"The gypsy moth invasion reached its peak in 2000 with some 52,000 hectares of walnut-fruit and pistachio forests in Kyrgyzstan impacted," Nurzat Totubaeva, an expert at the Kyrgyz state forest service, told IRIN from the capital Bishkek. That number had since decreased - down to 18,000 hectares in 2002 - but other harmful insects, parasites and diseases were continuing to take their toll, she explained.
Located in the serene western Tian-Shan region of the country, local scientists claim that the mountain walnut-fruit trees originated there thousands years ago, growing along the slopes of Fergana and Chatkal mountain ranges at an altitude of 1,200 to 2,200 meters. Also found there is a wide range of apple, pear, and cherry-plum trees.
According to the Volkswagen Foundation, a German-based non-profit organization following the issue, the region's globally unique walnut-fruit forests, characterized by remarkably high biodiversity, now faced a critical impasse. The forests were of considerable importance to sustaining the livelihoods of the local population, although over utilization of their resources was now intensifying.
"15 years ago forests would produce some 1,200 mt of nuts, up to some 5,000 mt of apples and many other types of fruit. Now their harvests have dropped sharply," local residents, living in the area told IRIN, adding that the cause was not just diseases and pests, but a range of other factors.
Emil Ibraev, the head of a section at the Jalal-Abad provincial department of forest service, told IRIN in the southern Kyrgyz town of Jalal-Abad that spray planes had once been used for fighting forest pests and diseases where the walnut forests were located. "Now chemicals are not heavily being used as Kyrgyzstan has signed an agreement to minimize their usage. Besides, we cannot afford using such methods anymore," Ibraev explained.
Monitoring the problem is also proving difficult. There is only one forest protection station in the country based in Jalal-Abad, detecting spots, as well as the magnitude of forest pests and diseases. The station's personnel also conduct small-scale biological methods of forest protection, like breeding insects to eat harmful pests.
"We don't have resources to do more," one official at the station said. "Last year our station conducted biological treatment on the area of some 17,000 hectares. Local people gather ovipositions of gypsy moths, with a Kyrgyz-Swiss program supporting the forestry sector paying them for that."
But according to Ibraev, the main threat to the forestland remained the human factor. "Villages located in forest territories are overpopulated. Not having any land - or means to get by - people take out of the forest everything they can," he explained, adding that livestock trampled down young plants in the area, while some local farmers turned forests into ploughed fields.
Moreover, with winters in the area notoriously long and cold, there has been a marked rise in the number of people cutting down trees in the area for fuel. Some 10 cubic meters of wood is necessary to heat a house in such villages. There are some 10,000 households in the area already, with that number increasing each year.
Such activity is paving the way for a variety of additional environmental problems, with forests getting thinner and soil erosion increasing, some local scientists claim that the loss of fertile soil was reaching alarming levels - up to 110 mt per hectare a year. This despite the fact that it took from 300 to 1,000 years for a two to three centimeters of soil layer to develop.
Addressing such issues - requiring large scale forest re-generation efforts, including the forestation of mountainsides, as well as numerous mountain rivers and lakes - won't be easy. Local forestry officials complain of an acute lack of resources, as income generated from the selling of the gathered harvest was insufficient to cover the costs, while government funding for such activities was consistently being reduced each year.
Some experienced specialists at the "Achi" forest farm warn if the social problems of the mountainous villages located within forest areas are not resolved soon, in 25 to 30 years, the walnut forests will face extinction, emphasizing efforts must be made to provide local residents with other sources of electricity, coal and liquefied gas for their daily needs.
"The most attractive projects on preserving the biodiversity of this unique corner of nature will come to nothing unless there is an effective fight against poverty and providing basic utilities for mountain village residents," Biymirza Toktoraliev, a local ecology expert claimed.
Toktoraliev also suggested the establishment of mini power plants in an effort to offer cheaper energy sources to villages, or conversely, getting the authorities to lower electricity tariffs for local residents.
Meanwhile, some activists at the local NGO "Youth Ecology League" are concerned about the increased risk of floods and landslides in the area due to deforestation and erosion. Spring floods periodically ruin bridges, roads and communication, making access to the area problematic. Regional authorities, together with the forestry department, needed to allocate part of their already scarce resources to eradicating the complications of floods and landslides, they claimed.
Additionally, public awareness of the issue remained a priority. Ashirbai Tokoev, the deputy head of the Bazar-Korgon district administration of the Jalal-Abad province, where the majority of the forests were located, told IRIN: "It is people's awareness of legal and other issues that can impact on the reduction of unauthorized tree cutting and other illegal actions."
Not stopping there, Tokoev believed there was a need for a special state program to tackle the problems of walnut forests, rejecting outright an earlier proposal to relocate some people from forest villages to lowlands.
"All the land in the [Fergana] valley is distributed among the farmers [living there] and relocating people [forest villagers] would only exacerbate social tensions," he claimed.
Commenting on the situation, Emil Ibraev of the Jalal-Abad forest department thought that the ongoing national forest program was sufficient, covering all aspects of developing and protecting forest lands, coupled with a Kyrgyz-Swiss program 'Les-ic'. "It is important to fully implement them," he ascertained.
He noted that the projects of the Global Ecology Fund on preserving biodiversity in the Fergana Valley had had good prospects, like the projects regarding the Sary-Chelek and Besh-Aral preserves. "The whole Fergana Valley should be covered by GEF [Global Environment Facility] projects, financed by the World Bank," he said.
Local experts, however, have complained of the lack of up-to-date scientific researches on the problem. "Science seems to become separated from practice," said officials at the Jalal-Abad forest department. They didn't remember when scientists proposed new methods, adjusted to the local conditions of the fruit-trees.
But not everybody shared this opinion. Some scientists at the Forest and Walnut Institute of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences told IRIN from Bishkek that they were closely cooperating with their Swiss counterparts on the issue, with Bern reportedly financing some scientific research programs.
Biymyrza Toktoraliev told IRIN about a project being developed in collaboration with the German Volkswagen foundation on studying the impact of human beings on the ecosystem of the walnut forests of southern Kyrgyzstan. Germany's Nurnberg and Greifswald Universities, as well as Kyryzstan's Osh Technology University and other scientific research institutes of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, were said to be taking part in the program.
According to the Jalal-Abad forest department many international organizations were interested in working with them. However, some legislation norms, including tax regulations, had prevented them from engaging in close cooperation.
Also on offer, some Kyrgyz scientists have advocated the idea of increasing the size of forest areas altogether. For the time being, forests cover only some five percent of the country's total area. They gave an example of Switzerland, where over less than 100 years, total forest areas had tripled and now covered one third of the country's territory.
Local officials described the issue of the Kyrgyz mountain forests as of international importance as they regulated the water flow of mountain rivers, feeding the region's main rivers and water reservoirs, not to mention proving a natural reservoir for fresh air and oxygen. "We are responsible for these unique forests belonging to mankind," one official said.
On the 19 September, the United Nations Development Program [UNDP] and Kyrgyz government signed a joint project on the national assessment of capacity to implement Global Environmental Conventions. Since gaining independence in 1991 Kyrgyzstan ratified a number of international environmental conventions.
The signed project provides for the country's capacity building in the preservation of biodiversity, development of an action plan towards climate change, the prevention of desertification, as well as the determination of problems and priorities in the process of implementation of all Conventions, ratified by Bishkek.
IRIN, September 25, 2003