Armed with gas and cows, Kazakhstan takes aim at land degradation

Cows graze near a cattle farm near the village of Mamai village, 260 km (162 miles) north of the Kazakh capital Astana, June 14, 2011. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Damage to the region's unique cold winter deserts could have long-lasting consequences

VORONEZH, Russia - Kazakhstan is using natural gas and cows made genetically efficient to slow the pace of land degradation caused by deforestation and overgrazing, a top official from the Central Asian nation said on Friday.

Damage to the region's unique cold winter deserts could have long-lasting consequences that will leave residents with no way of making a living, officials warned at a three-day regional food conference in southwest Russia.

The extent of degradation is difficult to assess because countries in Central Asia do not release official figures, but anecdotal evidence shows the situation is serious, said Christian Welscher, project coordinator for the Central Asian Desert Initiative (CADI) at University of Greifswald, Germany.

Also, studies show a potential loss of 76 percent of saxaul trees, a shrub found only in the region's deserts, due to rampant deforestation and overgrazing by cattle, said Welscher.

The CADI is working with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to combat land degradation and conserve biodiversity.

The deforestation causes sandstorms that devastate rural communities, Welscher said.

Mars Almabek, deputy chairman of the State Agriculture Inspection, said Kazakhstan is buying and importing modified cattle from the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, France and Czechoslovakia.

"We are bringing natural gas to rural areas so they won't cut down trees ... and we are suggesting maybe they have three cows instead of 10 but produce the same volume of milk," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the past five years, Kazakhstan imported some 50,000 cows to the oil-rich former Soviet republic of 18 million people, Almabek said.

Plans also include increasing the number of nature reserves to protect biodiversity, he said.

Cold winter, or temperate, deserts have unique ecological qualities, experts say, providing important feeding grounds for animals and migration areas for birds. They also are home to the critically endangered Saiga antelope.

Almost all are in Central Asia, with a vast majority in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, according to the United Nations' Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The degradation must be addressed, warned the FAO.

"If we do not reverse it, people will start leaving because there will be no livelihood in these areas," said Yuriko Shoji, deputy regional representative for Europe & Central Asia for the FAO, which organised the conference.

The Aral Sea is an extreme example of what could happen if actions are not taken, Shoji said.

Once the world's fourth biggest lake, it has shrunk by 70 percent in recent decades in what environmentalists describe as one of the worst man-made ecological disasters.

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