- - Wednesday, October 31, 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,” said 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 past 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 rain 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 socioeconomic 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.

Bolot Tagaev, a geography teacher in the village of Gumkhana, close to Arslanbob, also works as a local project coordinator for Fauna & Flora. He encourages his pupils to plant seeds and tend to tiny trees in a nursery behind the school.

“The children enjoy it and come in with pockets full of seeds at this time of year,” he said. “It is important that they understand the need to protect the forests from an early age.”

In the schoolyard nursery, he points out specimens of a rare gem of Central Asian flora, saplings that will one day bear the pink-fleshed Niedzwetzky apple.

A 2006 study identified only 117 remaining Niedzwetzky apple trees in Kyrgyzstan. Since then, Bioresurs and Fauna & Flora have planted 4,000 new trees in remote regions where the forests are less affected by human habitation.

But much of Fauna & Flora’s work has focused on planting trees that can be of use to the local population, working with farmers to identify wild species that have qualities of taste, color or hardiness that give them a commercial value.

Jeremy Cherfas, a biologist at Bioversity International in Italy, which has worked with local conservation initiatives in Kyrgyzstan, said that farmers have needed little encouragement — in fact, they have been moving in that direction of their own accord.

“Climate change is increasing average temperature, and that makes higher altitudes tomorrow more like lower altitudes today,” Mr. Cherfas said. “So farmers have been trying out varieties from lower down on their farms.”

Despite the toll the human population has taken on the local environment, conservationists say the landscape stretching out around Arslanbob represents an ideal combination of integrated forest and farmland that could hold the key to preserving biodiversity.

“We are not in the business of conservation biodiversity for its own sake,” said Mr. Cherfas. “It has to be useful, and then the farmers will conserve it. We can’t just go in and say, ‘Don’t chop that tree down,’ if it doesn’t have a greater value alive than dead.”