The first story. Strong in spirit
Gusman Minlebayev was among those who worked on the testing of the Soviet Union’s first over-the-horizon radar base, part of an early-warning system to detect the launch of American intercontinental ballistic missiles. On April 26, 1986, a power unit exploded at a power plant that provided the radar base with electricity. That power plant, so close to the radar base as to be plainly visible, was Chernobyl.
Evacuation of the radar base only began late on the second day of the catastrophe. Gusman spent a month in the garrison’s hospital – the radiation level he experienced caused him to lose consciousness several times a day. He had already been diagnosed with third-degree radiation sickness. However, when it became clear how serious the situation at Chernobyl was, he was sent back to the site. There he spent another four days evacuating secret documentation and equipment.
Then came endless hospitals, doctors and medicine. “When I was undergoing treatment in Moscow,” recalls Gusman, “we were allowed to walk around the city. But we weren’t allowed to go out alone – we had to go in groups of four or five people. If one of us suddenly conked out, the other four could take him by his arms and legs and carry him to get emergency treatment. During the day it was good, loud, so we didn’t hear any pain. But at night, when it was quiet, it turned out that the pain made a noise. You hear it, and it keeps you from going to sleep.” Specialists concluded that during his time, in the ten-kilometer exclusion zone, Gusman received something like 350 times the yearly acceptable dose of radiation.
He was given second-category disability, which meant that he was not allowed to work. Hard times were beginning for Russia, which is why Gusman was not happy with his situation: “I received bouquets of flowers and champagne and went to the old female doctors at the medical labor committee. I got down on my knees – you can get down on your knees in front of a woman: ‘You have to help me out. What’s left for me to do now? Starve?’ They changed the full stop after the words ‘unfit for work’ to a comma and added: ‘can work part-time.’ Later I found out that usually everyone asks for non-working disability status, and I was the only one who turned it down.”
The effects of radiation sickness were not long in coming. His body’s loss of calcium due to the radiation led to joint problems. Gusman underwent operations on his menisci, and problems began with his right thigh joint. A little while later they discovered muscular sarcoma. “I saw a lot of bad things done by radiation. I saw people I was in the hospital with starting to hemorrhage all over their bodies. I saw what kind of children were born after Chernobyl. There were a lot of deaths, and they had to close the eyes of the children. Later the doctors told me, too, that I would die. They took samples from my sternum more than a dozen times. They passed an electric current through my legs – the skin in places was charred. I still have black spots. Some parts of my body felt no pain – poke it with a needle, and there was no feeling. Our doctors said that there was something about my body that helped me survive. The Chinese said that I just had a big, strong spirit, and that’s why I didn’t ‘kick the bucket’.”
A chance encounter with a Chinese businessmen during his treatment at the Moscow Radiological Institute changed Gusman’s life. The Chinese were having problems with the purchase of a shipment of KAMAZ trucks in Naberezhniye Chelny, and in exchange for taking a few Chernobyl victims in for treatment, Gusman put them in touch with former classmates who worked at the auto giant. Everything worked out, and soon Gusman founded himself in the Harbin Institute of Traditional Medicine. The course of treatment consisted of two visits. The first lasted three months, two of which the Chinese doctors spent removing from Gusman’s kidneys and liver the buildup of medicine given to him in the USSR. His health improved: “The fainting stopped, and I started to walk okay. I started gaining weight. They gave me acupuncture and an extract from the organs of a Chinese deer: you’re barely able to walk when you go in for the shot, and twenty minutes after you get it you start feeling like strength is being pumped into you.
When Gusman was discharged from the hospital, the Chinese doctors were adamant that he continue his treatment by taking medicinal plants. They said that his immune system was nearly totally depleted, and his only hope of recovery lay in adaptogen plants. This meant that they had to be gathered from where Gusman lived – in Kazan and its environs. There was one problem: ginseng, Siberian ginseng, the Japanese angelica tree, and the other plants recommended to him did not grow there. Their accustomed environment was the forest canopy of the Far Eastern taiga. Gusman had no intention of sitting idly by – he believed the Chinese, and even more so when a similar approach was later voiced in German as well.
Gusman began to look for a place closest to Kazan where ginseng was grown. He found it in Bashkiria. He got to know the person who cultivated the ginseng, and found out how he did it. Gusman did not like their use of fertilizer, so he went a different route. He went to the Ginseng State Farm in Khabarovsk region, where he agreed to work for a month in exchange for room and board. He got the boss to have him put on a new job every day. Gusman wanted to know everything – how the soil was prepared, how the seeds were kept, how to care for the shoots, when and how to dig out the fully-grown plants.
