This story is part of the Landscape News series Forgotten Forests.
Millions of years ago, in the temperate montane forests of a little-known region in Central Asia, some of the world’s best-loved fruit and nut trees began to grow. Apples, apricots, cherries, plums, grapes, figs, peaches, pomegranates, pears, almonds, pistachios and walnuts all originated in the hills and valleys of the Tian Shan mountain range, which stretches from Uzbekistan in the west to China and Mongolia in the east.
The area is volcanic and geologically tumultuous, but fertile – scientists have hypothesized that in a place prone to frequent eruptions, earthquakes and landslides, shorter-lived tree species that could disperse their seeds widely by making themselves palatable to large mammals had a better shot at survival than long-lived, slow-maturing trees.
And that tasty survival strategy has served these species well. For residents of the region, the foods represent both security and social currency. “From the taxi drivers to the ministers to the local people, almost everyone carries some dried fruit or nuts with them,” says Paola Agostini, a lead natural resources specialist for Europe and Central Asia at the World Bank. “It’s like this safety net, and it’s also a lovely gift: something to share with others that is always appreciated.”
Central Asian marketplaces offer a cornucopia of colors, flavors, textures and varieties – many more than those most of us are accustomed to finding in our local supermarket’s produce aisle. “I was always astonished that people in the region could so easily tell which country a particular dried apricot came from,” says Agostini. “Their knowledge of these products is just so deep.”
Procuring and sharing these energy-dense treats is an ancient practice in the area. Fruit and nuts were major commodities on the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes that tracked through the heart of Central Asia, linking Europe, the Middle East and Asia, from the first century BC through to the mid-1400s. Over centuries of trade and travel – and lots of munching by humans, camels and horses along the way – prized fruit and nut species spread their seeds wider and wider, and new hybrid varieties were created, many of which are now supermarket and home-orchard staples, cultivated enthusiastically in temperate regions across the globe.
Narratives of plant domestication often tend to overstate the role of humans, but newer science suggests that “evolution in parallel” with the plants we love is often a more accurate way of framing this process. “It’s very unlikely that when somebody took an apple from Kazakhstan and carried it across an entire continent, they were thinking that they could cross it with another variety and end up with something better,” says Robert Spengler, a paleo-ethnobotanist at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany. “They were more likely just carrying the seeds to plant somewhere else. And in doing so, they inadvertently set off a chain reaction of hybridization events.”
According to Spengler’s research into the origins of apples, humans were not the first mammals to participate in that process of dispersal and co-evolution, either. In the late Miocene, which spanned the period from 11.63 to 5.33 million years ago, large mammals such as mammoths and horses played critical roles in dispersing apple seeds and facilitating their evolutionary process into the large, sweet, flavor-rich fruits we enjoy today.
Historically, the fruit and nut forests that developed in Central Asia were quite widespread, but due to development and deforestation, they’re now confined to a few small remnant populations: it is estimated that these forests’ total coverage has declined by 90 percent in the last 50 years.
The remaining forests are home to more than 300 species of wild fruit and nut trees, including up to 10 species of almond and four of wild apple. As such, they contain precious genetic resources, which could prove critical for future food security. Climate change and new diseases are already highlighting the risks associated with the narrow genetic diversity of tropical fruits like bananas and cacao, and there’s no reason to assume that temperate fruit and nut species will be exempt from the same challenges. “These remote forests are very important for maintaining the genetic diversity of many of the fruits that we love,” says Agostini.
Threads of threat and hope
Unfortunately, these priceless ‘wild orchards’ are prone to a number of threats, and 44 of their endemic species are currently deemed critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
During the Soviet period, farmers were encouraged to plant and cultivate domesticated fruit and nut varieties, which tend to cross-pollinate with the ancient varieties and dilute the genetic integrity of populations. Overgrazing in forested areas has also become an issue, especially since the practice of transhumance, whereby livestock are moved to different areas to allow pastures to recover and regenerate, was banned between countries in the region.
Economic pressure is a key driver of forest degradation in the area. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the newly-independent countries experienced severe economic hardship and infrastructure challenges. In Tajikistan, for example, the national grid provides only limited and unreliable electricity, and imported fuel and coal are extremely expensive. As a result, Tajiks rely on fuelwood for the majority of their energy needs, and this has driven severe deforestation in the country. In something of a self-perpetuating cycle, that ongoing deforestation is compromising the economy further: according to Agostini, the World Bank estimates that the land degradation cost to the country is around 10 percent of its GDP.
Climate change also threatens these forests, as Central Asian countries are becoming increasingly prone to desertification. The retreat of glaciers is already making an impact. “Many of the streams in these areas are completely fed by glacial melt,” says Spengler, “so they are fragile and vulnerable ecosystems.”
A number of national, international and civil society organizations are now working to protect and restore fruit and nut forests in the region – and the livelihoods and cultural touchstones they support. Bioversity International, Global Trees and the World Bank are all working with communities to identify and protect rare tree species, and to help boost their populations by cultivating and planting seedlings, and creating plans for more sustainable forest use. The World Bank’s work in the region, which comes under the banner of its Resilient Landscapes (RESILAND) initiative, involves collaborating with communities to develop diverse agroforestry plantations, potentially containing food and energy crops. The initiative also focuses on finding ways to add value to fruit crops, such as by drying them or turning them into juice, and facilitating market access “so that hopefully in the future these producers can export their products all over the world,” said Agostini.
Agostini emphasizes the importance of building local and international knowledge and passion for Central Asia’s fruit and nut forests, which she believes are not only beautiful and unique but also encapsulate a rich combination of social, historical, economic and ecological values. “Sometimes when we think about climate change, I think we focus too much on fast-growing plantations and tropical forests,” she says. “But these kinds of productive forests, which are the original sites of these fruit and nut trees that are so important in this place and for the world as a whole, actually merit a lot more attention and protection.”