Taliban control could reverse years of environmental progress in Afghanistan, warns activist

Far from her homeland in Afghanistan, Farkhunda Ateel Siddiqi frantically drafts letters in her Toronto apartment, urging the Canadian government to evacuate her parents and brother.

Having been a victim of the Taliban’s oppressive treatment of women herself, the 38-year-old environmental activist knows all too well the terror settling in people’s hearts. A constant flow of messages floods her inbox — notes from friends and family still trapped in Afghanistan as the country returns to Taliban control.

“They are overwhelmed. They are in shock, they don’t know what to do. They’re in total misery, and they are unsafe in Afghanistan,” said the mother of three.

Though the last U.S. troops have withdrawn from Kabul, ending a 20-year occupation of the country, an ongoing and chaotic evacuation crisis now leaves locals who worked for NATO allies and fearful Afghans scrambling to flee the country. And this new era of Taliban rule has brought the years of environmental restoration Siddiqi worked so hard for to a grinding halt.

“For now, I’m not very hopeful for environmental work in Afghanistan … because when a country is not stable at the security level, it’s very hard for people to invest money in the environment,” Siddiqi said.

In the years before she left Afghanistan, Siddiqi was the face of the Rural Green Environment Organization (RGEO), an environmental non-profit founded by her father Ahmad Seyer.

From Kabul, she fielded interviews and delivered speeches, translated documents and sought out collaborators to elevate the non-profit’s work, while Seyer, a civil engineer, worked with a team in the northeastern province of Badakshan, where decades of war and the effects of climate change meant villagers grappled with soil erosion, drought and landslides.

According to a 2019 UN Environment Program assessment, the Afghan people face a growing number of human-caused and climate change-induced disasters, including land degradation, worsening air and water pollution, and illegal hunting and logging. The assessment names Afghanistan as one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis due to poor infrastructure and insecurity.

“In the beginning, the area was very barren and dry. The forests used to be a wonderful area before the war,” Siddiqi said.

“It forced people to cut the trees so that they could use it as fuel. Slowly, over 20, 25 years, the forest was gone.”

With few resources, Siddiqi joined RGEO in 2015 and worked to reverse the environmental damage wrought by climate change and conflict. The organization ran educational campaigns highlighting the damage done by excessive logging. Through RGEO training, farmers learned to protect and manage tree nurseries in a region where deforestation and wildlife habitat loss was widespread.

A new era of Taliban rule has brought years of environmental restoration efforts in Afghanistan to a grinding halt. Farkhunda Ateel Siddiqi is urging the international community to “take action” so that progress is not lost.

To combat years of environmental degradation, the Rural Green Environment Organization planted trees along a 1,400-kilometre stretch of mountainside in Afghanistan’s Badakshan province. Photo courtesy of Rural Green Environment Organization

Three years into a massive replanting effort, things started turning around in the once “hopeless land.” Alongside locals, RGEO constructed terraces to protect saplings along the river banks and built water pumps to irrigate them, built fruit orchards and worked to reduce illegal logging, fishing and hunting. All told, the non-profit’s initiatives helped plant trees across a 1,400-kilometre stretch of mountainside.

“You could visibly see the changes in three to five years,” Siddiqi said. “The whole area changed from grey and totally barren to green mountainside. You could see some of the animals that had lost their habitat, they returned to the place in five to six years.”

RGEO’s programs were so successful, Siddiqi and her father won the United Nations’ prestigious Equator Prize in 2015. More national awards followed, and their work garnered interest from international and national stakeholders wanting to collaborate.

Farkhunda Ateel Siddiqi accepts the Equator Prize at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. Photo courtesy of Rural Green Environment Organization

But just as RGEO was on the cusp of a green revolution, the Taliban cut short her ability to work in Afghanistan. In 2018, Siddiqi’s abusive ex-husband died suddenly of a heart attack. As a young widow who worked and lived independently, she found herself shunned by the community. Word made it to the Taliban, and Siddiqi was told to stop working or risk the safety of her family.

That’s when she looked for opportunities to flee Afghanistan. She was accepted to Saint Xavier University and arrived on a student visa in 2019. Siddiqi now works as a chef in Toronto.

Leaving her homeland — and letting go of her environmental work — was hard.

“I had done so much (in Afghanistan). I was training people. I was the face of RGEO,” Siddiqi said. “But when I came (to Canada), nobody knows me. When I came here, I was alone; I went through severe depression.”

To a lesser extent, Siddiqi has managed to stay involved with RGEO from abroad, helping her father with translations and paperwork. But with Afghanistan’s future in limbo, she worries the progress RGEO has made could fast be undone.

“All of the awareness programs that we have may go to a halt, or may go backwards,” Siddiqi said. “(The Taliban) will tell people that we don’t care about the environment, we just need humans to survive… It will have long-term impacts.”

Like other organizations in Afghanistan, RGEO’s operations are currently up in the air due to the change in government, Siddiqi said. The non-profit is on “standby” and monitoring the security risks to their staff. It’s also waiting for funds to be released from its current partner, the German government’s Society for International Co-operation (GIZ), with which RGEO has a five-year contract to establish fruit orchards in 12 villages in Badakshan.

In an email statement to Canada’s National Observer, a GIZ spokesperson said the organization has “suspended projects in Afghanistan for the time being.”

For now, Siddiqi emphasizes the need for peace in Afghanistan as the basis for all other work vital to restoring the environment.

“Environmental projects will be blooming if there is peace. I want the international community to take action in this regard. To raise their voices, not to stay silent.”

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