When Gusman returned home he secretly planted a group of seedlings and sowed some ginseng seeds in the forests of Mari-El. It was his first step towards realizing a large and complex project which had already begun to grow in his mind – a personal forestry project.
Surprisingly, when we first met Mr. Minlebayev, nothing, with the exception of the cane he leaned on, gave any hint of the trials he had overcome. We saw a sprightly, active, vivacious person. He was a person who had rejected pills and traditional medication-based treatment, but now grew in his own orchard a number of medicinal plants unknown in the region.
The second story. The heart of a personal forest
Gusman Minlebayev has planted more than 80 hectares of private forest. In Kirov region he is creating an educational center for private forestry, as well as laying out a forest plot for new types of trees that he has introduced during twenty years of experimentation. But the first step and the heart of this system is a small nursery – four hundred-square-meter dacha plots, on which, for over twenty years, Mr. Minlebayev has been selecting the most precious endangered plants for our region and introducing tree types adapted to the warming climate of Russia’s continental zone. Mr. Minlebayev showed us his nursery and told us in detail what he does there.
– Mr. Minlebayev, what plants are growing in this nursery?
Nearly everything that I grow is currently unusual for our climatic zone. Most of the plants are precious, rare species that have been listed as endangered, and as early as 2050 will be able to replace the local types of trees that are dying out.
There are many trees of the walnut family in my collection. They have valuable wood, produce nutritious and tasty nuts, and have medicinal properties. Walnut, a hybrid of the walnut and the Manchurian walnut, black walnut, butternut, the Japanese walnut, four species of wingnut and hickory, including the pecan – those are nine valuable species from the walnut family that I have growing here.
My walnut trees went through a very harsh natural selection process. First many of the seedlings froze to death. Those that survived had bad nuts: the skin was very thick, the kernel was small, with a low fat content. But, after 23 years of experiments, I have developed a new sort of walnut, very sweet and frost-resistant. The oldest of them is already ten years old and has been giving nuts for five years now. The earliest walnut trees begin to produce nuts after five years. After twenty years each tree gives 15-17 kilograms of nuts; after forty they give 200 kilograms, and that’s the limit. The harvest increases every year. The first time I had three nuts, then seventeen, and now I have nearly one hundred from one tree. That’s a good trend. Old books say: when you get seeds from the first harvest, don’t plant them – they’ll turn out weak. That’s why I only sow seeds from the third harvest or later. But that’s not the only way to grow trees. I noticed that the branches of nut trees grow very fast. In spring-time, when the leaves still haven’t opened, I place a plastic bottle with the bottom cut out on the branch – the twig starts to grow and eventually is thicker than the neck of the bottle. After the leaves open, little rootlets begin to grow inside the bottle above the bottleneck. In the fall the twig can be cut off below the bottleneck and planted with an already fully-formed root system. That’s how I get exact clones of trees that have the characteristics I need.
The wood of the black walnut is more valuable than that of the regular walnut. Black walnut can treat cancer, kill parasites and even bacteria in the blood. When there were no synthetic mineral oils for industry, they made an oil from the black walnut, and it was even used for the gyroscopes in submarines. Unlike regular walnuts, the nuts of the black walnut do not go bad and become bitter, and can be stored for several years. When they found that I had sarcoma, I turned down the treatment they proposed and said: “Thanks for the diagnosis, but from here on in I’m going to treat myself.” They didn’t want to argue with me, but they said I should come for tests in a year. I went and there weren’t any tumors, and my muscles weren’t bothering me anymore. And it’s all thanks to black walnut and tinctures that I made from it. Тhe doctors who said “things look bad” now send their patients to me, and come themselves to get some of my seedlings.
I’ll tell you a little bit about three more trees from the walnut family. The first two – the bitternut hickory and white hickory – are prized for their wood. It’s stronger than oak wood, and they make bats from it. The third type, the pecan, is the source of the expensive and delicious pecan nut. The only pecans on the Volga grow in my orchard – no one else has them, even if you go 600 kilometers south. Overall I planted 400 bitternut hickory seeds, but only two seedlings survived and grew well. But thanks to that now I know how many seeds of that species I need to get so I can introduce a stable forest population, so that I can get seeds and seedlings for that type. By the way, I spent eight years looking for foreign nurseries with the best seeds to sprout in our climatic zone and checking the seeds from them.
– Tell us about the other plants that you grow.
