Working to revitalize a war-torn region, one apple at a time.
Mirzasho Akobirov is reclining comfortably on a cold, jagged rock as though he had stumbled upon a chaise lounge. Propped up on an elbow, he is silhouetted by a quickly setting sun on a cold evening in early March.
Akobirov, who is 56, occasionally gestures behind him towards Jafr, the village where he was born and still lives, and the Rasht Valley, a wide stretch of land in northeastern Tajikistan that extends up towards the Kyrgyz border. It is in that valley that Akobirov spends most of his time, cultivating and grooming his botanical garden.
Akobirov’s neighbors in Jafr have orchards typical of the Rasht Valley: a few apple and pear trees, and perhaps an apricot or peach tree. Akobirov’s orchard is different. According to him, the lush plot of perhaps four or five acres produces 52 different types of apples, 37 varieties of pears, and 24 kinds of apricots, as well as peaches, black mulberries, white mulberries, walnuts, and an assortment of cherries.
The garden has made him famous throughout the valley and, to a certain extent, beyond: praising his orchard’s fruit, Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, once called him the country’s best orchard keeper. More practically, in a region and country where the primary export is labor migrants to Russia, sales of his fruit and saplings have helped him to open a guesthouse at one end of the garden. At another, he has begun construction on a small museum celebrating this remote region. He already has many of the artifacts that he would like to display, by his count, a few thousand of them: ancient, leather-bound Korans; rusted medals and coins; tapestries and colorful, stitched carpets; swords; paintings; and trinkets of unknown provenance. He acquired almost all of them from other villagers living in the Rasht Valley. Some he bought, when he had the money to pay; some he bartered for, trading fruit and saplings for heirlooms.
Akobirov is slim, with close-cropped white hair and a tightly trimmed white beard. He is fond of one-piece jumpsuits and perpetually carries around a rubber thermos of tea, which he makes from a blend of different grasses that he grows in his garden and finds in the mountains above. He often quotes, or seems to be quoting, poetry, sprinkling the conversation with vague aphorisms. Of the need to see the world, he says: “What if the lamp does not know where the fire began?”
From his perch on the rock, Akobirov says that he inherited his interest in botany from his father. As a young boy, he would accompany his father on trips to the mountains above Jafr to collect cuts from the wild apple trees, which his father would graft to trees in their garden.
“I loved that there was always fruit in our garden,” Akobirov says. “Guests would come, and my father would of course set fruit that he had grown in his garden in front of them.”
The Rasht Valley was a good place to grow up interested in orchards. The higher hills in the valley are barren and prone to erosion, but wild cherry and apple trees grow at lower elevations. It is not far from where researchers, using DNA sampling, have determined humans first domesticated the apple a few thousand years ago in what is now Kazakhstan.
More recently, as a part of the Soviet Union, while Tajikistan and all of Central Asia were net-importers of most other foodstuffs, the region became an important source of fruit. In the Rasht Valley, engineers installed enormous pumps that sent water from the base of the valley up into the hills to provide better irrigation. By the 1980s, Central Asia produced 35 percent of the entire Soviet Union’s fruit.
Akobirov attempted to flee but was captured and spent eight months in prison
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Akobirov spent nearly ten years studying agricultural practices at a technical institute in southern Tajikistan and then at a university in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. At the end of the 1980s, after returning to Jafr, he decided to try to create a botanical garden there. Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Soviet Union, and his reforms inspired Akobirov. He petitioned local officials for the land, was granted it, and began to build his garden. “My purpose—the purpose of the garden was the same—was to bring back the trees from my grandfather’s time that had become very rare, that had vanished.” Akobirov scoured the mountainsides and went from village to village, gathering seeds and saplings that he deemed worthy of his garden.
In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Within months, civil war broke out in Tajikistan. Some of the heaviest fighting was in the Rasht Valley, which was known as a stronghold of opposition to the government. Akobirov, who supported the democratic opposition forces, attempted to flee but was captured and spent eight months in prison. He was unable to return home after he was released and eventually went to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he waited out the rest of the war, which ended in 1997.
The combination of Soviet collapse and civil war ravaged Tajikistan and left the economy in shambles. The amount of land dedicated to fruit cultivation dropped by 40 percent over the course of the war. Without access to other sources of fuel for heat in the winter, villagers resorted to cutting down fruit trees for kindling. Irrigation systems built under Soviet direction either fell into disrepair or were destroyed during the fighting, and orchards withered.
