The Collegian
Thursday, August 18, 2022

Smallwood leaves for yearlong conservation effort in Afghanistan

As University of Richmond biology professor Peter Smallwood stares out of his office window, he doesn't see pristine green lawns, stately brick walkways or groups of students walking to class.

Instead, a large stone fortress looms on a distant hill. In another direction, he gazes at decaying buildings.

Inside an office in the heart of Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, Smallwood begins yet another day of his yearlong service as the Afghanistan country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

He's working primarily as an administrator for the society, collaborating with Afghan locals, government officials from the United States and Afghanistan and others to implement conservation biology projects throughout the embattled country.

Nearly a quarter-century of continuous fighting has waged a battle not only on Afghan peoples < leaving many of them severely impoverished - but the wildlife there as well.

Forests have been slashed, grasslands decimated and soils eroded as a result of the fighting, but also because displaced people rely heavily on these resources for survival. The lack of infrastructure allocated for resource management has stymied any attempts to address the problem.

Smallwood, who arrived Jan. 24 in Kabul, where temperatures this time of year range from 21 to 41 degrees, will jumpstart many conservation projects.

It seems an unlikely place to find a biologist fascinated with squirrels, eastern deciduous trees and spiders, but Smallwood is no stranger to living and working in conflict zones.

1 He visited Afghanistan during the summer of 2006 to help WCS launch its operations there, and from 2004 to 2005 he worked in Baghdad under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, helping wayward Iraqi scientists transition after the fall of Saddam Hussein's ironfisted regime.

That made him an appealing candidate to WCS, a non-governmental organization, whose officials were looking to replace the previous Afghanistan director.

But although Afghanistan is a Petri dish for Smallwood's keen interest in science policy, he has greater worries on his mind with the country's growing instability during the past 12 months.

"I'm very concerned about the escalation," Smallwood said days before departing on his Kabul-bound flight.

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A bombing of Kabul's Hotel Serena in early January that killed six people served as a stark and jarring reminder that the country has continued to lose its once firm grip on terrorist fighters, and that the violence may be spreading to more secure areas where NATO and U.S. troops are stationed.


He's focusing much of his attention on the creation of a transnational park centered in the steep, rugged terrain of the Wakhan Valley in the province of Badakshan. Its borders would expand into parts of Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south and China to the east. Smallwood departs for a two-week trip to the Wakhan Valley on Monday to evaluate the group's operations.

Consultations with the Afghan government about the idea will take place several days before that. But beyond the park project, Smallwood has run into some trouble working with Afghan government officials.

"They just aren't that well-organized yet," he wrote in an e-mail interview from Kabul, referring to missed deadlines for some projects.

Smallwood is also struggling against the attitudes of locals, a weak U.S. dollar and the governments from bordering countries, including Pakistan, which is in turmoil following the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and its recently concluded elections, which resulted in the incumbent party's defeat.

"Wildlife does not get to choose the human-derived circumstances under which it lives," Peter Zahler, assistant director of the WCS Asia program, wrote in an e-mail from northern China. "At times we are forced to work in difficult circumstances to achieve important conservation goals. There are the usual difficulties of working in extremely remote, often high-mountain environments with poor infrastructure and extremes in topography and weather."

Establishing a transnational park is a formidable challenge that David Salisbury, associate professor of geography, environmental and international studies at Richmond, understands well. He worked to create a similar park in the Peruvian Amazon that has unusually high levels of biodiversity, but shares a boundary with another park in Brazil.

"Lawmakers can be reluctant to create transboundary parks," Salisbury said. "They are restricting areas of their international boundary from being populated, and thus perhaps leaving their border unprotected. This action alarms those preoccupied with national security."

The parks - sometimes called "peace parks" - protect biodiversity within their own limits and also serve as buffer zones to protect the neighboring park across the border, Salisbury said. They allow biological species take advantage of additional habitat, and can reduce international conflict over natural resources in sensitive border zones.