The Amur cork tree. It begins to bear fruit after seven to twelve years. It treats sugar diabetes. A honey derived from the Amur cork tree can treat tuberculosis. These diseases have already reached epidemic proportions. It has very valuable wood. Once the berries have ripened, squeeze out the grains and put the flesh of the berries into the refrigerator. The flesh dries out, the moisture evaporates, and the essential oils remain. When I give these berries to children suffering from diabetes, in three or four weeks their blood sugar goes down to the normal level. No need to give them shots; the child doesn’t go into hysterics. They tell him: “Would you rather have a shot or hard candy from Uncle Gusman?” Guess what the child picks. The berries are a little bitter, but they really do crunch like hard candy.
American sugar maple. It gives more sugar than sugar beet. Beets have to be
sown and gathered in every year, the land has to be worked – and that’s a lot
of money. And with a maple, you plant it once, and there are fewer problems.
They in effect begin harvesting maple syrup in February, when the sun’s
brightness and heat is equivalent to that in November. That’s nearly year-round
work with an even workload. The syrup contains many very healthy minerals.
One more plant rich in sugar is the persimmon. I created a sort cultivar for our climatic zone from the wild American persimmon tree – it’s one of my greatest achievements. The graft acclimatized only on two stocks, although I planted a lot of seeds. There’s more sugar in persimmons than in grapes or dates, and it is easily absorbed by the body – you don’t even need to give patients glucose through injections. Two persimmon trees can provide an entire family with sugar for an entire year – persimmons can be easily cured and can be stored for a long time in a cellar.
I have apricot trees growing – eight sorts that can withstand our winters. The base is cultivated from seeds of the wild Manchurian apricot, which is considered to be the most frost-resistant, withstanding temperatures down to -56 degrees [Celsius]. I get the seeds direct from the Far East, the birthplace of this type of apricot. I grow them into seedlings, onto which I put grafts of the sort’s cultivars. A frost-resistant root gives frost-resistant shoots. Now I’m planning to make an apricot forest. It will probably be the first in the Volga-Vyatka region.
With various sorts of chestnut (the horse-chestnut, the red buckeye, and Aesculus Neglecta) I have created a real honey production line. Aesculus Neglecta begins to flower earlier than the others and gives out a honey earlier than the others. This honey is really good for male health – overseas that’s exactly what they call it: “men’s honey.”
Now here’s my pride and joy – Gingko Biloba. You’ve probably seen a lot of medicines made with gingko being advertised on television. It is a tree with unique medicinal properties – thanks to it they stopped talking about amputating my foot. A lot of people have tried to grow Gingko Biloba here, but they die from the frost. I’ve had a small grove of them growing for seven years.
– How many species of plants do you have growing in total?
A little over thirty. More than half of them have already adapted – there are at least three generations. The others are still being tested – which is to say, I’m still carrying out the process of selecting and introducing them.
– How do you sort the plants – determine what’s worth growing, and what’s not worth growing?
There are several important criteria. First, I select plants that like the heat. There are charts and forecasts for climate change that show how the air temperature will rise. The plants that our climate belt is full of are beginning to die off. Today we already see the mass die-off of spruces, and beeches are next. That’s why, when we plant a tree today, we should go by what kind of climate we’ll have when they mature in 40-80 years. The second key criterion – value. Medicinal value, nutritional value, the value of the wood. Third – the plants should be listed as endangered. Laws in our country don’t protect trees, and if you plant regular trees, later you’ll just have to cut them down. But trees listed as endangered can’t be cut down – they are your defense and tax benefit. I guess I’ll name one more factor – the ability of the plants to adapt to various terrains. Our terrain takes many forms – plains, slopes, ravines, hills. What grows well in low-lying areas is not very likely to do well on southern slopes. For example, the wingnut is one of the trees that can grow in our swamps. And I found it – I use the word “find” because no one else bothered to. But swamps should be preserved because they, as sources of springs, are essential for our biomes.
Of course, the best scenario is when the plant meets all three criteria.
– Which plant was the hardest to adapt? The walnut, which you spent 23 years on?
Walnut took the longest, but the hardest, in terms of work put into it, was the persimmon. Getting only two bushes took nine years and 7,000 seeds planted. I filed down each seed with a nail file so that they would sprout more easily. I worked my fingers to the bone. And still only a third of them sprouted. And out of those that sprouted, only two bushes survived. Two bushes that flowered.
– How interesting can this work be in terms of business?
