Our consumerist relationship to nature has brought upon us the sad fact that across the wide expanses of Turkmenistan, one cannot today find a corner of untouched wilderness inhabited by a calm herd of wild animals. Everywhere, to varying degrees, the natural growth processes of vegetation and the natural regeneration of plant cover are destroyed. Uncontrolled logging over the course of several hundred years in Turkmenistan of juniper and other shrubs in the mountains and saksaul in the sands of the Karakum, exacerbated by the overgrazing of domestic livestock, have denuded the soils over wide areas and led to erosion and salinization.
Moreover, pressures from poaching have resulted in noticeable decreases in the populations of many groups of large and mid-sized animals of commercial importance.
Accordingly, each year the slope of the graph showing fodder deficit in natural pastures becomes ever steeper. As a result, local populations are forced to graze their herds on protected lands, in zapovedniki (such as in the Syunt-Khasardag Zapovednik), and to resist the future expansion of Turkmenistan's system of protected lands. On the other hand, zapovedniki are our only future hope for the self-regeneration of the natural riches of Turkmenistan, and the only path leading to the salvation of the declining remaining national biological diversity. It is namely the large-scale repeated grazing of natural pastures and the loss of juniper forests over large sections of the Western Kopetdag Mountains that has led to the catastrophic degradation of all the ecosystems of the region and the destruction of the normal functional of the diverse components of these ecosystems.
The experience of the past few years also attests to the fact that the mechanisms employed for increasing the wealth of the endangered wild nature of Turkmenistan, as well as efforts to conserve rare species, have not in fact led to the preservation of regional native biodiversity. For example, while efforts are undertaken to add new species to the Red Data Book of Turkmenistan, these additions lack regulations to ensure the legal protection of these species or prevent the exploitation of the regional resources upon which these species depend for their survival and propagation. The primary reason for this unhappy situation is that the current mechanisms for protection of wild nature, more accurately the very strategy for preserving biodiversity, lacks any and all economic incentives. Such economic incentives need to undergird a rational economic model for nature protection and the rational use of regional resources.
Under such an approach, the primary means of effecting environmental reform could and should be the rural inhabitant, the farmer. If constructive reforms can be effected in these people's lives instead of effecting nature protection at the expense of the local economy, local populations can and will become partners in the struggle to save biodiversity. The fate of the rural inhabitant directly depends on the preservation of all biological resources. Thus, the appreciation that biodiversity conservation is integral to preventing desertification is needed to understand that biodiversity conservation in Turkmenistan is essential not only to local farmers, who will nevertheless be the hardest hit by desertification processes, but to the entire society.
Therefore, we believe that one of the best measures to protect biodiversity and encourage rational use of the resources of biodiversity is to clarify the mutuality of the interests of the local populations and the scientific community, specifically that group of scientists engaged in introducing and distributing new food crops promising better economic and ecological results than any previous crops. Training rural inhabitants, primarily women and teens as the least employed members of the community, in agricultural methods of cultivating superior crops is a concrete way of practicing nature protection and forging nature protection partnerships with local populations. It also keeps academic science informed as to the needs and interests of local populations and farmers.
Such an approach to nature protection has been pursued by Dr. V. N. Kazantseva and Dr. A. B. Khekimov. In 1996-97, they implemented a model project initially financed by ISAR, with continuing financing from Cottonwood Foundation. This support allowed them to train a small group (50-60 people) of local farmers in five villages (Kurukhaudan, Manysh, Kalininsk, Pervomaiski, and Annau) outside of Ashgabad, Turkmenistan in the cultivation of a previously locally unknown crop: soy.
Soy is an annual grass in the bean family. It long ago earned a reputation as the best provider for both animals and humans, the more so since its derivatives leave behind few, if any, pollutants. Added to dry straw of little nutritive value, soy creates a nutritious and caloric fodder. It has been established that cows fed on soy produce more milk, and their offspring are heavier. Similarly, chickens fed on soy produce more eggs. Soy seeds added to human food also yield amazingly positive nutritive results.
Kazantseva and Khekimov's work, beginning with the preparation of soils and ending with the collection of harvests from small plots of from five to 30 square meters, has contributed to the ecological awareness of the population. Soy was planted on 3 May 1996, 23 April 1997, and 28 June 1997. From a significant proportion of the experimental plots, large yields were harvested. With much excitement and interest, especially after the plants flowered, the women and teen farmers took care of these crops. Scientists got their hands dirty as they, side by side with the local farmers, took part in every stage of soy cultivation, and also took the opportunity to discuss environmental issues and theory with the farmers.
The adaptation of soy, a water-loving far eastern newcomer, to productive life in the extreme conditions of the plains at the edge of the Kopetdag Mountains, where moisture is very low in the soil, is a small ecological revolution of national importance. In fact, it is the result of 30 years of effort by scientists at the Institute of Botany of the Turkmenistan Academy of Sciences. The Garagum variety of soy, acquired through selection by K. M. Muradov, I. A. Ivantsova, and V. N. Kazantseva, was initially successfully tested in 1994. However, because of a lack of seeds, at that time the new variety could not be provided to individual farmers, despite the fact that the crop's high yield (250-300 centners per hectare) and nutritive value were desperately needed at the time by starving domestic herds and suffering rural populations. The locally selected soy differs from all of its European and American cousins in its high resistance to heat while maintaining a high yield. It can grow in slightly salinized soils in the plains at the edge of the Kopetdag Mountains with very little irrigation, at the same time giving two (the first for seeds and the second for fodder) yields per year. The yields of other new specially selected bean crops pioneered by the Institute of Botany, such as dolikhos (500-600 centners per hectare) and kayan (300-350 centners per hectare) are similarly high.
On a larger arena, the work of Kazantseva and Khekimov serves as the first step in a future dialogue with state agencies concerning the expansion of private croplands cultivated with soy or some other experimental crop. Sparking the interest of local populations in the development of new crops and ecologically clean agricultural methods has allowed the local population itself to solve its own pressing problems. Fodder is now available for domestic animals, people have more food, and the land, especially pasturelands, is under less pressure. As a result, through actions instead of words, a resolution is being effected of a not less serious problem, threats to the native biological diversity of the region.
The future expansion of fields cultivated with soy in Turkmenistan (of course, if a local seed bank for locally adapted seeds will be encouraged to come into existence) could in the future serve to change the emphasis in animal husbandry from small domestic animals (grazing in herds in valleys) to large domestic animals (held in pens). Such a change would reduce the anthropogenic pressure on the environment and protect the reserve areas in the Kopetdag Range from invasions by domestic animals. Moreover, the transition of agricultural methods to a closed and unpolluting production cycle thanks to development of new crops (such as soy, kayan, and others) would have obvious ecological benefits. With domestic herds out of the mountains and valleys, a foundation will be laid for the regeneration of local ecosystems and biodiversity. While this transition will not occur overnight, as it occurs gradually it will serve as proof of the viability of methods of biodiversity conservation within the framework of the rational use of Turkmenistan's natural resources and the sustainable development of Turkmenistan itself.