The theme of this year’s International Day of Forests, celebrated annually on March 21st, is ‘forests for health’. It’s a timely reminder that we are utterly dependent on forests for survival. They supply the air that we breathe, help regulate our climate and provide habitat, food and shelter for millions of species, including our own.
Some forests are more famous than others, of course, and it’s fair to say that Central Asia doesn’t feature as frequently as the Amazon in conversations about the importance of forest protection. But it should.
Kyrgyzstan’s fruit-and-nut forest landscape. Credit: Liesje Birchenough/Fauna & Flora
Central Asia is home to over 300 wild species of fruit and nut tree. Its ancient fruit-and-nut forests are among the region’s most valuable ecosystems – culturally, economically and ecologically. Made up of stately walnut stands and a rich tapestry of wild apple, pear, plum, cherry, pistachio and almond trees, they not only support local livelihoods but also harbour remarkable biodiversity.
Many of these species are the wild ancestors of today’s domesticated varieties, representing a crucial genetic storehouse. Naturally adapted to a range of environmental conditions, they possess traits that can be used by breeders to develop new drought-resilient and pest-proof varieties. Could they hold the key to global food security and climate change adaptation? Possibly, but only if we conserve them.
We tend to take the fruit in our local supermarket for granted, but many of the so-called crop wild relatives of our shop-bought apples and pears are in steep decline. Several species from Central Asia – notably Niedzwetsky’s apple, the Tajik pear and Bukharan pear – are hanging by the slenderest of stalks. These trees are crucial to the livelihoods of the impoverished communities living closest to them, but are threatened with extinction as a result of overharvesting, uncontrolled grazing, firewood collection and timber extraction.
The critically endangered Bukharan pear has virtually disappeared from most of its former strongholds in Central Asia. Credit: Shosafed Taibov/Fauna & Flora
Fauna & Flora is working with in-country partners in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to support the sustainable use and effective protection of these priceless fruit-and-nut forests.
We collect vital data on the most endangered species of fruit and nut, which includes pinpointing any remaining trees within the wider landscape and mitigating the immediate threats to their survival. This includes fencing off individual trees or stands of trees to protect them from cattle, which trample young saplings and prevent natural regeneration.
Working with communities to support local producer groups, we provide the training and equipment needed to improve the quality of their dried fruit, enabling them to achieve a higher price and maximise the economic value of their crop.
Walnuts are a vital source of income for many Kyrgyz and Tajik families. Credit: Jason Smith
In Kyrgyzstan, recent activities have included restoration work to reconnect the fragmented fruit-and-nut forests, using fenced plots planted with over 12,000 saplings of local tree species and hedged with rosehip saplings to create living fencing.
Through our outreach work in collaboration with Zurich University we have made forestry staff and communities in the fruit-and-nut forest area aware of the imminent threat of fire blight, a highly contagious bacterial disease that kills the shoots of apples, pears and related species, giving the plant the appearance of having been scorched by fire.
Young saplings are planted in protected enclosures to replenish dwindling wild populations. Credit: Akylai Kabaeva/Fauna & Flora
In Kyrgyzstan, we have distributed thousands of nursery-grown seedlings of Niedzwetzky’s apple and Bukharan pear to local community members, while more than 17,000 Tajik pear and Bukharan pear seedlings have been planted out in tree nurseries and in the forest in Tajikistan since 2019.
We have also provided small grants to support local community members in developing biodiversity-friendly income-generating activities such as beekeeping, which reduce the need for unsustainable exploitation of forest resources.
A beekeeper in Kyrgyzstan collects honey from one of his hives. Credit: Jason Smith
The next time you plant an apple tree or raid the fruit bowl for one of your five a day, take a moment to remember the crop wild relatives without which the infinite variety of produce we enjoy today would never have been possible.
Healthy forests are key to a healthy planet and, in turn, to human health. Today and every day, we need to collectively commit to safeguarding the natural resources on which we all depend. Saving nature, together.