Business can start straight from the nursery, after the third year – I can’t be responsible for a seedling that hasn’t spent two winters with me. I have 1,500 seedlings growing on four hundred square meters. People don’t believe me – they come and count them. If you sold them all, you could get roughly 1.5 million rubles. If you take the number of seedlings that can grow in a season, then you can earn about a million rubles. If you sell them in Moscow, you can get four times that. Wholesalers from Moscow wanted to come over, but I turned them down, since I only sell the seedlings that are left at my house to people from my seminars – people who come to my seminars and want to grow plants on their land. They want to grow rare, disappearing, endangered species of plants that will continue to grow in a warmer climate. People come in from 2,000 kilometers away – no one wants to have cancer. And diabetes isn’t easy, either. And where I plant my trees the air is free even of Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli. Do you feel it? There aren’t any mosquitoes here, either. Most seedlings go to my farming land, where natural selection and elimination goes on. There a positive result for new species is the survival and flowering of five percent of what I plant – that’s how I get a new, adapted sort.
– But what if you look at things like a farmer? What’s better for him to plant – wheat or your trees?
Wheat takes work every year, and a lot of it: tractors, combines, diesel, fertilizer. But you plant a walnut and take care of it spread out over the year. This is an operation that is completely clean ecologically-speaking, and you can also keep cattle here. To completely feed one family (if it contains two adults and three children), in our climatic zone you need to have 160 trees over an area of around five hectares. А walnut tree does not begin to produce nuts right away, of course, but in fifteen years it already gives a decent harvest. So it’s a good investment for the future – for you, your children, and your grandchildren.
With the Ussurian pear, for instance, you can grow up to 1200 trees on one hectare. When the trees are planted close together, the branches break off, the trunk is quickly cleared of branches and knots, and inside the trunk there are no traces of branches. The lumber is good: a meter-long length of trunk is worth 250 dollars. And its fruits stay fresh for a long time. Whereas ordinary sorts of pear fall on the ground and turn black after two days, a pear from the Ussurian pear tree can lie on the ground for two or three weeks and not go bad. That means you can calmly, without going crazy, turn the entire harvest into juice. I make the base for my own medications out of it – and for me (and others who are ill) that’s more important than the lumber, which you need to live longer to get at.
We plant the Amur cork tree. Once it reaches twenty years old, you can remove the bark: if you strip off a fourth of the tree’s surface two meters from the ground and up, in five years it will all grow back. The bark can be up to seven centimeters thick. A group of 120 adult trees can give a yearly income of up to 70,000 dollars at current prices. And with each coming year there is less and less cork on the market. Now even expensive wines have plastic caps.
Or let’s take the black walnut. It has very valuable wood, which is used in woodworking, furniture, and firearms. Wood that is around 80 to 100 years old is used to make the stocks and handguards of guns. It costs around 400 dollars.
In the West, banks are actively investing in forests. Let’s say you have a 100 hectare plot of land, which you plant oak trees on. When the oak grows to a height of about a meter or a meter-and-a-half, that means it’s already established and it’s not in danger of dying. And although it’s not lumber yet, you can sell it like lumber. Foresters know how much lumber can be obtained from an oak tree when it turns 120 years old. That lumber has a value that grows from zero year by year. And these meter-high trees (and not the land – that stays with the owner) are bought by some bank. Each oak tree increases in height and size, and its price rises accordingly. And the price increases faster than a bank can make money on loan interest. In ten or fifteen years the bank can resell the forest to another investor at a higher price, having gotten their margin.
– That’s all very logical. But in that case it’s hard to understand why private forestry is so underdeveloped in Russia.
There are a lot of reasons – bad legislation, and an inability to work with the future. After all, generally people live only for the present. Put in someone as head of a district. Why should he bother with forests? A forest will only mature in forty years, and someone will replace them in only ten years. What’s the point of them going out of their way, of doing something new? Regular people know very little about trees, and no one teaches them anything. One Karelian birch can cost as much as a car, and in some villages they use them as firewood. I’ve seen it myself. People just don’t know what it is, and that’s it. There are so many good and precious things destroyed by ignorance!
The third story. The philosophy of the project
We continued our conversation with Gusman Minlebayev the next day, on the way to Kirov region, where he plans to build an educational center and begin “making” forests out of new species of trees.
– Mr. Minlebayev, where did the idea of creating a private forest come from?
Chernobyl was the biggest motive, of course. Growing the finest medicine prescribed by Chinese doctors turned out to be not all that convenient in state forests. That’s how the idea of creating my own forest snuck up on me. That and I really wanted my children and grandchildren to grow up in a healthy environment, with all-natural foods and medicines.
