Protecting Threatened Fruits and Nuts in Central Asia
Many fruits and nuts on sale in supermarkets have their origins in the countries of Central Asia. But years of neglect has led to many of the original species coming under threat of extinction. These valuable and hardy fruits and nuts can play a critical role in the world's future food security.
Between 94,000 and 144,000 plant species — a quarter to a half of the world’s total — could die out in the coming years, according to an estimate by Scientific American (2002). Among them are vital food crops, threatened by a world in which climate change is causing more weather turbulence and diseases and viruses can spread rapidly and destroy crops.
This scale of plant loss risks leaving the world’s food security dependent on fewer – and more vulnerable – domesticated species. The hunt is on for hardy plant species that can survive these ups and downs while protecting the world’s food security for this and the next generation.
In the Central Asian nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, conservation of trees and their fruits and nuts are being placed at the centre of the economic lives of people who had been unwittingly destroying the trees’ habitat. Two projects, one to preserve walnut trees in Tajikistan, and the other to preserve apple trees in Kyrgyzstan, are beginning to bear fruit.
The Red List of Trees of Central Asia published in April 2009 by the Global Trees Campaign (http://www.globaltrees.org/rl_centralasia.htm), identified the 44 species most at risk in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Growing in rugged, mountainous terrain, the plants have high genetic diversity and are thought to be critical in the development of disease-resistant and climate-tolerant fruit varieties.
The diverse environments of Central Asia are host to over 300 wild fruit and nut species that are ancestors to the fruits and nuts we eat today, including wild apple, plum, pears, pistachios, cherry, apricot, and walnut.
Many face extinction as local people — driven by the need for fire wood, or to earn an income — cut down this precious resource. The Red List estimates that over 90 percent of the trees in the fruit and nut forests across Central Asia have been destroyed in the past 50 years.
The importance of these fruits and nuts can’t be over-emphasized: all the common varieties of apricot come from one living ancestor, the species Armeniaca vulgaris, now very rare in Central Asia. Central Asia’s Malus sieversii (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malus_sieversii) gave birth to today’s domestic apples. It spread its way around the world along the ancient Silk Road (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road). The name of Kazakhstan’s former capital city is Almaty (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almaty), which literally means ‘Grandfather of Apples’.
Scientists have found genetic diversity and disease resistance greater in wild plant species that have not been domesticated, like Malus sieversii. Malus sieversii is highly resistant to Fire Blight (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_blight), a nasty disease that turns the fruits black (USDA).
To stop this free-for-all in which resources are plundered to extinction and trees wiped out to be used for firewood, deals are being struck to guarantee local communities’ rights to exploit the trees as a resource, while also obligating them to preserve them.
In Tajikistan, the walnut trade is a critical source of income for some villages, with most of the crop exported to Turkey. The country shares with Kyrgyzstan the world’s largest natural-growth walnut forest. But the use of short-term land leases discouraged long-term management, while local people were lacking any other sources of income and over-exploited the trees.
Jilly McNaughton of British NGO Fauna and Flora International (www.fauna-flora.org), said the current situation “is not good, with use of the forest by local people both heavy and inadequately controlled.” “Collection of firewood and grazing are perhaps the biggest concerns,” she said. “There is very little natural regeneration of wild trees due to grazing and hay making in the forest. “As the walnut is valued as an income generating crop, other trees are cut for firewood and timber, meaning parts of the forest have become a park-like landscape with scattered large walnut trees.”
Fauna and Flora International, which specializes in species preservation, is encouraging local people to work towards long-term leases and diversify their sources of income. The strategy includes encouraging other ways to make a living, including raising chickens, making clothes and bee keeping.
As one villager said: “We have bought honey buckets and bees. Next year we will get a lot of honey – it will be a great income. We got a job.”
The Red List of Trees found the causes of species’ destruction are multiple: over-exploitation, human development, pests and diseases, overgrazing, desertification and fires. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, funds have been short to help reverse these threats.
The most threatened apple species in the Red List is the Niedzwetzky apple (Malus niedzwetzkyana) (www.globaltrees.org/kyrgyzstan_apple.htm).
In Kyrgyzstan, work to preserve the Niedzwetsky apple is directly involving the community. Projects are working with the village of Kara Alma in southern Kyrgyzstan and government forest services to encourage eco-friendly small businesses to earn incomes and protect the forests.
They have catalogued all 111 trees that still survive, and have set up a community-run nursery to grow more. The ambition is to expand this approach across the region, both preserving these great resources and bringing hope and employment to the people.