- Author: Ann Brody Guy
It had been 40 days since he applied for his visa, and Abdul Wali Modaqiq, the deputy director general of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, had not heard a peep from the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) at UC Berkeley was starting in just days but, despite having a diplomatic passport and a government-sanctioned mission to attend the program, he and his Asia Foundation sponsors didn’t know if they were stuck in a bureaucratic snafu or a silent political standoff.
Then on the Thursday afternoon in June that UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was welcoming the freshly arrived ELP fellows to campus, Modaqiq received a call: his visa was waiting for him at the embassy. Hasty preparations, a flight from Kabul, a 10-hour layover in Dubai, and 16 hours in the air brought Modaqiq to San Francisco at 4 p.m. Sunday; he was at a 5:30 session that night.
Parks, sustainable farming, fisheries, and more
Afghanistan joined a diverse and far-flung geographic cohort at the ELP that represented some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.
Protected-area managers, for example, many of them from African nations, were struggling to balance biodiversity preservation and community needs. Dubiure Umaru Farouk, a wildlife conservationist with the Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission in Ghana and the manager of Mole National Park, said it’s a huge challenge in Ghana and throughout Africa, where protected areas are plagued by poaching of protected species and illegal harvesting of natural resources.
“We have to enforce the law, but we also have to recognize the fact that people are entitled to survival,” he said. Farouk presented his case study, which documents a paradigm shift from a policing-based strategy to a collaborative approach that includes participation from local communities and civic groups.
Kelzang Wangchuck, park manager of Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park in central Bhutan, says, unlike countries with deforestation issues, 51 percent of Bhutan is protected area and environmental protection is the government’s largest department.
“But employees are mainly field workers, like rangers — not scientists,” he says, so they have no one to organize research and conservation efforts. “We have many rare animals that are going extinct, like white-bellied heron — there are only 200 left in the world.” This summer Wangchuck connected with Berkeley scientists who might be able to get research funding to partner with him.
Afghanistan’s environmental challenges
Modaqiq says his agency covers all issues that intersect with the environment — agriculture, public health, public works — all complicated by years of conflict. “We have very good environmental laws to protect Afghanistan, which we wrote with the help of our international colleagues,” but paper and books, he says, will only get you so far. One of his main goals this summer was to hear about the most effective implementation strategies. “My plan is to learn from other people, other colleagues, what worked.”
Despite his hurried travel and the enormous responsibilities waiting for him back in Kabul, Modaqiq said he was thrilled to attend.
“For the first time in my life, a person from Afghanistan is taking part in a program like this, talking about the environment,” he says, emotion creeping into his diplomatic demeanor. “People may be thinking, 'Afghanistan has an environmental agency? Afghanistan has an environment?'” It does, and he’s been working on it for seven years.
After the fall of the Taliban, the government established the first agency responsible for the environment in the history of the country. Since 2005, the National Environmental Protection Agency, or NEPA, has been dealing with how to address Afghanistan’s particular challenges.
"We have environmental problem such as urban pollution, land degradation, cutting of forests, and conflicts on access to natural resources in the country. NEPA's role is to develop policies and regulatory frameworks to deal with those issues and improve the environment for the existing and future generations," Modaqiq said.