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Restoring the Roots: the Movement to Recover Central Asia’s Agrobiodiversity


In October 2013, a tall, thin man with tightly cropped gray beard stood in a gallery of the new National Museum of Tajikistan and held aloft a pear. The assembled audience, there for the opening of a new photography exhibit about the country’s biocultural diversity, was treated to an impromptu lesson in the importance of preserving native species.

Mirzoshoh Akobirov informed them that the pear was of a variety that had very nearly gone extinct. He had grown it from a cutting of the last known pear tree of the variety, which he discovered shortly before its death five years before.

“We moved from village to village and gathered local species of fruit trees in [their] maternal gardens and [revived] the threatened species by engrafting” them with native species, Akobirov tells The Christensen Fund. “Native species are more adaptable to destructive insects and diseases, and resistant to climate change. As for nutritional value, they have a big amount of minerals, and they are inimitable in their taste and aroma.”

Orchard Keeper and ‘Mad Man’

The exhibit at which Mirzoshoh was delivering the keynote address, “People and Plants: A journey into Tajikistan’s biocultural diversity,” by photographer Nicolas Villaume, includes a photo of Mirzoshoh in a misty mountain valley tenderly cupping a sapling.

Simply put, Mirzosho is the Man in Tajikistan, with the plan to ban the can

Named “best orchard keeper of Tajikistan” by the nation’s president, Mirzoshoh Akobirov is a master cultivator who exchanges knowledge and ideas with farmers in mountain societies around the globe. Photo by: Nicolaus Villaume

He was recently awarded “Best Orchard Keeper of Tajikistan” by the country’s President, and is considered the man to speak to about the growing movement to revitalize Central Asia’s threatened native plants. A poet, musician, and modern-day holy man from the Rasht Valley, Mirzoshoh is a leader among the network of brave and eclectic innovators who are turning around an extinction crisis in the region.

“Love for the native countryside and conservation of local biodiversity forced us to make a botanical garden in our village,” he says. “The main purpose of launching this garden was to gather homegrown species, their preservation, exploration, and [to] leave them as a legacy of the past to a new generation. At the beginning, when I started to gather sorts of disappeared species and launched a new garden in unused lands, people always called me a mad man.”

Mirzoshoh is not the only ‘mad man’ doing this important work. He is joined by a growing cohort of botanists, researchers, doctors, tribesmen, poets, spiritual and NGO leaders, both men and women, young and old, most of them also musicians. Their collective task is rescuing, securing, and returning to landscapes crucial wild and cultivar varieties of the fruits and nuts that were domesticated out of the wild forests of these mountains over the last six millennia but have become threatened over a century of repression and upheaval.

Mirzoshoh’s pear is one of these. It is the result of one man’s passion to turn things around. Through his garden, named Kuhsori Ajam (Mountains of the Persians), and Rushnoe, the nonprofit organization he founded, Mirzoshoh promotes local biodiversity and natural resource management in the context of cultural and spiritual revival.

Native Agrobiodiversity: reversing a decline

In the fertile mountain valleys of present-day Tajikstan, Nikolai Vavilov – the renowned Russian botantist and geneticist – discovered one of the centers of origin of wheat and barley. It was here that Vavilov got some of his first insights about how isolated mountain societies move and integrate genetic material around and throughout landscapes, creating resilient and adaptive crop gene pools that no agency seed introduction program could ever dream to match. His journey has been beautifully relived by author Gary Nabhan in his book, Where Our Food Comes From.  

During the late twentieth century, as global agrobiodiversity suffered devastation, ex-Soviet Central Asia did not escape. The global trend of replacing locally-adapted mosaics of a wide range of crops with monocultures requiring non-sustainable inputs occurred even in the mountains of Tajikistan. Here the Soviets reorganized indigenous farming systems into large-scale collective farms and provided subsidized fertilizers and agro-chemicals, an industrialized model that did not prove resilient after the collapse of the USSR and that has not returned under a market economy.

Farmers from mountainous regions during Soviet times were often moved to the lowlands to cultivate cotton, leaving many rich indigenous montane gardens abandoned. A devastating civil war followed Soviet collapse, which brought an end to the subsidized fossil fuel used to stay warm in the winters. Many of the orchards that were not cut down for wood fuel began to dry up for lack of water.

In recent times the prevailing view among agricultural technicians was that much of Tajikistan’s agricultural heritage was lost for good. But dedicated stewards like Mirzoshoh have salvaged and assembled many hundreds of important, delicious varieties, and are beginning to make them available to farmers to rebuild agricultural landscapes. To do this local and often informal Botanic Gardens have played a key role.

