However, as the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization says, the country is rich ecologically. Its natural walnut forests are of global significance for biodiversity conservation – they’re seen as the world’s biggest remaining areas of ecosystems dominated by fruit-bearing woody species.

Their harvests make up a third, or more, of families’ incomes, especially in the south. Nutritious walnuts are also important in families’ food.

But estimates are that 80 per cent of these ecosystems have disappeared due to logging, poverty and pressure from a growing population.

Reversing the decline is one thing, and it is happening to some extent through replanting projects that have educational aspects.

Getting this far has much to do with pure determination.

FSC Key Account Officer (CIS Countries) Mariam Mattila had been in contact with organizations in Kyrgyzstan to raise awareness of FSC. There was talk, she says, but little action.

Then, at an eco-packaging conference in Kazakhstan, she was approached by a group led by KAFLU’s Aitkul Burhanov.

“They had gone there to meet with me about how to start the FSC certification process in Kyrgyzstan,” she says. They liked that FSC focused not just on forests, but also on ecosystems, social aspects and market access.

KAFLU invited Mattila to visit Kyrgyzstan. On her route was a walnut festival in Jalal-Abad, a city among walnut forests. “I totally felt in love with this land, these people, and realized how happy they are to live from what they love – their forests and their land,” she says.

Kyrgyzstan pioneers smallholder certification in Central Asia

Adding value – protecting and improving smallholders’ income and the resource they rely on – is another.

Kyrgyz smallholders’ biggest challenges include harvesting without harming ecosystems, and expanding processing of non-timber products through squeezing juices, shelling and cleaning nuts, making oils, and packing.

This is where FSC is taking its first steps into the region through Smallholder Fund-supported pilots.

It has approved funding for the Kyrgyz Association of Forest and Land Users (KAFLU) to develop a chain of value addition. This will be through: buying equipment for drying and packing; developing ways to harvest walnut kernels; and training forest producers on compliance with FSC standards.

KAFLU is aimed at creating conditions for sustainable use of natural resources and development of entrepreneurial activities in forestry and land use through, for example, education, technical support and supply of seedlings.

Kyrgyzstan pioneers smallholder certification in Central Asia

KAFLU was set up by Aitkul Burhanov, who once headed a state forest agency but now chooses to work with smallholders on the ground. He says FSC certification is crucial for protection of natural walnut forests and to get Kyrgyz non-timber forest products visible on global markets, with benefits going directly to communities.

“It will positively affect local people’s livelihood and will start an important process of achieving sustainability, biodiversity, gender balance and waste management in walnut forests.”

Women are set to benefit. Most leaseholders are men, even though many of them work seasonally in neighbouring countries. Women usually do most of the preparation of non-timber forest products for sale. An aim of the pilots is to improve their working conditions and income streams, possibly through establishing small processing facilities that will pay them salaries.

Kyrgyzstan pioneers smallholder certification in Central Asia

In smallholder pilot forest units called leskhozes (Kyzyl-Unkur, Kara-Alma-Ata and Toskool), consultations on FSC standards have been held. “Stakeholders now understand the economic benefits that will come from the sale of forest products in international markets and, more than ever, they want to preserve the walnut forests,” Burhanov says.

These leskhozes are preparing for Forest Management and Chain of Custody FSC certification, he says.

Walnut season lasts only a month a year. To sustain livelihoods, other non-timber products are included on the preliminary list for FSC certification. Among them are pistachio, almonds, apple, rosehip and honey.