With Tajikistan facing one of its harshest winters in recent years, forest rangers in southern Khatlon Province are working overtime to save trees.
"Winter came early to Tajikistan this time, we had the first snow in October," says Qurbonnazar Mirzoev, chief forest ranger in the Danghara district of the southwestern Khatlon province. "People have since run out of the coal and firewood they had stocked for winter. Now they are turning to forests to cut trees."
To stop them, he says, rangers are working rotating shifts, around the clock, as part of "Operation Firewood."
Over the past half-century, Tajikistan has lost nearly 70 percent of its woodland, according to the Forest Protection Agency. Since the 1990s alone, nearly 700,000 hectares of forestland have been cut down.
The country has tried to restore forests by planting new trees, but their efforts face a major threat in the form of warmth-seeking citizens.
"In the past four months, we opened 145 civil lawsuits against offenders, most of whom were caught cutting down pistachio trees," says Quvatali Nazirov, head of Khatlon’s forest-protection branch. "They paid more than $2,200 in fines in total."
It might seem like a small measure in the grand scheme of things, but the authorities say every little bit helps when it comes to saving the forests.
Wood, coal, and dung are traditional sources of heating fuel in much of Tajikistan, particularly in rural areas. Electricity is rationed during winter months, infrastructure is lacking for the delivery of imported natural gas, and coal is prohibitively expensive for many.
Local experts estimate that an average rural family in Tajikistan requires about $30 worth of coal a month, a hefty amount in a country where the average monthly salary is around $150.
All of these factors leave many to look to trees for a solution.
"In the past we used gas and electricity stoves for cooking, and coal for heating homes," says Gulmoh, a Khatlon housewife who declined to give her full name. "We haven’t used natural gas for some 25 years now."
Gulmoh says that, beginning in early summer, she starts stocking up on firewood, coal, and dried animal waste for winter, but that during harsh winters like this one heating sources are quickly used up.
In an effort to provide relief, she notes, electricity rationing was cut in December, which is "better than in past years." On January 14, electricity rationing -- which is imposed to deal with electricity shortfalls -- was lifted altogether.
But Gulmoh believes unfettered access to electricity is the long-term solution, saying it would "save both people and forests."
Many Tajiks hope they will get unlimited electricity power by 2020, President Emomali Rahmon's goal for the country to achieve energy-independence once the construction of long-anticipated and contentious hydropower plants is completed.
But in the meantime, forest protection agencies say they just can't sit and wait for the country to be deforested.
Aside from increased policing and the imposition of fines for firewood collection, the agency has also focused on people's use of fir trees for decorative purposes during New Year's festivities. The authorities have urged people to use plastic fir trees and have deployed special units to forests across the country to prevent people from cutting down real firs.
Tajikistan currently has 1.3 million hectares of forest, according to State Forest Protection Agency head Madibron Saidzoda. That compares to about 2 million hectares in the early 1990s, he adds.
But the problem didn't begin with independence. Saidzoda points out that deforestation began during the Soviet '70s, when mountain-dwellers were compelled to move to valleys and the construction of towns, roads, and other infrastructure cut into forestland.
The government's plan is to restore forest by planting new trees, but the process will take decades to show results and the annual returns will be modest.
"The goal currently is to restore two hectares a year," Saidzoda says.