When I started to work out all the problems that came with that, I started reading books and discovered a lot about forests. What do most people say? No matter who you ask, they’ll say that we need forests, if we need them at all, for the oxygen. But things are much more complicated than that. That’s why the initial idea – simply owning a forest and growing medicine there – changed with time. So if you ask me what I do know, I’ll say this: “I restore the destroyed fertility of the Motherland’s lands and waters, and I teach other people how to do the same.”
– So the project has taken on a social aspect?
That’s to be expected. You know, in the Soviet Union people treated Chernobyl victims very well, with kindness. Enormous lines had already begun in stores, and people always let us to the very front without a word. They brought us wild cherries from the market, fruits and vegetables that the hospital didn’t have. I still have a sort of debt to these people, and by doing what I do know, I’m repaying that debt. I don’t know if I’m repaying those people, or maybe a son of parents who helped me. But it might turn out that I am… That’s how I think and feel about it. On top of that, I realize that if I don’t do this now, then soon all the earth will be done in by the ignorant and incompetent.
– So why is the forest important? Oxygen, lumber, berries and mushrooms, animals… Is there something else?
There is, and it’s very important. Forests form underground water sources. Fallen leaves create a bedding – a sponge, one cubic meter of which can soak up up to 8 cubic meters of precipitation. Have you ever seen puddles in a forest after a rainstorm? That’s just the thing – you don’t see them, because everything gets absorbed. And where there’s no forest, water runs off into ravines and rivers – it goes into the ocean, and ravines grow too, destroying the fertility and suitability of land for agriculture. In Tatarstan around 1,000 hectares of ravines appear each year. That means that since the 1950s, land equivalent to an entire region has turned into ravines. As a result, all the water from winter and summer precipitation is now running off with no effect out of the Volga-Kamsk region and into the Caspian.
In one report from the Club of Rome – that’s a very authoritative organization in the world – contains this prognosis: by 2030 the scarcest essential will be clean drinking water. And only a forest of around 150 hectares can keep precipitation where it falls, or restore a dried up spring or lake. For me that’s a yard-stick – how much land you need to get and how many trees you need to plant to create your own spring. There are centuries of proof that there are no oases smaller than 150 hectares.
I sought out archival documents to find out how many springs we had. I found information that had been preserved since czarist times – I figured out that the diocese should have a list of sacred springs. I saw that the number of springs has decreased by 25-30%. I decided to check that number – I began looking for information in contemporary secular literature. The number checked out. If you take a General Staff map from, oh let’s say the 30s or 40s, take any section of Tatarstan and overlay a map from the present day of the same scale – you’ll see with your own eyes how almost half of the streams aren’t there anymore. And it’s all because they cut down the forests. Do you know why the Volga has become so shallow? This year they even had to limit navigation. For the first time in history ships with a draft of over four meters could not sail up the Volga from Kazan.
Great Russian rivers becoming shallow at an alarming rate
It’s all because first Soviet, then Russian environmental authorities, including those responsible for prosecuting environmental breaches, have not set apart the water conservation zones established by laws in 1937 and 1991, respectively. That’s downright economic sabotage. The first water conservation zones were established back in 1709 by Peter the Great, who outlawed the felling of forests near rivers. Those were great rivers like the Vyatka, the Volga, that were more than 500 versts [533.4 kilometers] in length. Chopping was forbidden for 50 versts [53.3 kilometers] one way and 50 versts in the other. Foresters saw it as a document that sought to create forests, but that’s not true. There’s a very important passage from Peter there: “so that the rivers might be navigable.” So that makes 50 versts the width of a water conservation zone that makes rivers navigable, that gives rivers high water-levels, because 50 versts includes the main length of all streams, springs, and smaller rivers that feed the great river. After 1861, when serfdom was abolished, the landowners stopped punishing violations, and peasants took up their axes. European Russia lost 40% of its forests. Rivers began to grow shallower.
In the time of Peter the Great people understood that, but today they don’t. Peter, by the way, took advantage of European experience – there people had realized these things earlier.
In the archives I found another important thing. Until the mid-19th century there were no floods in Russia. At all. Yes, there have been winter thaws for ages, but there were no floods. The forests gathered all of the rainwater, and then put it into the rivers evenly through the streams. But when they began to chop down forests, all the rainwater began to run off into the river straight from the land. That’s why rivers began to overflow their banks.
