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An Apple Crisis in Kazakhstan

Development threatens the wild precursors of the ubiquitous fruit
An Apple Crisis in Kazakhstan
Photograph by John Wendle

The plant researcher sporting two gold teeth points out the window of his Soviet-era SUV and shouts, “See! It’s like we told you!” Nursagim Ashikbayev, 76, springs out of the car and walks toward a gash torn by unknown diggers into an apple orchard along a steep hillside. “Climate change, fire, wind, insects, and livestock are all degrading the wild apple forests,” says Nurzhan Mukhamadiyev, Ashikbayev’s colleague at Kazakhstan’s Institute for the Conservation and Protection of Plants. “But one of the biggest problems is, people are building big summer houses here, then they buy dump trucks full of topsoil illegally taken from the surrounding mountains to fill in their gardens.”

Apples were once the heart of Kazakhstan. Its former capital Almaty was once called Alma-Ata, or Father of Apples. “This is the place of origin of a lot of different crops, like apples, walnuts, and apricots. It is the genetic epicenter of these fruits and nuts,” says Evan Meyer, regional agricultural officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The situation around Almaty is bleak. “For 30 to 40 kilometers in every direction from the city up into the mountains, there is almost nothing left of the wild forests,” says Mukhamadiyev, an entomologist. “This is the motherland of wild apples. If the situation is not dealt with soon, there will be greater loss of territory.”