Why worry about varieties of fruits and nuts decreasing? Multiple tastes, different colors, several growing periods, resistance to pests, drought and environmental disasters — all these factors rest on maintaining, and now reviving, regions and agricultural practices that grow many varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and grasses.
These are just some reasons why biological diversity is important, but there are more. First, on an individual level, food tastes better when it is grown locally and transported shorter distances. Second, do you really want just one type of apple that peaks at one time of year? Or do you want different-tasting apples that have many sizes, textures, culinary uses and ripening times so you can enjoy them over a longer season and in an array of dishes? Do you want to enjoy your peaches longer in the season? Then the one-peach-fits-all variety is not going to cut it.
Central Asia, a biodiversity hotspot
Central Asia, which is rich in fruit and nut diversity, includes countries with a multitude of cultures, languages and foodways. The famed silk and spice routes coursed through the mountainous landscapes.
Along the routes arrived a constant exchange of seeds, spices and ecological knowledge, too. In fact, the Central Asian mountains are what Conservation International designates “a biodiversity hotspot” — a region that contains an exceptional number of native plant diversity and serious levels of habitat loss. The hotspot’s more than 330 square miles include two major mountain ranges, the Pamir and the Tian Shan, southern Kazakhstan, most of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, eastern Uzbekistan, western China, northeastern Afghanistan and a small part of Turkmenistan.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
Focusing on one area — Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — gives a few examples of individuals and organizations working toward more fruit and nut diversity in the face of challenging economic times and climate change for all farmers.
Two-part series on biodiversity:
» "Biological diversity" means the variability among living organisms from all sources, including inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
» "Biocultural diversity is derived from the myriad ways in which humans have interacted with their natural surroundings. Their co-evolution has generated local ecological knowledge and practices: a vital reservoir of experience, methods and skills that help different societies to manage their resources." (UNESCO).
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Mirzoshoh Akobirov, a scientist, is tapping into Tajik local biodiversity and ancient agricultural practices to address climate change and improve the economic welfare of his fellow farmers. Over the years Akobirov noted that only 70% of domesticated fruit and nut trees survived whereas their wild relatives had much higher survival rates. He is actively reviving wild fruit and nut populations on abandoned slopes because of their strong local resiliency to climate change, specifically drought and pests.
Before the fruit, there is the beautiful blossom. So why not celebrate the high diversity of apricots (of which there are about 20 varieties) at the Blossoming Apricot Festival in April each year in the Batken District, Kyrgyzstan? Akylbek Kasymov, founder of the Foundation Bio Muras, is doing just that. With the communities of Samarkandek, Kasymov is reviving the cultural significance and the transfer of agricultural practices to a younger generation of farmers. The festival showcases not only the biological diversity of apricots but also the music, dance and poetry that upholds the local culture.
Muhabbat Mahmaladiyva, a highly respected and beloved biodiversity and women’s rights activist, is founder of Zan va Zamin (Women and Land) in Tajikistan. The Women and Land organization is also the 2012 recipient of the Equator Prize for showing leadership in promoting alternative, innovative ways to build resilient communities and protect both people and the planet. Women and Land created more than 30 seed banks, provided funds so farmers could access seed varieties and offered opportunities for local food entrepreneurs to effectively counter the negative outcomes of Soviet-era mono-cropping and dependence on cotton farming. The group’s 12 field schools produce 1,000 tons of vegetables annually. Community orchards supply saplings and maintain more than 10,000 fruit trees that include local varieties of apples, pears, apricots and peaches. Their work creates more resilient ecosystems, fewer food shortages, more food sovereignty, improved local incomes and active involvement of women at every step of the process.
Collectively, these individuals are positively influencing their fragile environments to rekindle lost agricultural practices and food diversity that are sustainable, one seed and one individual, at a time.
Top photo: An apricot tree. Credit: Jyldyz Doolbekova
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.