Jamila Haider

  • June 9, 2011

As a young child, Jamila Haider‘s parents took her to Afghanistan. Just over 20 years later she was back there working on natural resource management, looking at ways to embed ecological work in even the most violent of settings.

Jamila’s parents travelled widely when she was young and she has followed their lead, having lived in Spain, Madagascar, Tajikistan and Afghanistan since she went to university. She says that she finds it difficult to say where she is from.

Jamila was born in India where she lived until she was three as her mother was working for the Austrian foreign service based in New Delhi. She travelled a lot in the region with her parents, including to Afghanistan. The family then moved back to Austria where all their relatives were based and Jamila went to kindergarten there. Their next move was to Canada where her father was doing his PhD. “I have the Canadian values and lifestyle and Austrian culture,” she says. “I have also lived in central Asia for the last two years and I feel very much at home there.”

It was not only because of her parents’ work that she moved around. When she was fifteen Jamila was a competitive figure skater with the Austrian national team and spent the summers training in Austria and doing her schoolwork by correspondence courses. “It taught me a lot about determination and I loved to perform,” she says. It also taught her independence. The ice skating took up quite a lot of her time at school, but she also did a huge range of other sports, including cross country skiing, tennis, soccer, basketball and ballet plus off ice conditioning, such as yoga and Pilates.

Due to injury, Jamila never competed internationally at ice skating despite qualifying. When she was 18 she decided to hang up her skates in favour of her academic studies. “It was difficult to do both at a high level,” she says, adding that she maintained her interest in sport at university by teaching aerobics and she is now an avid runner. She misses the performance element of skating, though, and says she thinks this is why she enjoys giving presentations on her academic work.

Jamila went to Carleton University from 2005-2009 and was the first student there to do separate degrees in biology and political science simultaneously. She had started studying journalism as she wanted to do something different from her father, who is a professor of environmental resource management. “I wanted to do anything but that,” she laughs. However, after two years she was drawn more and more to environmental politics and ecology and conservation biology. Nevertheless, she says her years doing journalism have helped her to communicate better with people and to explain the issues around conservation more clearly.

In 2008 while she was still at Carleton University, she went to Madagascar as a volunteer for the World Wildlife Fund. There she could put into practice some of the resilient governance theory she was studying. She was interested in how natural resource management in south-east Madagascar’s forests could be done effectively and what type of local governance regime could influence change. Her research formed the basis of her undergraduate degree, but in 2009, the ruling regime in Madagascar collapsed amid violence. Whereas before there had been delineated protection zones in the forests, the communities who the WWF had been working with to protect the forest became “completely overwhelmed by external forces”.

Jamila was keen to stay in Africa and applied to the Aga Khan Foundation International Development Management Fellowship. However, the most fitting fellowship with regards to natural resource management was in Tajikistan, where Jamila became involved in investigating land stabilisation between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The river that crossed the border area changed its flow each year, causing small but significant changes in boundaries. Only three per cent of land in the area is arable so any change in boundaries could lead to political tensions, she says.

Jamila’s work was to coordinate a cross-border programme, which included helping to increase trade. It wasn’t easy. Some villages in northern Afghanistan can only be reached through a 12-day trek from the nearest commercial centre.

From this post, Jamila transferred to Kabul where she became national coordinator for natural resources for the Aga Khan Foundation. She says she faced added challenges as a woman, but that the northern region was more stable than the south and central regions of the country. “I was advised not to drive between communities or to walk alone in the street. Sometimes it was difficult to speak to men. You have to know the cultural norms,” she says, “such as not shaking a man’s hand.”

One of the benefits of being a woman was that she could speak easily to women’s groups. She worked with lots of different groups, including parent teacher associations to diversify agricultural crops and improve nutrition in resource-scarce regions, and led projects to assess adaptability of common property resource organisations which she says were part of the Foundation’s holistic approach to natural resource management.

“If you want to protect natural resources in the upper catchment, you need to also work with downstream water users as well as look at agricultural techniques and how farmers can plant crops using less water, for instance,” she says. “It’s all very integrated.” During her work she could see how violence affects people’s ability to self organise in small groups. She says work on ecological issues has to take into account how violence can undermine programmes. “We need to strengthen the system so natural resource management is not so subject to changing power relations,” she says.

For her research in Cambridge she intends to maintain a focus on Afghanistan, but realises it will be difficult without the support of an organisation like the Aga Khan Foundation. She hopes that her MPhil in Geographical Research will give her time to engage more deeply with theoretical foundations and that she will eventually go on to do a PhD.

She is very excited about being a Gates scholar. “One of the most important things to me is interdisciplinarity and the Gates scholarship provides the opportunity to bounce my ideas off everyone from historians to mathematicians,” she says.

Before she arrives in Cambridge, she is, of course, not taking it easy. She is visiting her mother in the Lebanon, working on a research project and is about to return to Tajikistan and Afghanistan for two months to write a book on the biocultural diversity of the Pamir mountains.

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