In the mountain village of Arslanbob, a smartphone app is helping communities get the most out of their grazing lands, and in turn protect the world's largest natural walnut forest.
Kyrgyzstan's ancient walnut forest spans tens of thousands of acres across the flanks of the Babash-Alta mountains. For generations, these natural woodlands have supported communities living on its fringes, in a sprawling network of villages collectively known as Arslanbob.
October is a traditional time of celebration when villagers move into the forest for a few weeks to gather nuts. This bounty is sent off along trade routes that trace the old Silk Road, passing through local markets across the Jalalabad region of Kyrgyzstan and on to Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
But the forests are coming under pressure from climate change and soil erosion — and from overgrazing. Local initiatives are trying to preserve this unique natural resource by engaging villagers in better management, not only of the forest itself but also of surrounding pastures.
Stressed pastures mean stressed forests
Traditionally, livestock stays close to the village during the winter months, and in summer villagers drive their animals to summer pastures in the highlands above the forest. But this can be a journey of several days and increasingly, these pastures, like the forest, aren't as lush as they used to be.
Instead, villagers are grazing their animals on the nearer winter pastures, meaning when summer ends there isn't enough fodder to see them through the cold months, and livestock are let loose to graze in the forest.
Hayat Tarikov, a retired forest ranger who spent his career maintaining the walnut forest, says the animals strip the forest floor of uncollected nuts and eat the buds off young trees and shrubs in the spring, making it more difficult for the forest to regenerate and thrive.
"If people kept their animals off the forest from September until May, then the flora on the forest floor could recover," Tarikov says.
Smartphone data to manage grazing
Grazing rights in Kyrgyzstan are granted through a decentralized system of regional pasture committees, composed of village leaders and shepherds.
Each year, Aziz Chirmashev receives a permit to use highland pastures. When the grazing season begins in early summer, he travels there with a 200-head herd of sheep, goats, horses, and cows belonging to villagers in Arslanbob. As the summer draws on, he drives his herd higher and higher to reach fresh grass.
"Our pastures are getting worse," Chimarshev says.
But to pin down just how much worse, and where — to establish how much grazing a given pasture can sustain — Central Asian environmental NGO Camp Alatoo is testing a smartphone app to map pasture health in the region.
The leaders of pasture committees collect and feed in data on stone cover, lichens, bare ground, and plant cover. This information helps determine how much grazing each area can support, and for how long.
"Year-to-year, it is difficult to tell the health of a pasture," explains Zhyrgal Kozhomberdiev, leader of pasture management at Camp Alatoo, "but five years of data would be a starting point to draw conclusions on the changes of a grazing area or region."
With this knowledge, Kozhomberdiev says, the committees might help shepherds like Chirmashev reach underutilized pastures further from the forest.
Sowing the seeds of resilience
The Ministry of Agriculture says it also has plans to produce seeds of the plants typically found in healthy pastures and sow them in degraded land where overgrazing has left only unpalatable plants.
With these initiatives to restore pastures, and render remote pastures more accessible, the hope is that herders won't turn to the forests to graze their animals.
At the same time, more direct action is also being taken to improve the health of the forest. Kozhomberdiev says that since 2021, foresters have been monitoring walnut trees to identify those more resistant to soil erosion and irregular water cycles.
The plan is to collect nuts from these resilient mother trees and grow saplings that will then be planted in the forest. But this isn't a quick fix. On average, walnut seedlings need five years of good conditions before they fruit — years in which they are particularly vulnerable to hungry cattle and goats.
'The forest calls them home'
Kozhomberdiev hopes that poor walnut harvests in recent years will serve as a warning to "shepherds and villagers to remember the rhythm of the land and limit the animals' grazing."
These days, the rhythm of life in Arslanbob isn't only dictated by the forest harvest, by times to winter down or scale the mountains in search of lush pasture, but also by the seasonal work that takes many villagers abroad, to neighboring Kazakhstan or to Russia.
But Tarikov says that far from abandoning traditional ways of life, they often come back with a deepened desire to see the ancient forest preserved. "One thing that is different about Arslanbob is that when young people leave here looking for work elsewhere, they come back," he says. "This forest calls them home."