Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

Prince Mostapha Zaher

Young Prince Mostapha Zaher's first kill was a swift, one of those fast-flying birds that swooped through the palace grounds every afternoon in the long Kabul summer. He shot it with his air rifle, a gift from his parents, and when he brought the bloodied trophy home to his father he was hailed as a great hunter — one in a long line of hunters. But his grandfather, Afghanistan's King Mohammed Zahir Shah, was less impressed. "He scolded me," chuckles Zaher. "He said one thing is hunting like a man, another is hunting like a coward. Swifts are precious creatures of the air, and if you can't eat them, you don't hunt them."

The message stuck, and while Zaher, now 46, continued to hunt, it was always with his grand-father's lessons in conservation in mind. Another legacy remained as well: the late King's desire to turn the royal hunting grounds of the Ajar Valley, a spectacular mountain refuge in central Afghanistan, home to wild Siberian ibex, musk deer, boar, wolves and snow leopards, into a preserve open to all Afghans.

That dream was revived when the King and his family — deposed and exiled to Italy in 1973 — returned following the fall of the Taliban. Zaher gave up his comfortable post as ambassador to Italy to take up the job of director of Afghanistan's newly formed National Environmental Protection Agency in 2004.

Since then he has worked to rewrite the nation's environmental laws, enshrining in the constitution an act that declares it the responsibility of every Afghan citizen to "protect the environment, conserve the environment and to hand it over to the next generation in the most pristine condition possible." In a country ravaged by 25 years of war, it was an extraordinary feat. "This was not just a small step for mankind, but a giant leap for the environment of Afghanistan," he says, with characteristic bombast. Belinda Bowling, of the U.N Environment Program, which helped Zaher write the law, says that without Zaher's charisma and position none of the achievements of the past five years would have been possible. His "visionary leadership," says Bowling, has "laid the foundations for sustainable and peaceful development in Afghanistan."

'I never use plastic bags. Instead I have little bags made out of jute material, like we had in the old days. Using the traditional jute bags not only helps the environment, but it creates jobs for Afghans who sew the bags.' — Prince Mostapha Zaher