A cascading collection of deep-blue high-mountain lakes became Afghanistan's first provisional national park Wednesday, as the violence-plagued nation took a big first step toward protecting one of its finest natural treasures.
Coinciding with Earth Day, celebrated worldwide every year on April 22, officials in the Central Asian country signed a decree to create Band-e-Amir National Park, encompassing six mountain-fed lakes held back by natural calcified dams.
Located in the country's peaceful central highlands, the lakes were a popular tourist destination before the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule, and official hopes they can attract tourists from around the world.
"You will draw visitors not only from all across Afghanistan, but all across the region and the world to visit you and your beautiful country," U.S. Deputy Ambassador Frank Ricciardone told a crowd of 200 people gathered for the signing of an executive order by the head of the country's National Environmental Protection Agency.
Wednesday's signing makes Band-e-Amir a provisional national park — but parliament must ratify the legislation for the change in status to become permanent.
Band-e-Amir is located in Bamiyan province, which has been relatively unaffected by the violence that plagues eastern and southern Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters and other militants control swathes of land and regularly clash with international and Afghan forces.
The capital of Bamiyan is where Taliban fighters in spring 2001 blasted away two towering ancient Buddha statues carved into the region's red cliffs. Officials believe that Band-e-Amir and the remnants of the statues can combine for a powerful tourist attraction if Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces can tamp down militant violence.
'Force of law'
Making Band-e-Amir a national park will give the four park rangers who now patrol the area's shores more enforcement powers to protect the lakes, said Peter Smallwood, the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which played a large role in helping the government prepare Band-e-Amir for national park status.
"Before if people wanted to put up a tent or drill holes in the dam, nothing was stopping that except the governor's force of will," Smallwood said. "Now it has the force of law."
Smallwood said a French hotel consortium contacted him last year to inquire about building a small hotel near the lakes — proof, he said, that the business community believes the park can attract international tourists.
The mountain lakes sit at some 9,500 feet, and the park will comprise some 230 square miles, Smallwood said.
USAID, the U.S. government aid arm, spent almost $1 million to help the lakes gain provisional national park status. The Wildlife Conservation Society helped identify the park's boundaries and worked with villagers living near the park.
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