08 Sep 2011: Report

Saving Ancient Walnut Forests
In the Valleys of Central Asia

The former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan is home to some of the world’s largest remaining forests of walnut and wild fruit trees. In an effort to sustainably manage this global resource, an international project has focused on ending Soviet-style management and giving power — and a profit incentive — to local farmers.

by mike ives

Kyrgyzstan’s fertile and densely populated Fergana Valley is home to some of the largest intact stands of walnut trees on Earth. Its so-called walnut-fruit forests — which contain 300 species of plants and trees, including ancestral strains of apples, plums, and pears — cover roughly 30,000 hectares, splashing green onto an otherwise dry-and-dusty Central Asian landscape. Driving beside a riverbed on the valley’s floor, you might momentarily mistake nearby walnut forests for the olive groves of southern Spain.

For decades, planners in this former Soviet republic managed Fergana’s forests with an eye toward ensuring the trees would keep producing fruits and nuts in the long term. They also enforced strict no-felling policies. It wasn’t a perfect system, recalls Arnov Kubanechbek, a 62-year-old farmer from Toskol-Ata, a sleepy Fergana Valley settlement of 3,000 people ringed by babbling streams and shimmering stands of walnuts, apples, and pistachios. But at least you knew that livestock wouldn’t trample the trees and that your neighbors wouldn’t chop down walnut groves for firewood.

Kyrgyzstan Walnut Trees
Photo by Mike Ives
Arnov Kubanechbek stands under a young walnut tree in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Fergana Valley.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, however, that is precisely what began to happen.

“If it’s cold in your house, you will forget about the ecosystem and try to warm your family,” explains Alexander Temirbekov, program manager at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. “The economic hardships which Kyrgyzstan confronted in 1990s put the survival of forest ecosystems [at risk] because people were losing their jobs and their sources of livelihoods.”

Temirbekov and a team of international forestry experts recently completed a 15-year forestry reform project that has helped reverse or slow the post-Soviet degradation of Kyrgyzstan’s walnut-fruit forests. Using $16 million in Swiss government funds, the project, dubbed “KIRFOR,” worked to overhaul Kyrgyzstan’s rigid, Soviet-designed forestry management system and replace it with one that has given more power — and a profit incentive — to local residents. The program emphasized collaborative forest management between farmers and the state, which still owns all land in Kyrgyzstan.

Now, KIRFOR — which stands for Kyrgyz-Swiss Forestry Support Program— reports that it has helped 1,000 families lease more than 8,300 hectares (20,500 acres) on which they manage and harvest walnut and fruit trees for a profit. Farmers can earn $200 to $300 per year from walnut harvests, a
The project has helped 1,000 families lease more than 20,500 acres of walnut-fruit forests.
handsome supplemental income in a country where annual per capita GDP is less than $1,000.

“Look at how many walnut trees we have here,” farmer Amurzak Tashtimi, 59, said recently on a stroll through his leased four acres near Toskol-Ata municipality. All around him, baby walnut trees were shooting up under a mild, late-afternoon sun. Tashtimi says he has planted 51 walnut trees since 2004. “They prevent erosion,” he said. “But if we didn’t have an incentive to care for this land, we wouldn’t plant them.”

Although KIRFOR has helped pry control of Kyrgyzstan’s walnuts away from the state, it has not solved problems linked to the country’s palpable Soviet legacy. Despite KIRFOR’s urging, for example, Kyrgyzstan still adheres to a strict nationwide no-felling policy, which can be counterproductive in places where cutting down aging trees would help the forest regenerate and allow farmers to plant and profit from more productive trees.

Yet, as nationwide unemployment hovers at 20 percent and the country reels from a 2010 presidential coop d’etat, many of the more than 100,000 people who live in and near the walnut-fruit forests rely on them for survival and are benefiting from market reforms instituted by KIRFOR.

Concerned about the fate of Kyrgyzstan’s unique walnut-fruit forests, two Swiss agencies — the Swiss Foundation for Development and International Cooperation and the Swiss Agency for Development — helped develop and fund KIRFOR, which was launched in 1995. They worked closely with the Kyrgyzstan State Agency on Environmental Protection and Forestry, which ran the program. From the beginning, a key goal, according to KIRFOR, was to move “from top-down command-and-control to a more participatory bottom-up style of decision-making.”

