Nomoz Jumayev, a pensioner from Surkhandarya, turned the desert located near his district into a forest the size of 35 football fields.

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We are used to thinking of our country as blooming and green.

But in fact, Uzbekistan's territory is 80% deserts and semi-deserts. Our ancestors worked for thousands of years to make these lands arable and fertile.

At the end of the 20th century, deserts launched a counteroffensive in Uzbekistan. Pastures are suffering from overgrazing and are degrading. Villagers, deprived of coal and gas, cut down all trees in their areas to be used as fuel, extracting even roots. Very few are thinking about the future.
On the outskirts of the city of Jarkurgan in Surkhandarya province, there is a district with a poetic name Qora Yantak (black camelthorn) which hosts about a hundred families. There is indeed a lot of camelthorn plants around. The desert advances on the neighbourhood, capturing more and more territory. Wind carries sand to the streets. At times, strong and hot 'Afghan' sandstorms hit the town and the residents have to shut their windows and hide in their houses.

The main street of the neighbourhood is modestly called Broiler Street and here, in house 92, lives the pensioner Nomoz Jumaev and his large family.
'Once specialists from Bukhara came to us and gathered everyone at the school. They played us a cassette and explained how you could deal with the sand. No one in the whole neighbourhood but me took any interest in planting saxaul (haloxylon)', says Nomoz-aka.
These specialists included the forester Abdusalom Normatov and the national coordinator of the Small Grants Program of the Global Environment Facility (GEF SGP) Alexey Volkov.

'Abdusalom was the real inspiration behind the project. He had lived in these parts for a long time. He told me that the desert was coming and that something had to be done. People do not know how to plant trees. They even dig up the roots for fuel. They only take but give nothing back to the nature. Abdusalom resolved to teach them,' says Alexey Volkov.

По рассказам аксакалов, раньше в этих местах были такие густые саксаульные леса, что в них было опасно заходить. Там водились хищники — тигр и гиена. Последнего тигра в Сурхандарье убили в 1971 году. Но местные жители видели еще одного в 1986 году — на берегу Амударьи.
Nomoz-aka was inspired by the idea to restore the forest. A local executive allowed him to use his land. The SGP GEF allocated money for the purchase of seedlings, and ... nothing happened. In the first year, saxaul seedlings did not take root.

'I started planting the saplings and everything was dry. At first, I did not know how to plant them properly. I did not know the roots had to be covered with clay. Then I realised my mistakes and started doing everything from scratch,' says Nomoz-aka.

The failure did not stop the 'conqueror of the desert'. In 2010, he began planting saxaul and other desert tree species again and within three years, he planted about 15 thousand seedlings with his own hands.
Now the forest covers an impressive area of more than 50 hectares. This is the size of 35 football fields or three Mustakillik squares in the centre of Tashkent. You will need a car to travel across the forest as it is simply too vast to walk. Saxaul trees are high, sometimes much higher than humans. Bushes bloom around them, there is some grass while rodents and reptiles already dig their burrows. This is a real forest but still very young. It is only eight years old.
'When I came back to look at the results a few years later, I was stunned. What I saw was amazing,' says Alexey Volkov.
'I don't know why no one has followed my example,' says Nomoz-aka as he gestures towards the desert: 'this land has an owner, but he does not grow anything there. Imagine how green our country would be if everyone planted trees.'
Nomoz-aka complains that not only do not the people want to restore their native land, but also they continue poisoning it. Across the road from his forest, there is a spontaneous dump. Local authorities are not in a hurry to clean it, despite all the requests they received from Nomoz-aka. A perfect illustration.
Nomoz-aka's household possessions include the old VAZ-2101 car, a horse named Beck, sheep, goats, some greenery and mulberry trees. There is no gas here. Bridesmaids bake nan in a tandoor and sell it at a local shop. The years Nomoz-aka worked as a driver at the local poultry farm could not earn him a comfortable life after the retirement as his monthly pension is only about 250 thousand soums ($30).

