I am at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, looking for my flight to appear on the departures timetable. There it is—Bishkek—the capital of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, where I am about to start my new job in the field of natural resource management. I chuckle at the thought that, for many people, the Central Asian region is a blind spot on the world map, even though this area was the heart of the famous Silk Road.

Nowadays, the region covers the area of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and is similar in size to Western Europe, with 60 million inhabitants. The oriental charm is still noticeable in the old trading centers, but has lost wider attention on the international stage. I wonder what picture people today have of Central Asia. Some might make connotations with Russia, as it is still a big player in the region. Some might have seen yurts, the white felt tents used by herders.

Some hours later, in the plane, I look down. I see small settlements located in a rather scarce, mainly brownish landscape changing from vast plains to rugged mountainous terrain. My first impression is that it seems to be the right place to join the global fight to combat land degradation. After some weeks working for Germany’s main government aid agency, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, or GIZ GmbH, on the ground in Kyrgyzstan and learning more about the challenges of natural resource management in the region, I recall the images from the flight and they become filled with other meanings.

The yurts, I know by now, are set up on the high mountain pastures that are used during summer. Pastures in many areas, though, provide less and less feed for livestock as they are overused. I also learned that the landscape I saw from the plane is not fertile enough for extensive land use. This is mainly due to climate conditions. The predominant climate is continental with long, cold winters and dry, hot summers. Therefore, vegetation is sparse, and needs time to grow. Inappropriate land management practices have contributed to a higher vulnerability to climate change, creating a vicious cycle further degrading crucial ecosystems. Expected impacts of climate change mainly manifest in melting glaciers and changes in water flow regimes, and less predictable conditions. This is a problem, as most local people rely upon subsistence farming and keep a vast number of livestock as their only source of income, and the livestock must constantly graze on pastures. Moreover, people intensively collect firewood to meet their energy needs for cooking and heating.

Working on a cotton farm in Tajikistan.

During my time here, one issue has become ubiquitous all over the region: land degradation that has been driven by human mismanagement of natural resources and exacerbated by the impact of climate change. A shepherd’s statement during a field trip describes the dilemma of the people very well: “We used to lead our sheep to the summer pasture in May or June. Some years ago, we started to bring the sheep up here in April because we had less hay and it takes the sheep longer to grow fat on the pastures. But then, we realized that less grass grew every year.”

A month after my arrival, I compare my impressions from the shepherd’s village, a small settlement of only 500 people in the Bartang Valley of the Western Pamirs, Tajikistan, to the policies at the national level. I realize that there is a huge gap between the reality of people in rural areas and those in the country’s capital. Political awareness about the urgent need to combat land degradation is not prevalent. On the contrary, the sustainable and climate-smart management of land is low on the political agenda. Often, policies in place fuel the negative trend of land degradation rather than prevent it. During my stay, I learned that this is not true in all cases, and that in most of the Central Asian countries, efforts to combat land degradation are ongoing. However, the more important question is whether countries want to learn from each other.

While conducting interviews in a village close to the border with Uzbekistan, I asked how people in Uzbekistan solve these problems. The answer revealed a resistance to cross-border learning: “Uzbeks and Tajiks are not the same—they have their own ways and we have ours.”

Later, I learned that this is a very common point of view in the region. Information exchange and cooperation among people in the national policies between countries, and among sectors and ministries, are rarely appreciated. Boundaries remain. Land degradation is made up of different components, such as salinization, soil erosion, and overgrazing, but in the end they represent one single trans-boundary and trans-sectoral problem, which is not recognized among the stakeholders. One challenge is that, in Central Asia, land use-related ministries are the least influential ones. Economic arguments and measures are missing to convince the stronger finance and economics ministries to address the issue of land degradation in its full dimensions.


The Study

In my office in Bishkek, I started to wonder how to tackle this manifold problem. I realized that the only way to promote motivation amongst the different groups across all countries would be to highlight that each individual sector, institution, and country would lose without jointly taking care of the natural resources in the region.

I determined three core issues to be tackled:

  1. Raising awareness for the value of productive land.
  2. Generating economic arguments to strengthen the position of land use-related ministries.
  3. Enhancing cooperation between sectors and countries.

At this time, I came across the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative, an international collaboration launched in 2012 based in Bonn, Germany. The ELD strives to reach the same objectives and offers an approach that tackles land degradation not only from the natural resource perspective, but also from an economic point of view. The basic methodology of the ELD follows an approach that has been developed to guide users through a process of establishing scientifically-sound, cost-benefit analyses of the current land use and sustainable alternatives to inform decision-making processes. It aims to promote sustainable land management by analyzing the economic value of productive land based on market and nonmarket values.

The methodology met our needs, but to tackle the third objective—enhancing regional cooperation—the framework needed to be adapted.