WCS received $6.9 million in funding from the United States Agency for International Development in Afghanistan for 2006 to 2009 to implement conservation biology programs in the country. Another $3.4 million grant is set to be awarded for 2008 and 2009, Smallwood said.


There is no protected "green zone" in Kabul, so he's living, working and traveling city streets unarmed, but WCS is providing private security as protection.

"On the weekends, we sometimes go to restaurants, [and] they aren't as busy since the attack on Serena," said Smallwood, 46, who is unmarried and has no children.

Last week, a suicide bomber in Kandahar, south of Kabul, killed 100 people and wounded 90 others who were attending a dogfight. It was the deadliest attack in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion by U.S.-led coalition forces. A day later, another suicide bomber in Kandahar killed 36 more people and wounded 38. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the second attack.

Much of the violence is concentrated south of Kabul. But the bombings nevertheless suggest that the Taliban is now carrying out more aggressive and sophisticated attacks, taking particular aim at police officers and Afghan officials, and that they're not afraid to inflict heavy civilian casualties, a turn in the group's traditional tactics, officials say.

"[The Serena bombing] represents an escalation in tactics," Smallwood said. "Up to now, the attacks in Kabul have really focused on a military and a few diplomatic targets. I'm expecting things to get worse before they get better."

Smallwood also voiced concerns for his Kabul-based staff, which includes people from all over the world and typical Afghans. The rest of the employees are stationed in the Wakhan Valley.

"Kidnapping for ransom is a business around here," Smallwood said. "So far they've hit rich Afghan nationals, but I want to be prepared if that changes."

Smallwood meets almost daily with Afghan, U.S. and WCS officials and speaks with his security chief several times a day.

Mortar barrages no longer faze him, and his reflexes for hitting the ground when he hears a launch are finely tuned from his time in Iraq. Smallwood said he was, at times, enduring between 10 and 15 rockets or mortars a week in Baghdad.

Despite declining stability, security is still stable enough that westerners can travel unarmed, a clear difference between Iraq and Afghanistan, Smallwood said.

"Part of the experience in Iraq was the recognition that I could handle the psychological stresses of a conflict zone," he said.


In a country stricken with poverty, WCS is dedicated to the preservation of global diversity through sustainability, but it keenly recognizes that its goal has to be completed in a human context, Smallwood said.

"You start off contacting the locals, interviewing the locals, and trying to understand how the locals are using wildlife resources," he said. "We'd like to help them use these resources in a way that their grandkids can still use this resource."

In addition to the park, Smallwood is leading projects related to specific species, including the Marco Polo sheep and snow leopard.

Clashes between wild sheep populations and domesticated herds have placed heavy stress on grasslands that both groups eat for food.

Smallwood said he hopes to work with local herdsman to change their sheep's grazing habits, which would allow the grasslands time to recover and ensure greater numbers of wild sheep to survive, increasing the population locals could use for valuable meat and wool.

"The government and local people are extremely enthusiastic about conservation," Zahler said. "They understand that their livelihoods, and the country's chances for reconstruction, are tied into sustainable natural resource management."

WCS works in difficult places, from war-torn western African countries to areas in Latin America where the political environment is extremely volatile. It's the nature of conservation, Zahler said, because frequently the least developed areas in the world harbor the greatest levels of globally important biodiversity, but they're often also the most unstable places in the world.

Hardships aside, WCS officials have already assisted in writing the first environment laws in Afghanistan's history and helped create at least 45 community based conservation committees, Zahler said. They've trained more than 2,000 people in conservation topics, from government staff to local community members.

"There are some wonderful things that have been done by international organizations throughout the country," said Anne Williams, an independent contractor who has worked with WCS in Afghanistan and is a friend of Smallwood's. "And who would have thought that Afghanistan could even have thought about conservation areas and national parks?"

In all of this, Smallwood is a realist. He is aware that all of his work could be destroyed during the next round of fighting, but said that most Afghans would survive with sustainable conservation ideas in tact.

"They'll carry that with them," Smallwood said. "And if that's all there is, that would be sad, but that's good enough. It's well worth the effort and the risk"

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