- - Friday, October 26, 2012

ARSLANBOB, Kyrgyzstan — Environmental groups are aiming to rescue Kyrgyzstan’s vast forests of fruits and nuts from the perils of overharvesting and climate change by improving the lives of the people who live and labor among the trees.

“Our fruit and nut forests cover [1.56 million acres] with more than 300 different species of tree,” says Kaiyrkul Shalpykov of the National Academy of Sciences in Bishkek. “But the increasing numbers of people living in the forest and the economic situation in the country, as well as climate change, all impact the forests.”

Mr. Shalpykov heads a publicly funded conservation effort called Bioresurs that, among other tasks, helps plant new trees in the forests cover large swaths of mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that environmentalists say have been reduced by 80 percent over the last 50 years.

Wild pistachios, plums, pears, apricots and a host of apple varieties make for a veritable garden of Eden that also encompasses the world’s largest walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan’s fertile Fergana Valley.

There, families in the village of Arslanbob head into the woods that blend and overlap with farmland for a harvest that often makes up an important portion of their yearly income.

Locals say that heavy rains in May damaged walnut flowers, resulting in a crop of only 30 percent of the 15,000 tons of nuts that are normally gathered each fall.

But cottages still have their larders filled with sacks of harvested nuts, and nutshells litter the ground as villagers munch on Arslanbob’s signature snack.

Environmental campaigners say that takes a toll: The massive harvest allows few nuts to become seeds for a new generation of saplings, and those that do are in danger of being nibbled on and trampled by the livestock that wander freely through the ancient forests.

Analysts say these problems have escalated since the end of the Soviet era, when Kyrgyzstan’s forests were protected and subsidies ensured that villagers had access to fuel. Now those who cannot afford coal chop down trees for firewood.

The conservation group Fauna & Flora International believes the forests can be preserved only by improving the lot of those who live in them.

“We have adopted the approach that we cannot put the environment’s needs before people’s needs,” said Jarkyn Samanchina, the group’s representative in Bishkek. “There is a clear link between the socio-economic conditions of communities and the impact on the environment.”

In addition to its work with forestry units, Fauna & Flora supports locals with small grants for businesses including a women’s sewing workshop, a bakery and a fish farm, as well as projects that are more directly linked to the region’s biodiversity, such as beekeeping.

“That has a double benefit. Obviously, bees are pollinators, and honey production is quite a good business,” said Ms. Samanchina.

Since the first grants were given in 2006, local groups running these projects have banded together into three regional organizations that identified specific skills needs, including accountancy and fundraising, which have been provided through workshops run by Fauna & Flora.

Education also is key.

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