Najiba Sajjadi is passionate about education. Having grown-up in Afghanistan’s central Daikundi Province, the 35-year-old political science graduate is actively involved in raising awareness about women’s rights.
“As a child I was completely different from the rest of my family. I really loved learning, reading story books, writing letters and so on. When my relatives saw my efforts and talent, they encouraged me and also convinced my father to let me go to school,” says Sajjadi.
Since then, she has relentlessly pursued her quest to acquire and share knowledge in Daikundi through a local non-governmental organization which she established.
“I have implemented several projects related to women’s welfare involving raising public awareness on women’s rights and also established botanic fruit demonstration plots, fruit and non-fruit nurseries as well as kitchen gardens,” she adds.
Several hundreds of kilometres away in the country’s northeastern Takhar province, Hasan Jan Osmani, 40, just like Sajjadi, is as passionate about rural communities and heads the Rustaq District Development Assembly.
“My role is to connect the villages and communities to the state, thus improving villagers’ perceptions of the latter. I also monitor the implementation of development projects at the district and local community levels,” says Osmani.
Afghanistan is an agrarian society, and close to 80 per cent of its population, including nearly 90 per cent of the rural poor, relies on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods. Despite increasing food production, farming still remains largely subsistence-based, leaving many vulnerable to disasters such as droughts and floods as well as high food prices.
Improving local livelihoods is therefore strongly dependent on environmental protection and sustainable management of natural resources.
In the 1970s, forest management regulations were enacted by the country’s central and provincial governments. They prohibited illegal residence, logging, grazing or cultivating in pistachio forests. However, after 1979, 40 years of ensuing violent conflict broke down the systems and resulted in a management void which created opportunity for uncontrolled forest exploitation.
With the gradual breakdown of government control, and with increasing economic and political insecurity, grazing, dry land cultivation and timber harvesting in pistachio areas accelerated. It was followed by large-scale deforestation.
Cognizant of these challenges, in 2018, the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) country office in Afghanistan initiated the Forest Restoration for Enhanced Ecosystem Services Functioning in Afghanistan project with generous financial support from the Government of the Republic of Korea.
“The Republic of Korea is a model for reforestation. Its success in restoring severely degraded land in the aftermath of the Korean War in early 1950s was mainly accomplished through government-led efforts but assistance from the international community also played an important role. Therefore, the Korean Government is committed to sharing with the world its knowledge and experience in reforestation,” says Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Afghanistan, Zha Hyoung Rhee.
The project aims at reducing environmental degradation of watersheds in Bamyan, Daikundi and Takhar provinces by improving environmental decision-making based on a better understanding of the impact of human activities on ecosystems and the social context that drives those actions.
“The Forest Restoration for Enhanced Ecosystem Services Functioning in Afghanistan project has incorporated the strengthening of research capabilities, capacity-building of government officials, awareness raising and engagement of local communities, with the intent of upgrading Afghanistan’s reforestation efforts as well as its capacity to cope with natural disasters and climate change,” says Zha.
Between 30 June and 7 July 2019, Sajjadi and Osmani participated in a six-day study tour to South Korea organized as part of the project and in collaboration with Seoul National University. The initiative consisted of a mix of theoretical and practical activities which included site visits as well as meetings and in-depth discussions with their Korean counterparts.
“In South Korea I learned about best practices on reforestation, watershed management, research on medicinal plants and the use of bottom-up policy approaches in community participation, particularly among women. I will use these lessons to improve ecosystems in Daikundi,” says Sajjadi.
Osmani equally extols the benefits of the tour: “I have never been to such an effective, informative and well-organized study tour. It was short but very informative, we have learned a lot about ecosystems.”
Between the 1950s and 1960s, due to the Korean War, and land use change for industrialization, South Korea’s forests were devastated and they occupied only about 35 per cent of the total land area. However, after the Korea Forest Service was established in 1967 the trend was reversed and today forest cover stands at about 64 per cent of the country’s land area.
“Restoring the environment is vital for the long-term well-being of Afghans. However, the capacity of rural communities to maintain sustainable natural resource management and to deal with droughts and floods has been weakened over time by conflict and insecurity,” says UNEP Afghanistan Country Manager Mohammad Hasnain.
“Forests play a critical role in poverty reduction, enhancing food security and supporting livelihoods. The partnership and support from the Republic of Korea is therefore invaluable in strengthening Afghanistan’s natural resource governance,” adds Hasnain.
The tour comprised of 12 participants drawn from civil society, local authorities and the central government of Afghanistan. They were identified on their demonstrated potential leadership to promote and contribute to building strong community forestry in Afghanistan. One more study tour is scheduled to be held in 2020 for national and provincial government leadership. It is intended to enhance understanding of South Korea’s best practices for forest and watershed restoration, sustainable forest and ecosystem management as well as environmental leadership.
Since 2002, UNEP has taken an active role in laying the environmental foundations for sustainable development in Afghanistan. Its engagement began with a major post-conflict environmental assessment which was published in 2003. The assessment highlighted serious and widespread land and resource degradation, including lowered water tables, desiccation of wetlands, widespread loss of vegetative cover, erosion and loss of wildlife.
Learn more about UN Environment’s work on the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.
For more information please contact:
Stefan Smith, Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts Coordinator
Mohammad Hasnain, Country Programme Manager.