KIRFOR consultants helped sow the seeds of reform by training Kyrgyz forestry officials on the importance of being administratively transparent, involving local farmers in land-management decisions, designing forest-management policies that promote sustainability rather than overly strict protection, and changing land codes to enable farmers to lease walnut-fruit forests for up to 49 years.

KIRFOR “demonstrated that there is a huge opportunity for collaboration between the state, forest management units and local communities,” said
If the farmers stand to benefit economically, they’re keen to plant more walnut trees.
forestry expert Alexander Temirbekov, who served as deputy program leader for the project, which ended last year. “Today even the most conservative foresters in Kyrgyzstan understand that they will not be able to keep the forest ecosystem in a stable condition without support from local communities.”

But the KIRFOR project ran into numerous obstacles, including the reality that forestry officials in Kyrgyzstan and other developing countries “do not like to lose control,” explains Bob Fisher, a senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Sydney who traveled to Kyrgyzstan in 2000 and 2003 to conduct site visits for KIRFOR. “They have a tendency to say, ‘We’re not going to let local people have any real authority to cut down trees, even on a selective basis.’ This overly conservative approach is partly influenced by international rhetoric about [the importance] of conservation.”

Under the lease program that KIRFOR helped pioneer, farmers receive a five-year lease to manage productive walnut-fruit forests; if they manage their plots well, they're permitted to extend their leases for up to 49 years. If farmers stand to benefit economically, the thinking goes, they’ll be keen to plant more walnut trees and make sure the trees survive.

Kaspar Schmidt, a Swiss forestry expert and former KIRFOR consultant, said that overcoming deeply engrained suspicions and fears among some local residents impeded the project. People in rural Kyrgyzstan still live in leshozes, Soviet-designed “state forest farms” that have a strong civic component. But although they are accustomed to communal life, “they’ve been forced for decades into collective work, [and] they are reluctant to join forces again with other farmers in the same village.”

Prunus sogdiana species
Prunus sogdiana, a species of plum, is one of the region’s threatened natives.
Promoting collaborative forest management in forests with valuable export crops, such as walnuts, can be a double-edged sword, added Schmidt, who wrote a 2007 Ph.D. thesis exploring sustainable development strategies for Kyrgyzstan’s walnut-fruit forests. On one hand, potentially high yields can offer short-term financial incentives, but giving land to select farmers, while leaving others out of the bargain, can also exacerbate existing social inequalities. Schmidt and others familiar with KIRFOR say “collaborative forest management” projects have not done much to benefit the region’s most impoverished residents.

In the Fergana Valley, some farmers protested when they were left out of the KIRFOR-designed lease system. Local officials responded by establishing a review process for people to air grievances. The process was initially biased toward “vested interests,” recalls Bob Fisher. “But as the legal system evolved, it became more of a useful way for people to stand up for their rights.”

The land management system developed by KIRFOR is now being used to draft a national forest management system in Kyrgyzstan, former program administrators say, and lessons from KIRFOR are being used to manage northern Kyrgyzstan’s spruce forests. But how deeply KIRFOR’s reforms have taken root remains to be seen, now that the Swiss program has ended. Experts note, for example, that although the Kyrgyz government formally approved a “collaborative forest management” development strategy in 2007, it issued a prohibitive 2008 felling ban that outlaws selective silviculture.

Another key question about KIRFOR is whether its lessons can be transferred to neighboring Central Asian nations that were once part of the U.S.S.R. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said in 2010 that, thanks partly to Swiss assistance, Kyrgyzstan is in a “good position” to help its neighbors implement forestry reforms. Neighboring Tajikistan also has walnut-fruit forests, and officials there could learn from Kyrgyzstan’s attempts — and failures — to cement viable partnerships between local farmers, provincial forestry bureaus, and the central government.

Kathrin Uhlemann, a senior adviser in Kyrgyzstan for the German government’s development agency, GIZ — now implementing a “joint forest management” project in Tajikistan — says a key lesson from Kyrgyzstan is the need to develop a legal framework for transferring forest-related economic functions from the state to the private sector.


