Without warning, city workers descended on a leafy street recently in Kyrgyzstan’s capital to begin chopping down trees.
The scene that unfolded on Toktonaliev Street on June 2 was the culmination of a mounting confrontation between authorities determined to make Bishkek more convenient for motorists, and residents appalled at the gradual, but steady ravaging of their once-verdant city.
In gestures of defiance that seem to have taken authorities by surprise, local residents threw themselves onto the road in an attempt to block the work. Others, holding up placards, stood in front of trees to try and save them from the saw. Normally, mild-mannered environmentalists had to be bundled away by police called to the scene.
By the end of the day, more than 140 trees had been chopped down. One poignant and widely shared image showed the lifeless body of a hatchling that had been cast out of a felled tree.
Bishkek has, by some estimates, around one car for every two inhabitants. That is roughly approximate to New York. Traffic jams, and the noise and pollution they bring with them, have become a defining feature of the capital.
With the number of cars growing every month, officials are forced to adopt ever more radical road-building programs, some of which require the removal of trees. Green activists argue that the environmental cost is too high.
As the spring approached, municipal officials announced that their plan for this year is to chop down 7,000 trees. With those trees out of the way, they will be able to widen 49 roads and ease the flow of traffic by creating much-needed parking slots, the authorities say.
Environmental groups have long been sounding the alarm on the long-term consequences of this policy, but the strongest objections are now coming from home owners disgruntled at seeing trees outside their homes chopped down to make way for more traffic.
Yury Andreyev, an entrepreneur and one such resident, told EurasiaNet.org that although he owns a car, he does not want to see his children forced to play right next to fast-flowing traffic. “Cars are just metal. In no way should we allow ourselves to become slaves to these machines, sacrificing the health of our children,” Andreyev said.
To reinforce their front, opponents of the tree-chopping drive have formed an initiative group that has, at last count, some 700 members. Environmentalists in the group say green space is disappearing at an alarming rate in Bishkek. In the 1980s, according to estimates offered up by environmentalists, Bishkek had about 30 square meters of green space for every resident. The ratio has fallen to five square meter per resident today. The shrinkage is driven by a rapid rise in Bishkek’s population that, in turn, fuels an expansion of housing and urban infrastructure at the expense of trees and vegetation.
If Bishkek once prided itself as one of the post-Soviet world’s greenest cities, residents now complain of being suffocated by auto exhaust. Compounding the pollution challenge, many cars plying the roads of Bishkek are older vehicles that are second-hand cast-offs from Europe and Japan.
Zelenstroy, the municipal enterprise responsible for managing Bishkek’s parks and vegetation, insists that the trees they are singling out for removal are aging, and potentially hazardous. Authorities like to cite a March 2016 incident to illustrate the dangers of leaving diseased trees untended. In that episode, a 37-year old man was killed when a poplar with rotting roots suddenly collapsed onto his car.
Toktobek Elgondiyev, the head of Zelenstroy, said that there are about 7,000 trees in Bishkek that are either diseased or improperly and inconveniently positioned.
Emil Shukurov, a biologist and environmentalist, is skeptical of claims that the city is targeting mainly diseased plants. “A five-square meter space of trees brings nobody any profit. [In their place] they want to build houses, businesses, to widen the roads. For them, trees are wasted space,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Shukurov said that the trees being singled out for removal were planted by Zelenstroy itself. If any of them are in poor health, it is the authorities that are to blame, he said. Tree planters often lay concrete around the base of trees in order to lend them a more pleasing aesthetic appearance, but, in doing so, harm its prospects for sustainable growth.
Elgondiyev, the Zelenstroy head, insisted that authorities intend to plant two trees for every one that they chop down. Environmentalists argue that it takes many years before a new tree is able to grow and generate the same amount of oxygen, and provide the same amount of shade that a large adult tree can.
Also, many of the trees that are planted to replace old ones often wither from poor care, environmentalists add. “Authorities want to recast the city for cars to park and move, but people are going to suffocate,” Shukurov said.
Earlier this year, Zelenstroy issued a public tender worth 51.3 million som ($750,000) for the purchase of more than 11,000 saplings and bushes. The young plants that Bishkek City Hall wants to buy are known as root-balled trees, most likely from Europe. In order to ensure the trees grow faster and stronger, the roots are cultivated in a fabric or mesh binding, pruned and repeatedly transplanted. It is a complicated and, more importantly, costly process.
Sukhurov argued that the city’s strategy is misguided. He said that for the money needed to buy each root-balled tree, the government could acquire several hundred saplings of widely available and locally grown species like poplars. He said local authorities should prioritize quantity when trying to preserve and restore green space.
Elgondiyev said he is sympathetic to people’s anxiety about the tree-chopping campaign, but he added that residents needed to take a long-term view. “Whether we like it or not, time demands of us that we go through a phase of renewal. The government cannot just rely on old trees,” he said.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a reporter based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.