Central Asia’s Botanic Bounty

The species being revived by innovative farmers throughout Central Asia include some of the world’s most important botanical heritage, as these mountain ranges (including the Caucasus) comprise the main region for the domestication of temperate fruits and nuts. In the Kulyob Botanic Garden, Tajikistan, for example, Tilo Boboevich is hard at work cultivating a hundred local varieties of the threatened apple species, Malus sieversii, believed to be the sole progenitor of the domesticated apple (Malus domestica).

Tilo Bovoev is the man, too

Tilo Bovoevich left a posh job at Tajikistan’s National Academy of Sciences to work at revitalizing indigenous varieties at the field level in collaboration with rural communities.

But the region harbors many other important and useful plant species, and Boboevich is also domesticating threatened wild species such as Bunium persicum, a spice similar to cumin, called zeera; a wild onion widely used by healers to remedy swelling and wounds; and the briar rose locals use to make medicine and jam. He hopes these species will improve livelihoods in rural mountainous areas of Kulyab zone and reduce the local people’s need to over-collect threatened wild plants to meet their daily needs.

Like Mirzoshoh, Tilo Boboevich followed his passion into the gardens. He was a distinguished member of Tajikistan’s National Academy of Sciences in the 1970s when he scandalized his Soviet peers by giving up his glittering research career to dedicate himself to gardens for the cultivation and revitalization of indigenous varieties.

“Threatened species of local wildlife is one of the greatest ecological and economic tragedies for our region,” Boboevich tells The Christensen Fund. “My attempt and efforts are focused to end the process of annihilation of unique species. Just for that reason, I left my job at Kulyab University.”  He brought his students with him, like Dr. Mukhabbat Mamadalieva, the first Tajik woman to study genetics at the prestigious Moscow State University, who with her NGO Zan va Zamin (Women and Earth) won an Equator prize in 2012 with special reference to their work on restoring agrobiodiversity to women farmers in the Kulyab regon.

Dr. Mukhabbat Mamadalieva, founder of Zan va Zamin, attends Central Asia's first Convening on Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty in Khorog, 2011

Dr. Mukhabbat Mamadalieva, founder of Zan va Zamin, attends Central Asia’s first Convening on Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty in Khorog, 2011. Zan va Zamin runs community nurseries and school programs and recognizes and rewards women and elders for their role in the maintenance of agricultural heritage.

Even without Boboevich, the National Academy is also doing its part to help conserve the region’s unique flora. In Tajikistan’s capital city, Dushanbe, the Herbarium Resource Center for Plants, Physiology and Plant Genetics of the National Academy of Sciences holds the most important botanical collections in Central Asia: some 200,000 specimens dating back as far as 1876, assembled by a series of distinguished botanists, many of them women. The Resource Center is determined to save as much of the collection as possible, working to digitize them to make the material widely and permanently available to the local and international scientific community.

At the other end of the spectrum from the National Academy are unregistered local gardens where diversity also thrives. At Domullo Borot Garden in Gesh, founded in 1899, Saidov Gurez is working to preserve many rare plant varieties, including a dozen different kinds of apples and many types of pears. Saidov is the grandson of the garden’s original caretaker, holy-man Domullo Borot, the founder of a nearby mosque and social service complex. His reputation in the community was so strong that after he was forced to flee Soviet expansion in 1924, local people sustained the garden unharmed throughout the many disruptions of the last century.

Elsewhere in Tajikistan, Dr. Ogonazar Aknazarov of the Pamiri Biological Research Institute in Badhakhshan is cultivating native Alliums – wild onions and garlics – as this mountainous region is one of this genus’ global centers of diversity. The Institute, established in 1940, houses some 4,000 species and varieties. In Soviet times it was a major center of research into the physiology of high altitude adaptation by plants. Currently, it is helping to reintroduce to local farmers’ orchards almost-extinct indigenous varieties of fruits and nuts, including seven varieties of black currants.

Through his organization Eco-Centre Pamir, Dr. Ogonazar is also branching out into research about natural dyes and insect repellents that can help with the production of crafts that many rural communities rely on, strengthening networks of landscape custodians across Badhakhshan.

Revitalizing Community Life

The widespread work of strengthening Central Asia’s agrobiodiversity is bringing new life to rural communities. Stewards are moving beyond the rescue stage for almost extinct varieties to focus on their restoration to landscapes, diets and cultural life. Tilo Boboevich’s Kulyab Garden, for example, plays a significant role in educating the public and policy makers on Tajikistan’s natural heritage and in collaborating with farmers on restoring the diversity of the orchards, farms, and wild landscapes of the region.

