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.

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.

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.

The project has helped 1,000 families lease more than 20,500 acres of walnut-fruit forests.

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 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.

If the farmers stand to benefit economically, they’re keen to plant more walnut trees.

KIRFOR “demonstrated that there is a huge opportunity for collaboration between the state, forest management units and local communities,” said 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.”

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.

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.