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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Top-Down Meets Bottom-Up: Conservation in a Post-Conflict World

July 29, 2008

By Peter Zahler

Imagine that your local parks and wildlife administration is defined by three men sitting in a single room at a single table with no vehicles at their disposal, no computers, no fax, not even a telephone.

Now imagine that this scenario describes your country’s entire parks and wildlife management contingent. Welcome to Afghanistan, a place where protected areas aren’t even paper parks. After almost a quarter century of war, even the paper has been lost, looted, or burned.

There is no question that Afghanistan’s environment has suffered dramatically during almost three decades of conflict — this is a country where people now actually fish with rocket launchers. A near-complete lack of resource management has been coupled with wave after wave of destruction. Some of the devastation is the direct effect of bombings, troop movements, and landmines. But even more pervasive are indirect effects of uncontrolled resource use by over six million cold, hungry, and often well armed refugees and internally displaced people. Throw on top a 4-year drought of near-record proportions and one has a recipe for disaster.

When I arrived in Kabul in May of 2002, I expected to find just such a disaster. As the project coordinator for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Post-Conflict Assessment Unit (PCAU), I was charged with putting together and implementing an environmental assessment of the entire country in just 6 months. I had been working on a variety of conservation projects just over the border in Pakistan since 1992 and had a pretty good idea of how fragile this region’s arid mountain environment was in the best of times. As I bounced and banged across Afghanistan during hours of backbreaking travel on some of the worst roads I’ve ever been on, I did see an environmental catastrophe in the making. Forests were almost completely gone, lakes had dried up, the water table was dropping precipitously, soils were blowing away in the winds, and wildlife was vanishing.

At the same time, I found something I didn’t expect. I was surrounded by communities filled with happiness and expectations. Despite crippling poverty, food shortages, and several million landmines strewn across the landscape, the first real peace in decades had lifted the Afghani people’s spirits and given them a new hope for the future.

I also found something else I didn’t expect. I discovered that the post-conflict situation in Afghanistan has created an extraordinary opportunity for conservation. Considering the environmental conditions, this may seem a less than credible statement. But I believe that the enormous obstacles faced by conservation in a post-conflict setting can be offset by the enormous possibilities created when a country essentially is reborn.

To take advantage of these opportunities, two groups notorious for not collaborating must come together: large, well funded intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) such as the United Nations and the World Bank and smaller nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work with and through local communities.

To create a comprehensive conservation program in Afghanistan, it is crucial that such “top-down” organizations participate in a cooperative and coordinated effort with “bottom-up” organizations. But time is short. In Afghanistan, as in other post-conflict countries, the conservation window of opportunity is likely to close quickly as donor interest moves elsewhere, government mandates, policies, and bureaucracies become set in stone, and natural resources continue to vanish from over-exploitation.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with both top-down and bottom-up groups and to observe firsthand the strengths and weaknesses of each. What I found is that the comparative advantages of one closely mirror the comparative disadvantages of the other.

A Slate Wiped Clean
In many countries and cultures, there exists a massive institutional inertia that makes any change, even one that is obviously for the better, nearly impossible. Coupled with institutional corruption, this inertia can hamstring, if not outright kill, even those projects that do manage to get off the ground. Environmental initiatives that have to go head-to-head with revenue producing development opportunities in this atmosphere invariably lose.

War often suspends normal governmental activities, or at least alters the focus for spending. Although biodiversity is often one of the early casualties during conflicts, the collapse of governmental function means that the political slate is wiped clean.

Post-conflict Afghanistan is just such an example. During the quarter century of conflict, there was virtually no resource management. This meant that there was nothing to stem the tide of resource depletion and destruction. But it also means that there is now the opportunity to build entirely new and modern conservation and natural resource management institutions and programs.

In Afghanistan, an entirely new government was created from scratch in a single year. After the Taliban forces were defeated at the end of 2001, an interim administration was created. Then in June 2002, after the Loya Jirga (a council meeting of over 1,500 representatives from around the country), a new president, cabinet, and a number of new ministries were created, including one whose apparent mandate was the environment. I say “apparent” because the word “environment” was tacked onto the end of the ministry’s title (now the rather unwieldy Ministry of Irrigation, Water Resources and Environment). Yet, they had neither staff nor any solid idea how their work would dovetail with that of the many other ministries and their environmental programs, such as the Ministry of Agriculture’s longstanding Department of Parks and Wildlife.

As part of the United Nations, our PCAU project was able to step into the vacuum that was created from this sudden government explosion. We worked closely with the new ministry, helping them develop their mandate and structure, and worked with other ministries to determine how the environment, as a broad and cross-cutting theme, could best be shared and developed. This included ministerial jurisdictions, environmental impact assessments, international environmental conventions and funding opportunities, and environmental laws and policies. We also hired over 20 international experts to assess such disparate topics as protected areas, wetlands, forests, urban solid and liquid waste management, and air pollution. We held field missions across the country, as well as workshops, seminars, briefings, and conferences with government officials, local NGOs, and international agencies.