Akobirov returned from Kazakhstan to find his garden ruined. “The village headman had divided, sold it piece by piece to other families,” he says. “Our neighbors came and took some parts of it and planted them in their own gardens. They destroyed the garden.”
With GDP per capita in Tajikistan sitting below $200 after the war, many Tajik men began migrating to Russia for work. The Russian economy had rebounded from the fall of the Soviet Union and a 1998 financial crisis. Almost all of the first wave of Tajik migrants had been educated under the Soviet school system and spoke Russian. As citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose association of many former Soviet Republics, they could enter Russia without visas. According to the World Bank, the remittances sent home by these migrants were the main source of poverty reduction in Tajikistan between 2003 and 2008.
Akobirov, however, stayed in Jafr, and decided to rebuild the garden. Thankfully, he says, “I have six sons, four brothers.” Akobirov’s voice slows as he remembers all that needed to be done. “Little by little, we gathered saplings, we gathered fuel, we remade the garden again from new.”
The garden looks haphazard, almost unkempt, belying the constant attention it receives. At the garden’s peripheries stand tall, thin trees. The largest resemble weeping willows, with long strands of leaves that tumble almost to the ground. A row of skinny poplars runs along one side. Densely planted cherry trees used to create a wall along another side. The cherries proved too bitter, so he and his sons hewed the trees back down to their stumps and grafted on new saplings.
Inside the garden, rose bushes stand next to stones that serve as platforms for clay vases and ancient shards of pottery. Toward the center, opposing rows of apple trees form a path that leads from the front of the garden to the back, away from the unfinished museum, past a small gazebo where Akobirov dries grasses for his tea, to a tree nursery that resembles a dense thicket of shrubs. A solitary, majestic white mulberry tree stands behind the nursery next to the guesthouse.
While Akobirov and his family rebuilt the garden in Jafr, Tajikistan’s dependence on the money sent home by labor migrants in Russia deepened. In 2013, remittances accounted for half of Tajikistan’s GDP.
Even two of Akobirov’s sons, who are now in their mid and late 20s, eventually traveled to Russia, lured by the prospect of jobs or possibly just the chance to escape toiling in the garden. One son returned after only a short while, but another, Ravshan, stayed for seven years. Akobirov hated that his son was gone: “It was a torment for me. Why? Because he lost the nature, the culture of home. His morals changed completely.” Ravshan finally returned this past winter, only after Akobirov forced his hand by having friends in Russia buy him a ticket. He doesn’t plan to let any of his children go again.
Akobirov knows the reasons people give for migrating—“because there isn’t work here, there aren’t factories, everything is mountains, people are unemployed”—but it still pains him to see generation after generation of young Tajiks pulled away from their homeland.
Akobirov becomes more agitated as he discusses migration. “They give away their youth,” he says of Tajik migrants. It is not just that the migrants come back different; he worries that their effort, too, is squandered building Russian cities rather than in improving conditions at home.
Over the past year and a half, falling oil prices and sanctions have caused the Russian economy to contract significantly, eroding the market for labor migrants. As the value of the ruble has fallen, remittances returned to Tajikistan have plummeted. In January, more than half of the respondents to an ongoing World Bank survey project, Listening2Tajikistan, stated that they were struggling to buy enough food.
“Living, striving, suffering in one’s own country,” asserts Akobirov, “that’s better than working like an innocent in a different country where they order you to work, they don’t give you money, the police trample all over human rights. That’s just a complete loss.” Akobirov would like the government of Tajikistan to repair strained relations with Kyrgyzstan, which is only a few hours away from Jafr by car, so that cross-border trade increases. He’d like more people in the valley to try to start small businesses—even the grass, he thinks, has medicinal purposes and, therefore, value. His botanical garden, he hopes, can continue to represent one example of a successful business.
Rising from the rock at last, Akobirov leads us down to his small, white Lada 4X4, a beat up and boxy relic of the Soviet Union. Along the way, he stops to show us a patch of land that he and his sons have recently begun to develop. A few apple and cherry trees are just beginning to blossom. When he’s finished, he tells us, this will be his park.
Photographs by Tim Brown, a London-based filmmaker represented by 1stAveMachine; his website is www.tabrown.co.uk. Support for this piece was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.