A famine followed the first floods, and Alexander I ordered the Russian Academy of Sciences to figure out why. Several expeditions were carried out, as a result of which the famous soil expert Dokuchayev demonstrated that deforestation led to the formation of ravines, the dehydration and defertilization of soil. Twigs and rain water washed away the topsoil into these ravines, and from there they went into the rivers. The further on you go, the worse it got: soil began to fill the depressions in riverbeds in which fish spend the winter, whereas there had been enough oxygen in even the harshest winters. Second, fallen leaves made it into the rivers through streams and springs. Gradually they dissolved into fulfonic acids, which are the food base for daphnia and ciliates, and those, in turn, are food for fish. For a long time scientists were unable to understand why the Okhotsk Sea, despite all the illegal fishing, was doing so well. And the secret was that the Amur River flows into it. Back then the Amur still had not been conquered by the Chinese or the Russians. But then when they started chopping down the forests on its banks, the number of fish in the Amur and in the Okhotsk Sea began to drop. Floods also began on the Amur, which was something unheard of. Soon things will get so bad that there won’t be any sturgeon left there. I say we have five or ten years before that happens.
The Europeans and the Americans are doing a good job in this area. In many countries they are giving out free grants to plant forests along riverbanks. If you don’t want to plant them, the region will. And they make it tax-free, and in some places they even give money, judging by how much you would have earned from that land if you hadn’t planted a forest. That is, they compensate for your losses – they realize that you carried out work useful to society.
In the Russian Empire they took Dokuchayev’s conclusions very seriously. Laws were passed: plant 55 hectares of forest and you get your land exempt from taxes, a big gold medal and 500 rubles in gold. In those days a cow that gave 9-10 liters of milk a day cost three rubles. So 500 rubles in today’s money – that’s got to be about five or six million. Stalin also understood the importance of this work – he ordered that Dokuchayev’s plan be carried out completely, the water conservation zones and watersheds planted with trees. Under Stalin the forests were guarded by the NKVD, and not by foresters – that’s how important he thought the forests were. And everything would be just fine now, if they hadn’t canceled Stalin’s plan and, began with Khrushchev’s virgin lands project, hadn’t started killing the land with the tacit approval of scientists.
What’s surprising is that in Czarist Russia even economists, tax officials, and lawyers understood the importance of forests. Let’s open, for example, the Financial Law Textbook by S. Ilovaysky from 1904: “…Among government properties forests occupy a special place. This derives from the role which forests play in the national economy: they provide building materials and fuel; though both may be to a certain extent replaced by surrogates. Their very greatest importance is the effect that forests have on the climate of a country, on its fertility, hygiene, and their proper provision of water to rivers.” A second example: “The Starokrymsk State Forest and Game Enterprise was formed in 1932 on the forest estates of the former Sudak lumber yard. The newly-created enterprise included the Feodosy forest district, organized in 1876 by the Forestry Department by request of the municipal government so that the nearby hills would have trees, so that fountains providing the city’s people with water would have greater water reserves.”
So, beginning with Peter the Great and down to the last Emperor Nikolai II, scientists, officials, and the government were wiser and more responsible; they didn’t see forests as a source of square meters of firewood – they saw it as a source of square meters of water, and as the prosperity of the state and its people.
I calculated how much water would remain in Tatarstan and go into underwater reserves if the water conservation zones were planted with forests. The number was terrifying. And then in a report before the Watershed District council, which took place in Kazan, I demonstrated that the environmental authorities and the Nature Ministry of Tatarstan are responsible for the loss of water, loss of harvest, and desertification of Tatarstan’s lands. According to the 1991 legislation, water conservation zones are among those lands under environmental protection. But this should have been done not on paper, but also in reality – the land should have been surveyed, projects drawn up for it. It shouldn’t have been divided into shares. If they had done what they should have, it would have never been made agricultural land again. But they didn’t. Then in 2004 the legislation changed, and the article we’re talking about was annulled. Water conservation zones that were not listed as officially protected were once again considered fit for agriculture. How Tatarstan will get out of the situation now – I don’t know. True, there is one way to fix the sloppiness of these bodies – buy up land at market prices and plant forests on it, but again, using tax money taken from citizens who haven’t done anything wrong.
– That part is clear: a forest is what provides us with clean drinking water. But when talking about the idea of the project, you also mentioned the fertility of the soil.
Yes, that’s the most important thing, the most important function, that we can entrust to the forest.
We’ve cut down trees, we’ve plowed the land. And now with each new harvest the land is exhausted. Look at how much land has been abandoned – it’s already been worked to its limit. Good bread contains 59 micro- and macronutrients. On fertile land that man has never plowed, for the first five or six years grain with all 59 elements comes up. And then their quantity declines sharply. We can add phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen through fertilizer. But we can’t restore all 59, much less in the right proportions.