This is exactly what top-down organizations do well — organize, fund, and implement a project relatively quickly, bringing international experts to bear on a wide variety of problems, especially those involving capacity building at the top. While I worked in Afghanistan, I had the entire power and prestige of the United Nations behind me. Few doors were closed to me even at the highest levels, and with my UN shirt and cap on, I felt relatively safe in the still volatile conditions of post-war Afghanistan. This access and influence enabled our program to gather important data, determine conservation needs, and put the environment on the new government’s radar.

Stuck at the Top
Although top-down organizations can make huge and rapid inroads into conservation problems, there are a number of things they can’t do or at least can’t do well. Even though the PCAU is a small and comparatively flexible unit, at least by UN standards, I still found myself repeatedly blocked by bureaucratic walls within the system, including strict on-the-ground security regulations, lengthy and time-consuming bidding and hiring processes, and even interagency arguments over who got to do what.

Top-down projects rarely have adequate or, in some cases, any field presence. This means that project personnel have little knowledge of local environmental and cultural conditions. Most of the IGOs working in Afghanistan, including ours, focused on Kabul. Given the logistical and security difficulties of travel, this was understandable; for example, because of local political unrest, UN regulations did not allow us to enter some of the eastern provinces, which have some of the only remaining extensive forests in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, most of the major environmental issues cannot be assessed from Kabul, and many of the more important players, such as local communities who directly affect resources for better or worse, are far from major city centers.

Another problem is time. The PCAU environmental assessment project was initially scheduled for only 6 months, and although it now appears that UNEP will continue to work in Afghanistan over at least the next year, I had to move on from the position of project coordinator. This short-term practice is not unusual in big environmental programs, which rarely last for longer than 3-5 years. Even those programs that do persevere suffer from a lack of continuity and a revolving door of management personnel. Many conservation activities have decadal lives by the very nature of the complex cultural, political, and environmental milieus in which they operate. The more personnel change, the more hard-won knowledge and lessons are lost.

Working under the Radar
In contrast to top-down organizations, small national or even international NGOs specialize in placing and maintaining staff on the ground and often have community members on staff. This ensures a strong level of commitment to an area, which often translates into long-term involvement. My previous experiences just over the border in Northern Pakistan involved just such a program.

Although Northern Pakistan is not technically a post-conflict area, the situation parallels the one in Afghanistan closely enough to merit comparison. My project area lay adjacent to a region once labelled Yagistan, or “Land of the Ungovernable.” In fact, the violent history and subsequent reputation of the area meant that I was the first foreign worker to spend time in some of these valleys in almost 30 years. The local people were culturally similar to Afghanis in the sense that they are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims. Some valleys used to send their young men 200 km west into Afghanistan for training in Taliban camps, ostensibly to then join the religious fighting against Indian forces along the Kashmir border. One Pakistan guidebook, in an attempt to convince trekkers not to travel in the area, quotes a local policeman as saying, “There is only one thing wrong with the area — murder. Murder, murder, murder.” With seemingly every male over the age of ten carrying an automatic weapon, the distinction between this region and Afghanistan’s post-war setting becomes blurred, at least to a foreigner trying to get a conservation program off the ground.

I began my work in the mountains there over a decade ago, performing solo research on the endangered woolly flying squirrel (Eupetaurus cinereus). The survival of this aberrant four-foot-long, pine-needle-eating animal was directly dependent on human resource use — in this case, rampant deforestation. I began a program in a number of valleys to convince local villagers that resource planning and sustainable use would benefit them and the wildlife of the area. Because there had been virtually no previous outside work done in these valleys, I had to develop my program from the ground up, both figuratively and literally.

I squatted in potato fields and wheat stubble for hours meeting with village elders and local jirga members. Stretching my Achilles’ heels, I attempted to learn the issues from the local perspective and get permission to work in each valley. I then hired and trained a villager to run winter slide show programs on conservation and resource use that reached over 2,000 villagers. We also created and translated curriculum materials and held environmental education workshops for 72 teachers from all of the valleys. Finally, we created GIS-layered maps for each valley, trained villagers in mapping and surveying skills, and hired them to travel through their valleys to plot forest types, pasturelands, wildlife hotspots, villages, schools, irrigation channels, and other natural and social resources.

