.
In Afghanistan, where only 16 per cent of women work, these park rangers do so much more than greeting visitors and monitoring litter – they are seen as a symbol of resilience and hope in a region known for the haunting caves where the giant Buddhas once lived.
Now, Kubra, Nikhbakht, Sediqa and Fatima watch over the landscape with a protective eye. It isn’t the Talban who is their greatest worry, but the visitors who flock to the park in their thousands every spring and summer.
Simple things – like not tossing your trash on the ground or starting bonfires, or even the more serious crime of poaching the area’s endangered wildlife – are not common knowledge yet. After every sunny, tourist-filled weekend, the park has a post-festival look, and rangers work with local people to convince them that that soft-drink can they’re holding has a place in a trash bin and doesn’t need to end up in the grass or, worse, the lake.
Afghanistan’s Female Wardens airs on Al Jazeera on 13 May, at 03:30 GMT; 14 May at 16:30 GMT; 15 May 05:30 GMT.