Grain that doesn’t have those 56 nutrients, we feed to livestock – that means the meat will be inferior. The Chinese not only prescribed ginseng, they said I should eat wild game. Do you know why wild game? Because it has Omega-3, and in the meat of livestock raised in the most advanced farms/cooperatives/facilities we find only traces of it. That’s because wild game eats decent food, and we feed livestock inferior grain.
Our fields will produce for another ten to fifteen years, after which they’ll become steppe. The steppe will go without precipitation for months in the summer, and then, naturally, will become semi-desert in the lifetimes of our grandchildren. One-fifth of Tatarstan is already considered to be a desertified zone – officially, according to data from the Hydro-meteorological Centre of Russia. That is a zone in which locusts now live. They are only waiting for the moment when they will be able to jump across the Kama River. Thirty years ago the main force of locusts was in Kazakhstan. Ten years ago they settled in Orenburg Krai, and for the past two years they’ve lived on the east bank of the Kama. If the right conditions appear, they will gobble up everything there.
But if we plant drought-resistant and broad-leaf trees on dead land, then with time we will be able to restore the fertility of the soil and saturate it with water. The root system of a tree goes deep, which means that from below, through the roots, nutrients will make their way to the leaves. As the leaves fall, they rot, and nutrients make it into the topsoil. This is my goal: increase fertility with each passing year so that I can plant more valuable cultivars, cultivars that place greater demands on the fertility of the soil.
Enormous damage is being done to Tatarstan – and to all the other regions of the country, by the way – by the Federal Service for State Registration. There naturally aren’t enough people to survey each hectare of Russian land, and it will take an estimated 200 years to do so. Oversimplified legislation was adopted: in terms of fertility all the land was equated to what was already known and… had the best fertility. So this is how it is: even the worst land is appraised as if it were the very best. If you want to carry out an exact appraisal, do it with your own money. Well and if everything is okay in the Republic of Tatarstan on paper, then why would the Federal Service for State Registration work on proving that it had inaccurate, practically falsified data?
– Judging by what you say, the situation seems to be fairly complicated.
Exactly! By the way, before man began cultivating Tatarstan, it was completely covered by forests. On the eve of World War II about 40% of the forests remained, after the war only 15-16% remained. This is the Tatarstan that allowed Russia to become an empire during the rule of Peter the Great. His entire Black Sea fleet was built from the oaks of Volga Bulgaria. In Admiralteyskaya Sloboda they constructed ships out of oak, and Raifsky Monastery protected oak forests. In Chuvashia I saw those old oak trees with numbers on them. Their branches begin at a height of 14-17 meters, the trunk is a meter in diameter. It’s practically a reinforced concrete trunk. Oak boards made from trunks like those went from the bow of the ship to its stern.
They’ve cut down almost all of it. And what they didn’t cut down is dying on its own because the climate is changing.
– But the forestry officials do some sort of work – new plantings do appear.
They plant the same trees that they planted 50 years ago. But I’ll say it again: these species of plants are already beginning to die off because of climate change, and in the future the process will only become more severe. Our scientists don’t say anything about this. It used to be like this – scientists carried out experiments for decades, and only then, when they’d gotten their results, did they defend their dissertations. In forestry there’s no other way – there’s nothing you can do about it, since a tree only matures after 40 to 80 years. But what are they doing now? You need to write a dissertation in one or two years. They write about flowers and radishes, but no one’s working on trees, because everyone’s relying on what was written in the 20s and 30s. I’m not saying that they didn’t do a good job – they did, but the climate was different then. Тhe average yearly temperature in post-revolutionary Tatarstan was 1.7°C, and now it’s 2.5°С. For plants that’s a substantial difference. And no one repeats those experiments under the new conditions. There is no scientific school, no advisors… Just try finding scientists who work with Gingko Biloba or the Amur cork tree – scientists who could be dissertation advisors. There aren’t any, and no one thinks about it, either.
Scientific knowledge should transform at least every five years, because recently the precision of climatic models has grown significantly. While they used to be on a global scale, now they have gone down to the level of regions and countries. That means that in the future each country will have its own agricultural science. But what do we have? A month ago the Wildlife Fund sent me a book that contained extremely valuable statistical information on climate change. It has just now come out, but it had already been translated into Russian in 2009. So the government lost five years throwing state money away because they hired people for government service who did not have a specialist’s professionalism – the desire to acquire new knowledge and facts, or at least relevant data.
