Juniper Forests and the Survival of High Mountain Communities
One third of forest lands in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are covered with juniper trees, and at moderate and high altitudes in mountain areas of Central Asia, juniper forests make up as much as 80% of all forest lands. With no existing database on the growth of juniper forests, Gulzar Omurova, Research Fellow from the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Societies Research Institute, believes that there is a need to develop a sustainable model of growth and productivity for these forests.
Juniper tree with two trunks cut down near Kulikalon Lake in Tajikistan.
“There is an information gap in obtaining scientific knowledge, such as calculating the productivity and absolute growth rates of individual trees,” said Gulzar. “Trees can provide a wide range of information on weather, river water levels, earthquake intensity, and whether insects and other living creatures have increased or decreased over time. As nature develops in cycles, such knowledge helps to create forecasts and models.”
To address this gap, UCA’s Mountain Societies Research Institute, together with a group of researchers from Germany, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan launched the “Juniper Central Asia Project” in 2019. The two-year project has five areas of focus including socio-economic research, year-ring analysis, assessment of the distribution zones and the biomass of juniper forests through remote sensing, and the creation of models to describe dynamics of development and degradation of these forests.
Gulzar Omurova analysing the annual rings of sample trees from West Zeravshan.
Gulzar’s research focuses on dendrochronology, an academic discipline studying trees, which looks at trees as living and accurate depositories of historical information. Since last year, she has collected and analysed over 20 juniper tree samples from different areas of the western part of the Zeravshan Valley in Tajikistan. Her samples cover a 126-year period from 1893 to 2019.
This research will help prepare process models related to erosion, water balance and yield of juniper forests, as well as forecast potential changes in these indicators, building on social and environmental data. It will also provide government agencies and local communities with practical solutions for forest resource management. Forests play an important role in protecting and regulating water, as well as mitigating natural disasters, such as preventing run-offs and damage from flooding. It is increasingly important to find a solution, especially for Tajikistan which has only 3% of its territory covered by forests.
While the forests are subject to special protection, their condition is deteriorating. “Due to overgrazing and illegal logging, annual deforestation rates exceed the natural biomass buildup and the natural reforestation capacity. Some assessments suggest that juniper forests decrease annually by about 2-3%,” said Jyldyz Shigaeva, Senior Research Fellow at UCA’s MSRI. “If the forest cover continues to decrease at this speed, it will not only result in irreversible desertification, but will also lead to an increased number of natural disasters, threatening agricultural activities and the lives of the local communities.”
The project team has also studied five villages in Tajikistan living adjacent to juniper forests. Household surveys have found that while local communities prefer using juniper trees for their household needs, they mostly do it illegally, with only about 5% of households having licenses to cut down diseased trees. It also found that most households use juniper trees instead of coal in order to save coal for the winter season (about 30-40% of household budgets is spent on coal). Cultural aspects also play an important role as households use juniper trees to bake bread as they believe that juniper trees give bread a special taste.
Juniper forests in Tajikistan.
Overall, preliminary socio-economic analysis has found that these household practices are unsustainable for forest growth. This year, the project will continue to collect data to identify the most detrimental practices, find alternative solutions, and help plan and manage forest resources sustainably. “Today, juniper forests are treated like cost-free resources, and if this continues, future generations will not see juniper forests on mountain slopes,” said Jyldyz.
Over the course of the past 30 years, there has been no significant work conducted to prepare comprehensive records or monitor biodiversity, ecosystems and forests in Tajikistan. Consequently, plans on environment protection and forest management use outdated records and build-on estimates.
In this context, the results of the UCA’s project have become especially important. Models, outputs of remote sensing, and data on the forest biomass buildup, provide visual illustrations for where and how juniper forests regenerate or decrease, consequently helping to determine where control should be enhanced, or preventive measures implemented.