In War-Scarred Landscape,
Vietnam Replants Its Forests

In War-Scarred Landscape, Vietnam Replants Its Forests
With large swaths of forest destroyed by wartime defoliants, and even larger areas lost to post-war logging, Vietnam has set an ambitious goal for regenerating its woodlands. But proponents of reintroducing native tree species face resistance from a timber industry that favors fast-growing exotics.
Programs like KIRFOR are sorely needed. Population pressure is rising, and tensions are simmering between local Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the wake of violence that last summer resulted in hundreds of deaths and displaced tens of thousands. Against that backdrop, high-yield walnut-fruit forests remain a tempting resource for locals scrambling for ways to make ends meet. If they aren’t cutting trees, they may be bringing their livestock in to eat the trees’ leaves.

“Imagine a small walnut tree that’s just made its way out of the nut,” explains forestry expert Kaspar Schmidt. “It’s just a tiny, fragile plant, and if you bring animals into the forest, it’s going to get damaged.”

Schmidt and other experts say that if the overgrazing continues, it will skew the age pyramid of walnut-fruit forests, leaving only old or middle-aged trees. For now, those trees are still helping to maintain the forest’s total area and providing basic ecosystem services, such as watershed protection. But when they die off, the boundaries of the forest will begin to shrink, and the ancestral varieties of walnut, apple, pear and plum trees the forest now contains may, like the Soviet Union, eventually become a distant memory.

POSTED ON 08 Sep 2011 IN Forests Oceans Pollution & Health Asia North America 


Very interesting. These forests sound like the amazing wild apple forests of Kazakhstan just to the north, from which modern apple cultivars derive and which could use the same sort of stewardship. Gary Nabhan describes the scramble to preserve them in this Orion magazine feature:


Solid piece, Mike. Maybe you could imagine a way to connect KIRFOR folks with the apple protectors...


Posted by Erik Hoffner on 09 Sep 2011

Very interesting and well-rounded piece; many thanks.

I have a couple of questions. Is the Fergana valley predicted to have a very changed climate over the next 20-50 years? And if so, what are farmers there doing to prepare? Are they, for example, selecting walnut trees from higher up the valley as the parents for new plantings?

Also, what other products does the forest provide, and how does the project ensure that these mixed forests do not become pure walnut plantations?

Posted by Jeremy Cherfas on 11 Sep 2011

Some additional facts. The unique Walnut Fruit Forests in Kyrgyzstan are a good example of the multifunctional use of forests in temperate zones. Not only are non-timber forest products (NTFPs) collected but the land in and around the forests is used for grazing and haymaking, as well as for arable cropping and the establishment of fruit orchards. Apart from sustaining the lives of the local mountain people, the Walnut Fruit Forests are extremely rich in biodiversity and have an important function as a watershed for the Ferghana valley. The simultaneous dependence of the population on both agriculture and forest offers ideal conditions for the extension and improvement of existing agroforestry systems. However, solutions must be found concerning the practice of uncontrolled grazing, the insecure land and tree tenure situation, the low productivity of the existing land use systems, the lack of agricultural advice and training and the serious impact of firewood collection on the forests in order to safeguard the Walnut Fruit Forest’s biodiversity while integrating the needs of the local population into forest management.

Posted by gume on 12 Sep 2011

Programs like KIRFOR are sorely needed. Population pressure is rising, and tensions are simmering between local Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the wake of violence that last summer resulted in hundreds of deaths and displaced tens of thousands.

Against that backdrop, high-yield walnut-fruit forests remain a tempting resource for locals scrambling for ways to make ends meet. If they aren’t cutting trees, they may be bringing their livestock in to eat the trees’ leaves. hmm great..

Posted by jessca on 15 Sep 2011

I this article having read Roger Deakin's book 'Wildwood' where he devotes several chapters to his trip to the Ferghana Valley in search of the walnut forests and wild fruit trees. It is very good to read the above article as it is to read Deakin's book.

Posted by Jefroc on 03 Oct 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Mike Ives is a writer based in Hanoi, Vietnam whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Online, and other publications. In Vietnam he reports for the Associated Press. In an earlier article for Yale Environment 360, he reported on efforts to reintroduce native tree species to Vietnam’s war-scarred landscape.