Even if our forestry scientists do something good, it’s limited by the constraints of agriculture. What should we take from the fact that scientists as far back as a hundred years ago discovered that the ideal width of windbreaks should be equal to the height of two to three trees? That means there should be up to 25 rows of trees. Turns out that they’re still planting 3-7 rows, or one-third to one-eighth of what it should be – they’re afraid of taking a section of a wheat field away. Narrow breaks cannot keep enough moisture and they die. They save three kopecks – they bend over to pick them up from the ground, and a ruble falls out of their pocket. This is how things are with us: meteorology – here, climatology – there, agriculture – over here, forestry – over there. They’re all separate from each other, there’s no synthesis, and in the meantime desertification is advancing.
– But you have to agree – you can’t plant trees everywhere. Grain needs to be grown, too.
The amount of cultivated land that we have is absolutely unacceptable. Even foreign specialists are talking about it now. Cereals also have an effect on the water balance – a very bad effect. To get one ton of grain, you have to take one thousand tons of water from the land. In Tatarstan there are regions that get 5000 kilograms per hectare. All the water that was kept in the ground gets pulled out. Each new sort is a more powerful water pump. That’s why I think that we need to ban the creation of new high-yield grains, and all inferior types of grain in general – agronomy that primitive has begun to harm the future of our region. And when I hear the government’s plans to create a field irrigation system, too… Until enough water is collected by new forest plantings, this can’t be done – we’ll leave the population of Tatarstan without drinking water or bread. And another thing – by selling one ton of grain, even if it’s for 300 dollars, we’re practically saving the buyer and his land a thousand tons of water to boot by removing a thousand tons of water from our land. Today a sale like that is a huge loss, and that sort of economics will lead to the destruction of our Homeland’s future.
There are very serious problems in Kalmykia. Europe has two man-made deserts – Kalmykia and the Oleshky Sands, which is the former bed of the Dniepr. High-ranking officials from Kalmykia talked to me, proposed that I help the region reduce the consequences of desertification and increasing climatic warming. After a call from the head of Kalmykia the topic started moving forward faster from both sides. A proposal was made to do similar work in the Crimea, too.
– It’s easy to see that you consider many different factors. How were you able to figure all of this out and form a comprehensive vision of the entire project?
By the time I started working on it, I already had two degrees under my belt. The first – a military one – allowed me to set the right goals and find ways of accomplishing them. The second, which I got at the Kazan Aviation Institute in systems technology and systems analysis, gave me an understanding of how to look at forests as a whole. Of course, I had to brush up on agronomy. When I was still in hospital, I started going to a nearby hospital. Later I graduated from a finance and economics institute. Then I studied at the Kuban Agricultural Academy. At home I’ve collected a very good library on forestry, one that you wouldn’t find in every institute. Finally, so that I could understand our legislation, I had to go to law school. I understood intuitively, by some related things, that I could grow a forest, but as to whether I had the legal right to – no one could tell me. I asked college instructors, and lawyers who worked in forestry law – they don’t even now basic things. By the way, my thesis was on the illegal inaction of the prosecutor’s office while carrying out land reform and inaction on the establishment of water conservation zones. The results of this inaction are now easily visible.
– One last question. Your educational center – what’s the concept behind it?
The concept is to pass on my experience in the most efficient way possible. I’ve been leading seminars for some time now, at which I talk about the results of my work. I’ve even been invited to go abroad. But what kind of experience can be passed on in two days, without hands-on practice in the dirt? Of course, people who take an interest in my work later come and look at my nursery, but all the same, you can’t show them all the little details there.
This is how I see the educational center: I’ll take about ten hectares of land and give each seminar attendant 200 or 300 square meters for a nominal rent (one ruble a year). On that land, under my supervision, they can grow enough seedlings in two years to cover their land, which by that time they will have legally acquired for their own private forests.
I don’t want to be the only forest-owner. I want the people who come to my seminars to be forest-owners – I want you and your readers to be them, too. If out of an average of twenty or thirty people who come to my seminars, just two of them follow in my footsteps – that means I’ve done my job. They’ll make another two or three people community-minded. The most important thing is convincing people that a private forest is doable. True, there isn’t any term like that in the Forest Codex. But there is a constitution, and it says that any natural resource can be privately-owned. That means you can get dead land and plant trees on it to restore its soil’s fertility. But don’t plant ordinary trees – they’ll just make you cut them down later. Plant trees that can’t be cut down – trees that are listed as endangered. Since we’ve got a government that writes such strange laws, why not take advantage of it?