Grasping the Scope of Environmental Crises

by Mark Neuzil & Eric Freedman

English walnut fruit

English walnut fruit. Photo: Utah State University.

Emil Shukurov remembers what the great walnut forest of Central Asia was like. His first memory dates back to shortly after World War II, when expansion plans of the centralized Soviet economy had only barely touched remote valleys in southern Kyrgyzstan where tens of thousands of acres of walnut trees grew. It was—and is—a complex ecosystem that also hosts apple, pear and plum trees—130 species overall—and wild boars, deer, bears, owls, hawks and other wildlife, as well as farmers, herders and nomads descended from people who roamed the region for centuries.

“It was a paradise,” Shukurov, now in his 80s, recalled in an interview with us. And he has more than a passing interest in the forests—a trained biologist, the tall, lean scientist has kept a critical eye on the area for almost 60 years. He ticked off a list of environmental problems affecting the world’s largest walnut grove (150,000 acres): poaching of fruit and lumber, overgrazing, climate change, corrupt officials, poor resource management and more.

The walnut forest, the largest patch of which is known as Arslanbob, is a case in point. The trees hold a deep cultural significance among the local population. Schoolchildren know the story of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king and military genius who conquered Persia, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Bactria and the Punjab but met his match on the plains of the mountains and steppes of Central and South Asia against herders, tribespeople and nomads as he marched toward India. Battered, hungry and facing a revolt in his ranks after outstripping his supply lines, the general and his army holed up in the walnut forest, nursing themselves back to life by eating its high-fat, high-protein nuts and hunting its game.

Alexander figures prominently in the region’s mythology. It’s likely he returned home with walnut plantings, perhaps from the genetic stock in the Sogdiana region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, to begin plantations in Europe. And in a bit of hubris/marketing, he named them “Greek” walnuts.

Apocryphal or not, these stories are a source of pride in both their telling of native resistance to Alexander’s army and the life-giving nature of the woods. Their cultural importance makes the uncertain future of the groves even more worrisome to scientists and government officials.

Alexander Temirbekov, a technical adviser for the Kyrgyz Association of Forest and Land Users in Bishkek, noted that 200,000 people live in or near the forest and many have depended on the wood and fruit their entire lives.

Policing the uses of the forest proved difficult, and continued corruption at the local level, both before and after independence, didn’t help. Trees were girdled and then cut down as “legal” dead harvests. A moratorium on logging was put in place in the 1990s and early 2000s. An export ban on lumber and nuts was established.

Cattle continue to graze in the timberlands, eating and stomping on young trees, sometimes crowding out native deer, and Shukurov told us, “The greatest threat is that the natural ecosystem of the forest will be destroyed because of a lack of diversity of the grasses and young trees after the grazing.”

Meanwhile, hauntingly iconic images of rusting merchant and fishing ships abandoned in the heavily polluted sands of what was once the bottom of the Aral Sea still capture international media attention. Once teeming with the fish that kept canneries humming and drew tourists from across the Soviet Union, the southern portion of the Aral is dead, dried up—a ghost of an inland sea because central planners in Moscow decided it made economic and political sense to divert water from rivers that fed the Aral to irrigate cotton farms in desertlike regions.

The legacy of that devastatingly short-sighted policy relegated what was Uzbekistan’s portion of the Aral to ghost sea status, home to one of the world’s highest rates of respiratory illnesses from wind-borne pesticides and fertilizers.

But that wasn’t all that happened here. In the Amu Darya’s delta, the Turan tiger was hunted into extinction in the 1970s. The last known survivor of its species was mounted and displayed in a museum in the dusty Nukus in western Uzbekistan, not far from where the Aral’s waters of once lapped the shore.

Efforts to revive the northern Aral in Kazakhstan have partly succeeded but never again will this “Sea of Islands,” once the world’s fourth-largest inland body of water, rank among the largest lakes on the globe. Rather, it symbolizes another of history’s most devastating human-induced environmental disasters, alongside the massively deadly chemical leak at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in Ukraine.

Frankly, answers to the plight of the Aral and the walnut forests are elusive because the scope of such challenges is so large in a region of opaque regimes, limited and unevenly distributed economic resources, lapdog media and a too-common sentiment that nothing can be done.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the authors:

Mark Neuzil is a professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of St. Thomas, U.S. Eric Freedman is Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, U.S., and a former Fulbright Scholar in Uzbekistan. Mark and Eric are the author of the new book Environmental Crises in Central Asia. from steppes to sea, from deserts to glaciers.