04 May 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Changing the Afghan landscape, one tree at a time

For years, the valleys and mountain slopes of Chapqulak Qabrizaghak village in Afghanistan’s Bamyan Province stood bare and exposed, at the mercy of the forces of nature – floods, avalanches, strong winds, dust storms.

Today, rows of willow and poplar trees adorn the landscape – the fruits of an ongoing tree-planting initiative launched three years ago. This has been a welcome sight for the members of the local community.

The ecosystem restoration project was conceived as part of UN Environment’s Building Environmental Resilience in Afghanistan (BERA) programme, which includes components such as resilience and disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation as well as training, advocacy and outreach on environmental issues. With the support of UN Environment’s Afghanistan office, the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) in Bamyan has distributed trees to local communities in Chapqulak Qabrizaghak village since 2015.

Bamyan landscape
“Before the tree-planting project, the slopes were empty and desert-like," says Community Environmental Officer, Haji Qader Khoshkak Payen (Zahra Khodadadi/UN Environment).

The project sought to promote an integrated approach to building resilience and sustainability. Small dams were constructed to control floods and erosion, and a reservoir was built to better manage the area’s water supplies. Furthermore, a community garden was established to involve women in natural resource management. Alfalfa and almond-tree terraces were cultivated across the mountainsides to stabilize the slopes.

“Every year, NEPA Bamyan distributes trees to local communities at the onset of the tree-planting season. To date, about 70,000 trees have been planted in Chapqulak Qabrizaghak village and the neighbouring areas,” says UN Environment Afghanistan Central Highlands Officer Ali Rahimi.

A few years later, the landscape surrounding the village has been transformed – to the community’s benefit.

“Before the tree-planting project, the slopes were empty and desert-like. Floods often destroyed houses and property during spring due to heavy rains, says Community Environmental Officer, Haji Qader Khoshkak Payen. “Today, the village has become greener, the trees have made the place look more beautiful and the speed and velocity of floods has diminished.”

Bamyan women
UN Environment is working to promote women's involvement in natural resource management in Afghanistan's Bamyan Province (Zahra Khodadadi/UN Environment).

The trees serve as a source of food, animal fodder and medicine. Wood, branches and bushes also provide a major source of affordable, sustainable energy for cooking and heating.

“The project has had a positive impact. The trees help to trap dust clouds and we no longer have to go to the bazaar to buy fruit thanks to the community garden,” says Roboba Gawhari, a Chapqulak Qabrizaghak resident who tends the community garden together with other women.

The greatest challenge by far, however, has been securing enough water.

“The priority is water. For without water, the trees cannot be irrigated; they become dry and we lose them,” says Haji Qader Khoshkak Payen, emphasizing that the project would benefit from the construction of additional water reservoirs.

Initially, the project encountered some challenges. “In the past, some people were given trees to plant but they did not understand the benefits of tree planting,” says Mohammad Sharif Poya, NEPA Natural Heritage Protection Officer. But technical trainings and workshops have helped community members appreciate the importance of using the trees to stabilize their slopes.

Bamyan garden
A community garden in Bamyan Province (Zahra Khodadadi/UN Environment)

“Increasingly, people know about the value of the environment and techniques of controlling natural disasters like floods and avalanches. Our focus going forward is to make sure that even when the project ends, local communities will have acquired practical knowledge of disaster mitigation,” he says.

“We now receive a lot of requests for trees, as communities learn more about the benefits of tree planting in wildlife and rangeland management,” he adds.

To mark the Afghan Nawruz holiday on 21 March – an occasion traditionally marked by tree planting across the country to welcome the New Year – NEPA Bamyan distributed 400 fruit trees and 15,000 non-fruit trees in Chapqulak Qabrizaghak and the wider Bamyan Province.

“I feel that what we are doing is fundamental work,” says Haji Qader Khoshkak Payen. “For me, this project is about preserving the beauty of the place and protecting the environment for future generations. We are changing the landscape and contributing to a more sustainable world, one tree at a time.”

Learn more about UN Environment’s work on the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts. More information about our work in Afghanistan is available here.