In Pakistan, unlike my experience in Afghanistan, I worked in a team of two — myself and my Pakistani assistant/guide/translator and eventual project manager, Mayoor Kahn. I purposefully stayed under the radar of the government to avoid problems with potentially corrupt officials who might disagree with my attempts to get local communities to halt the rampant deforestation. We went directly to communities to learn their concerns and needs, which often differed from valley to valley. Thus, I was armed with both knowledge and flexibility. I was able to adapt my program to emergent properties and differing conditions across my study area, and the personal relationships I developed meant my message was both heard and understood.

This experience taught me the value of the bottom-up approach. Unlike the short-term Afghanistan project, my Pakistan project began 10 years ago and continues today. I have been on the job as project coordinator for the entire life of the project, and Mayoor Kahn has been with the project for over 4 years and has literally a lifetime of experience in the area. Through Mayoor, our project has a local on-the-ground presence throughout the year and even during times of political upheaval. For example, when the U.S. bombed Afghanistan in 1998 and again in 2001 and conditions became too dangerous for Americans to continue working in-country, we were able to continue our activities with barely a hitch.

Meeting in the Middle
My experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan have made it clear to me that there is a complementarity between top-down and bottom-up groups that is rarely tapped. Large IGOs have management skills, funding, access to high levels of government, and the ability to hire international experts for training and research. But they lack flexibility and an in-depth knowledge of local conditions. Small NGOs have knowledge of local conditions, access to outlying areas, a long-term commitment to a project area, and the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions — including that of renewed conflict. But they lack funding and influence. The intersection of these strengths and weaknesses creates an obvious meeting point. Bottom-up organizations can function as environmental “arms” for large IGOs, reaching beyond bureaucratic walls by collecting data, doing on-the-ground monitoring, and even implementing projects. Collaboration between the two may spell the difference between success and failure of post-conflict efforts.

Yet in Afghanistan, there is a gaping hole in the idea of linking top-down with bottom-up organizations. Few bottom-up environmental organizations actually exist in the country. Decades of war have left the local NGO community scattered. Many of their technically skilled people are either dead or now living outside the country, and the remaining people, although motivated, have little training and even less funding.

The few existing NGOs in Afghanistan have somehow functioned throughout years of chaos and destruction. They have done, and are doing, quite amazing things with virtually no money and little training. However, science and conservation practices in Afghanistan are often 20 to 30 years out of date, matching the length of time the entire country has been out of touch with the rest of the world. The need for training, technical assistance, and reconnection with the outside scientific community is desperately needed. This is where top-down organizations can help.

A potential model for this kind of collaboration may be occurring in Mongolia. The United Nations Development Programme is planning to contract the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a sizeable but bottom-up NGO primarily made up of field scientists, to run a large biodiversity project. Normally, big IGOs tend to throw a series of short-term consultants at a project. I did the same thing in Afghanistan, and I have seen it happen on many other projects. Although this is useful for solving individual problems, it can also cause the project to become scattered and miss the big conservation picture, especially when the IGO managers who are hiring consultants have no biology training.

In a case such as the one in Mongolia, the IGO brings funds, management skills, and political access, whereas the international NGO brings scientific and technical know-how and international conservation experience to assist in implementation. The NGO can also collect the obviously needed but often missing information that is critical for informed decisions: Where exactly are the parks? Why are the wetlands disappearing? What wildlife is left? And where can it still be found?

IGOs should consider this structure in future conservation project designs, especially in post-conflict settings where local NGO capacity has been crippled and cannot immediately assist in project implementation. These varied and matching assets can then be mobilized to build capacity within regional and central governments and within local NGOs and communities — all of which will be there long after the project is completed.


In 1999, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) began working in the Balkans to determine the environmental risks from the Kosovo conflict, prioritize cleanup and remediation, and raise money. Following the positive reactions from the international community, UNEP established a Post-Conflict Assessment Unit (PCAU) in 2001 to build on work pioneered in the Balkans.

The PCAU keeps environmental priorities on the agenda throughout post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. Activities range from investigating environmental impacts of conflicts and pre-existing chronic environmental problems, to identifying risks to human and environmental health, to strengthening environmental management and protection capacity and mobilizing international support. Assessments are carried out using a combination of international and national experts and UNEP’s in-house specialists.

In 2002, major projects of the UNEP PCAU include post-conflict assessments in Afghanistan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, cleanup of environmental hotspots and capacity building in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and assessment of depleted uranium environmental risks in Bosnia-Herzegovina. All projects are externally funded from extra-budgetary sources.

About the Author

Peter Zahler is a conservation biologist whose bottom-up experiences include work in Venezuela, Alaska, Colorado, Arizona, Pakistan, and Peru. His top-down experiences include positions as Project Coordinator for UNEP’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit in Afghanistan, as a consultant for the World Bank in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, as a technical advisor on a UNDP-GEF project in Iran, and presently as National Project Director for the UNDP-GEF-sponsored Eastern Steppe Biodiversity Programme in Mongolia.

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