Ganji Tabiat, an NGO that collaborates with the garden, offers workshops for local communities and secondary school students, consults with farmers about the diversity of their crops and orchards, develops educational materials on wild plants and domestication techniques, and reaches out to the broader public and the policy community.

“We established a special gene pool and gene resources of local fruits, like apple and pear,” Boboevich says. “Every year schoolchildren and students and many people [come to the garden] to get information about plant species and become aware of the ways how to preserve them from elimination.”

Dr. Shirinbek is the man, with the plant plan too

Dr. Shirinbek Davlatmamadov is one of Central Asia’s most prominent medicinal herbalists. Through his NGO, ‘Flowers and Herbs’, he combines language, history, culture and landscapes to revive botanical traditions. Photo by: Nicolaus Villaume

Plants native to the region are important for human health, as there are strong local traditions of medicinal use of herbs and engagement with healing elements of the landscape. Prominent medical doctor Dr. Shirinbek Davlatmamadov established NGO Gulu Giyoh (Flowers and Herbs) to revitalize local culture through a focus on the traditional medicinal uses of native plants and of the natural environment.

Shirinbek is developing a network of medicinal herb gardens and revitalizing healing sacred springs in Ishkashim, a place well known for its distinctive nature and culture. His efforts promote healthy ways of life and revitalize local culture and botanical knowledge, including the threatened Ishkashimi language, which now has fewer than 1,000 speakers.Gulu Giyoh’s approach to cultural revitalization is holistic, combining language and cultural revival, oral heritage, local history, health and reconnection with the landscape.

Mirzosho in his garden in Tajikistan’s Rasht Valley. It was in Valleys like this that the great Vavilov got some of his first insights about how isolated mountain societies move and integrate genetic material around and throughout landscapes, creating resilient and adaptive crop gene pools. Photo by: Nicolaus Villaume

Challenging Climate Change

With climate chaos challenging agriculture around the globe, many Tajik farmers are now growing certain crops at much higher elevations than in the recent past. Despite the fact that farmers in this region have been under pressure for decades to adopt ‘improved varieties’, which tend to do best in the lowest, flattest areas, indigenous innovation with local biodiversity has proven more effective at coping with climate change than the efforts of outsiders to boost productivity by homogenizing breeding material and inputs. Interestingly enough, it seems that the local farmers have developed and shared new varieties of their own that enable them to expand farming even beyond the changing climate frontier, allowing them to plant several hundred meters higher than they could just a century ago.

In one of Vavilov’s agricultural hotspots, this modern network of botanical champions is using indigenous strategies to create resilience in local food and water systems throughout the region. Mirzoshoh, for example, who held aloft the almost-extinct pear in the nation’s capital, is focused on a much broader picture than just a single fruit: His life’s work is centered on encouraging landscape restoration in partnership with local communities, and he is busy with the terracing and reforestation of whole hillsides in which his cornucopia of indigenous plants can thrive.

“We try to protect the native species from disappearance to revive and disseminate them among the population and at the same time enlighten the young people as our future successors,” Mirzoshoh says. “Revival and preservation of ancient tradition are very significant for the population from the point of health improvement and food security.”

As Rushnoe’s work reveals, indigenous knowledge about sustaining food and water systems is not just about conserving heritage but is a key component for future sustainability. The issue is of such importance in the local context that it has been taken up by the UNDP project “Sustaining agricultural biodiversity in the face of climate change in Tajikistan.” The project aims to integrate the promotion of agrobiodiversity conservation and adaptation to climate change into Tajikistan’s local and national development policies and practices.

Like Mirzoshoh’s pear, the efforts of the visionaries in the gardens of Central Asia represent hope for a future in which biocultural heritage is valued and Indigenous lifeways can persevere in the face of a changing climate. It is a big challenge, but those bravely taking it on believe it has the potential to change agriculture in a delicious way.

“The road that we started to approach is very long,” says Mirzoshoh. But, “our experiences step by step will be spread out in other countries and in the world.”

 

For centuries, the skilled farmers of Central Asia have artfully harnessed water and crop species to create some of the world's most important agrobiodiversity in an otherwise quite barren place. Photo: an orchard near Khorog, Tajikistan

For centuries, the skilled farmers of Central Asia have artfully harnessed water and crop species to create some of the world’s most important agrobiodiversity in an otherwise quite barren place. Photo: an orchard near Khorog, Tajikistan

Special thanks to Alamshoev Kurbon for interviewing and translation services for this article. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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