“These hills used to be covered with trees in Soviet times,” says Umedjon Baburforov, gesturing to the bare slopes around his village of Yanchob, near Dushanbe. “Now there are none.”
In the mountains of Tajikistan, summer is the season for collecting wood. Come winter, when many settlements throughout the country receive less than four hours of electricity per day from the state’s power grid, a wood stove becomes the main source of heating for many families. “We have to go further and further each year to find wood. We are planting more trees but they take a long time to grow,” explains Baburforov, 76.
Baburforov’s story is typical. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of its fuel subsidies 20 years ago, many Tajiks are becoming increasingly reliant on wood. Prices for imported fuels and coal continue to rise. According to a September report by the United Nations Development Program, 70 percent of Tajikistan’s mountain woodlands have disappeared since independence. The naked landscapes created by deforestation are prone to natural disasters, in particular mudslides. In addition, precious farmland is literally washing away.
Deforestation is a symptom of Tajikistan’s long-term energy crisis, says Ben Slay, senior economist at the UNDP Bureau for Europe and the CIS. “Pressures on Tajikistan's forestry resources are a direct result of household energy insecurity. If they [families] had reliable access to modern heat and electricity services, households would not need to make such extensive use of biomass,” Slay told EurasiaNet.org.
According to the UNDP, floods, mudslides and erosion inhibit the ability to cultivate about 50,000 hectares of land every year. This is significant for a country with less than 700,000 hectares of arable land. There is also growing danger to people and personal property. In May 2010, for instance, mudslides attributed to erosion left at least 15 dead and thousands homeless in Kulob.
“Such reductions in ecological capital reduce the productivity of land, labor, and other resources, reducing potential economic growth and increasing poverty,” Slay said.
Almost 70 percent of Tajiks living in rural areas use wood as their primary source of fuel, according to estimates prepared by the German government’s development agency, GIZ. Tajikistan’s underfunded, understaffed and undertrained employees of leskhozy, state-funded entities responsible for forest management, are struggling to combat deforestation.
“Forests are important for the local economy. If you have forests you have trade in timber and non-timber forest products,” said Joachim Kirchhoff, who manages the GIZ’s forestry reform program in Dushanbe on behalf of Germany’s Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Those skilled in forestry management are disappearing. “The low salaries do not attract young and motivated people,” he said. Kirchhoff added that there are no dedicated forestry management courses at universities in Tajikistan. Most specialists still on the job were educated at Soviet institutions in Kiev and Moscow.
In the Gunt Valley of the remote Pamir Mountains, one ranger said he is supposed to cover 5,000 hectares, even though he lacks a vehicle. “I am paid just 150 somoni [$31] per month. How can I live on that money? I have to spend some of my time working on my farm. I cannot afford to spend all my time looking after the forests,” said the ranger, who was afraid he would be fired if his name appeared in print.
“I have no transport,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “How can I cover such a large area?”
The government may be slowly waking up to the problem. “The country now has a relatively modern forest law revised in August that is based on sustainable forest management,” Kirchhoff said. The next step is to develop a forestry policy, which would establish mechanisms to implement the new legislation.
Due to the lack of government funding, “there is a need for donor support and the development of a forestry management system that generates income,” Kirchhoff said. GIZ is urging the government to privatize forests in the Pamirs, where farmers would be given 70 percent of the revenues from the forests in return for managing them in sustainable way.
But like many donor-driven initiatives in Tajikistan, it’s unclear how much the government in Dushanbe is buying into the reforms. Regulations mean little in corruption-infused Tajikistan, where bureaucrats often allow personal financial interests to cloud the long-term outlook.
“If we could find an alternative fuel, we would be happy to use it,” Baburforov, the mountain villager, told EurasiaNet.org. “We understand that we are destroying our land, our home, but we have no choice as things are. We need to keep our families warm and be able to cook.”