For U.S. Tribes, a Movement to
Revive Native Foods and Lands

On ancestral lands, the Fond du Lac band in Minnesota is planting wild rice and restoring wetlands damaged by dams, industry, and logging. Their efforts are part of a growing trend by Native Americans to bring back traditional food sources and heal scarred landscapes.

In South Korea, An Innovative
Push to Cut Back on Food Waste


The Big Waste: Why Do We
Throw Away So Much Food?

An e360 video looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. Filmmaker Karim Chrobog focuses on efforts in Washington, D.C., to see that food ends up with those who need it rather than dumped in landfills. First in a series.
Watch the video.

Water in the Bank: One Solution
For Drought-Stricken California

A potential answer to California’s severe water shortages is groundwater banking, which involves creating incentives for municipalities, farmers, and other water users to percolate water down into sub-surface aquifers for later use.

With Too Much of a Good Thing,
Europe Tackles Excess Nitrogen

In Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries, European governments are beginning to push farmers, industry, and municipalities to cut back on fertilizers and other sources of nitrogen that are causing serious environmental harm.


MORE IN Reports

For Storing Electricity, Utilities
Are Turning to Pumped Hydro

by john roach
High-tech batteries may be garnering the headlines. But utilities from Spain to China are increasingly relying on pumped storage hydroelectricity – first used in the 1890s – to overcome the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

On Thin Ice: Big Northern Lakes
Are Being Rapidly Transformed

by cheryl katz
As temperatures rise, the world’s iconic northern lakes are undergoing major changes that include swiftly warming waters, diminished ice cover, and outbreaks of harmful algae. Now, a global consortium of scientists is trying to assess the toll.

The Haunting Legacy of
South Africa’s Gold Mines

by mark olalde
Thousands of abandoned gold mines are scattered across South Africa, polluting the water with toxics and filling the air with noxious dust. For the millions of people who live around these derelict sites, the health impacts can be severe.

The Sushi Project: Farming Fish
And Rice in California's Fields

by jacques leslie
Innovative projects in California are using flooded rice fields to rear threatened species of Pacific salmon, mimicking the rich floodplains where juvenile salmon once thrived. This technique also shows promise for growing forage fish, which are increasingly threatened in the wild.

A Delicate Balance: Protecting
Northwest’s Glass Sponge Reefs

by nicola jones
Rare and extensive reefs of glass sponges are found only one place on earth – a stretch of the Pacific Northwest coast. Now, efforts are underway to identify and protect these fragile formations before they are obliterated by fishing vessels that trawl the bottom.

As the Fracking Boom Spreads,
One Watershed Draws the Line

by bruce stutz
After spreading across Pennsylvania, fracking for natural gas has run into government bans in the Delaware River watershed. The basins of the Delaware and nearby Susquehanna River offer a sharp contrast between what happens in places that allow fracking and those that do not.

Will Tidal and Wave Energy
Ever Live Up to Their Potential?

by sophia v. schweitzer
As solar and wind power grow, another renewable energy source with vast potential — the power of tides and waves — continues to lag far behind. But progress is now being made as governments and the private sector step up efforts to bring marine energy into the mainstream.

The Rapid and Startling Decline
Of World’s Vast Boreal Forests

by jim robbins
Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the huge boreal forest that spans from Scandinavia to northern Canada. Unprecedented warming in the region is jeopardizing the future of a critical ecosystem that makes up nearly a third of the earth’s forest cover.

Northern Forests Emerge
As the New Global Tinderbox

by ed struzik
Rapidly rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased lightning strikes are leading to ever-larger wildfires in the northern forests of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, with potentially severe ecological consequences.

For U.S. Tribes, a Movement to
Revive Native Foods and Lands

by cheryl katz
On ancestral lands, the Fond du Lac band in Minnesota is planting wild rice and restoring wetlands damaged by dams, industry, and logging. Their efforts are part of a growing trend by Native Americans to bring back traditional food sources and heal scarred landscapes.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

A 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner captures stunning images of wild salmon runs in Alaska.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.