Turkmenistan has begun an epic project to turn itself from one of the driest nations on earth into a land of sweeping forests.
The Karakum Desert covers 80 percent of the country’s territory and temperatures often reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, lending a decidedly quixotic flavor to the enterprise.
State television showed President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov leading the way March 9 in a mass tree-planting exercise designed to create green belts around cities and villages. "In the current era of power and happiness, Turkmenistan will become a land of lush gardens and fields, green oases, fabulous parks and dense forests, heralding growth and renewal," Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper reported on March 11.
In the first step of his desert-greening plan, Berdymukhamedov signed a decree on February 22 ordering the planting of 3 million deciduous, coniferous, fruit tree and grapevine seedlings.
The “grand greening action” involving 465,000 people – more than one-tenth of the country’s population – went ahead as planned despite the cold weather and a recent snowfall. "Nearly 755,000 seedlings of coniferous trees and other species were planted,” the state-run newspaper reported on March 11. “Steps were also taken to care for the more than 1.6 million saplings planted earlier.”
Footage on state television showed the usual voluble festivities, taking place against the backdrop of the snow-fringed Kopet Dag Mountains on the southern limits of the capital, Ashgabat.
In an awkward contrivance, the official narrative seeks to depict the president as both exceptional and ordinary, so Berdymukhamedov was shown arriving at the wheel of a white foreign-made car, wearing jeans and a casual sports jacket. Girls in national dress greeted him with bunches of flowers.
Generous spreads were set up at improvised tents, while performers entertained workers with songs hailing the “age of power and happiness” ushered in by Arkadag, or Protector, the title now customarily used by state media to describe Berdymukhamedov.
Walking along the green carpet laid out in his honor, Berdymukhamedov glad-handed waiting diplomats, whose attendance at such events is all but mandatory.
After the performance of another Arkadag panegyric, Berdymukhamedov proceeded to put a sapling in place and then watered it from a colorfully decorated can. In imitation, a crowd of ministers, parliament officials, military and police officers, heads of diplomatic missions and representatives of foreign companies took up shovels and buckets.
Making a mockery of trumpeted plans to revamp the education system, a large group of students was roped into working after the day’s classes were cancelled. In some schools, pupils were spared classes so they could clean up school premises and look after trees.
State television showed the scenes being repeated across the country.
The mass planting of trees is a throwback to efforts undertaken by the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December 2006. Problems with irrigation under the scorching sun meant many of those trees were doomed.
Berdymukhamedov hopes his approach will prove more successful. Under the National Forest Program approved in January, a number of government agencies tasked with implementing his vision were ordered to use drip irrigation techniques.
What state media talks little about, however, are the plentiful trees not far from the highway the president uses to drive to work, but just out of his sight, withering for lack of water.