In his 63 years, he has gone through the incinerating heat of Surkhandarya and through the icy snow. He served in the Soviet army in the Arctic. His latest ordeal came to him in the body of a correspondent. Before that, even close friends had not known about his forest.
'I could not even imagine that he was planting a forest. He never asked for help, even though I was the chairman of the neighbourhood committee,' says Kulmurod Eshmurzoev, Nomoz-aka's best friend. 'He told me the secret about the forest only in 2015 and I was really surprised. He is such a modest person.'
'Nobody paid any attention to me; the authorities never helped but also did not interfere. Once the governor of the Surkhandarya province drove by, saw my forest and stopped. He asked: "Who has planted it?" I was not at home at the time. He asked my family to thank me,'says Nomoz-aka.
'The problem of Jarkurgan is not unique; deserts, like other extreme ecosystems, are very vulnerable. That is why Nomoz Jumaev's success is an excellent example of how to restore the desert with a minimal external investment and only basic knowledge. It would be important to invite there people from other desert regions of our country, and Nomoz-aka should be invited to give talks about his experience throughout Central Asia. After all, the main issue is the desire to make the desert fertile again and to leave something for next generations,' says the environmentalist Rustam Murzakhanov from the German Michael Zukkov Foundation.

If you visit our hero, he will surely show you a letter in a frame. The letter of gratitude for the inspiring project is signed by Stephan Prisner, the former UNDP representative in Uzbekistan. This is the only material evidence of the recognition of Nomoz-aka's efforts.
Battle for resources
The planted forest does not bring any income to Nomoz-aka and his family yet. He does not cut trees in the forest for his needs or for sale. Only gently collects camelthorn for the tandoor. Experts however, believe that the potential of the forest is enormous.
'This is a development model in which we began to believe and which we are considering for implementation throughout the country. Each farmer can restore desert, start to graze cattle moderately and collect firewood. According to our calculations, a hectare of restored desert can generate from 300 to 500 US dollars a year,' says Alexey Volkov.
In theory, using 50 hectares of forest can bring about $ 1,600 in revenue per month. A lot of money even for the capital.

'We want to say to people, if you consider the desert as a source of natural capital, if you restore it as Nomoz did, you will earn money.
Now we are already working on a similar project in the Farish district of Jizzakh province,' says Volkov.

However, every silver lining needs its cloud. It has turned out that just planting trees is not enough. Not only do not people want to follow Nomoz-aka's example, but they also ... try to destroy the results of his labour.
Nomoz-aka and his family today spend increasing amount of time protecting the forest from their fellow villagers and faraway neighbours. They are trying to graze cattle in the forest which destroys young plants, and also cut down trees.
Nomoz-aka calls the forest 'his' but its legal status is unclear and nobody knows who should help to defend the forest. He has no documents for the land, only an oral permission, once given by the local authorities and a businessman who authorised the use of his land.
'If this is a no-man's land, he can rent it. This is the only way to protect it. Because there are no rules in the law that would protect such forest plantations,' says Alexey Volkov.

'Ah, how many people have I stopped and quarrelled with. We have to guard the forest day and night. I come there in a car with my sons, we set up a trestle bed and spend the night here,' complains Nomoz-aka. The borders of the forest had to be strewn with broken glass. Before that, poachers drove right into the forest in their cars, cutting down trees and collecting camelthorn.
I think that Nomoz-aka would be glad to receive any documents for his forest in order to feel secure. I hope that the local authorities will support him and provide some assistance.
However, he is asking only for one thing. 'I need more saplings. I cannot buy them from my pocket. Another ten thousand, fifteen thousand. I will then plant another 30 hectares of forest or even more. I will plant as many saplings as they give me.'
Nomoz-aka is a happy man.
He has raised children,
built a house
and he planted not just one tree,
but a whole forest.

Rural life
Nomoz-aka's daughter-in-law says: 'On February 15, the correspondent of the Surkhandarya television channel Elyor Kurugliev conducted a brave investigation at the school in Qora Yantak neighbourhood. He shot a story about the violations he had discovered. The trainer of the school's volleyball team had more children in her group than she should. A nurse had medications that were due to expire on 28th February.

The video was shown at a teleconference with the governor of the province and all these people were fired on 19th February. The more, the merrier: the director of the school was fired as well. And a taekwondo coach who simply walked by and was filmed by accident. There are no more nurses, volleyball and taekwondo coaches in the school of Qora Yantak. The correspondent Kuruguliev may receive an award. I would like to ask him, 'Listen, why didn't you make a piece about the forest?'
Photo: Elyor Nematov
Story: Nikita Makarenko
Design and layout: Elyor Nematov

It is prohibited to use photo, video or audio without a permission of «».
This publication was created with a support of Central Asian Desert Initiative (CADI).
The State Forest Commitee of Uzbekistan is a national partner of CADI.
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