The Jigsaw Approach

The idea of a jigsaw approach was developed jointly with representatives from different partners in the region. We looked at the common ecosystem configurations in each country in Central Asia. Most striking was the altitudinal gradient throughout the region, and within each country. Along this gradient, the region exhibits a variety of ecosystems and different land use patterns. We wanted to capture as many of them as possible in order to create a representative picture of the situation in the area. It was decided to conduct one full ELD study in each country, each focusing on one specific altitudinal zone with the predominant ecosystem and related land degradation problems. In the end, to get a clear picture of the economic situation of land degradation in the region, the five national studies were put together into one jigsaw, bridging national thinking and enhancing regional cooperation for managing natural resources.

Schematic overview of the jigsaw approach.

The economic focus of the approach has helped us to attract the attention of key ministries in the region. As expected, it was difficult for these ministries to agree on how to cooperate in the study. A longer discussion took place on the distribution of ecosystems among the countries. Every country put a strong emphasis on getting the “best” topic for their study, doubting that they could gain much from results produced in neighboring countries. To avoid strong discrepancies, we had to omit the topic of water completely, as it presents such a sensitive issue in the region. Nevertheless, the idea of conducting country-specific studies first, thus creating puzzle pieces to be put together in the regional context later, met the reservations of the countries. Furthermore, it was acknowledged that the regional approach of the study helps to shape a recognizable picture of the region and its “story” of land degradation to tell at international conferences, and to draw more attention to the region.

This jigsaw approach set a framework for the studies, and a series of workshops and field visits for conducting analyses followed to come up with a comprehensive ELD study.

Together with all partners, we decided that a regional expert would coordinate the study by collecting the information gathered by the field researchers. Only national experts were chosen for capacity development reasons and to build a regional network. Their capacity was built up during several workshops, with a special focus on the economic valuation of natural resources. In addition, a wider network of international organizations, including the ELD secretariat, GIZ GmbH, and the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, coordinated the logistics and provided the scientific backstopping.


Enhancing Regional and Sectoral Cooperation

During the study, our partners and the researchers started to cooperate more closely. The first results showed how local populations gained from the use of ecosystems, and how they contributed to degradation at the same time. Moreover, alternatives for land use were developed and costs for implementation were considered. As soon as the results were available, we conducted stakeholder consultations at the national level to bring actors from different sectors together to discuss the findings. All country representatives were not only interested in the economic figures from sustainable land management for their own countries, but also saw the benefit of gaining information from neighboring countries. The main benefits were that the delivered approaches represent blueprints that, when slightly adapted, can be applied to the respective ecosystems in the whole region. Those involved came to see that the regional ELD study strengthened the view of Central Asia as a connected economic region.

Cows graze on Tastar-Ata, a mountain in Kyrgyzstan.

The regional study also helped to shape a common profile for the Central Asian countries to become more visible in international conferences, particularly within the three main Rio conventions of the UN, as it unites the topics of combating desertification, biodiversity preservation, and climate change adaptation. The Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations made use of this narrative at the last UN Climate conference and highlighted the crucial connection between land use, ecosystem services, and climate change impacts. Moreover, the economic approach of the ELD studies facilitates cooperation between the weaker “green” ministries and the influential economic and finance ministries. Sound economic arguments about the loss of productive land—generated by a cost-benefit analysis—show the close correlation between sustainable natural resource management and economic profitability. It thus opens up new fields for sustainable land use and gives reason to allocate more financial resources to the green ministries. In addition, scientific engagement of local experts in the study bridges the gap between scientists and practitioners, and enhances interdisciplinary thinking, especially at the interface of the environment and the economy.


Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

After the series of workshops, field visits, and scientific analyses, the time is now to take action on a regional scale. Reflecting on what has happened since I started this job, I recall the expectations and risks connected with it. At first, we were not sure about the scientific culture that we would find in the region, as our approach is relatively new. Another fear, of course, was that it would fall on deaf ears. In truth, it often did. Cooperation is not something you can enforce or easily measure, but we believe that one can create spaces for actors who would not normally meet in this arena and develop narratives jointly with the people who are willing to change something.

Unfortunately, I will have to leave the region before the final workshop. I am sure, though, that I will come back, looking for the small signs of change in the process of bringing the pieces of the jigsaw of Central Asia closer together.


Stefanie Ettling

Stefanie is a participant of the Young Professional Programme of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. She currently works in the Department for Environment and Biodiversity...


Hannes Etter

Hannes Etter is the Science Desk Officer at the ELD Initiative’s Secretariat responsible for facilitation of scientific studies and activities and close cooperation with the partners of the initiative....


Paul Schumacher

Paul Schumacher works for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in Kyrgyzstan. He is Advisor for the Regional Project "Ecosystem-based Adaptation to Climate Change in...

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