Almaz Rayev: “It is important to preserve our heritage”

Popularization of the Kyrgyz grey hen

I met cheerful Almaz Raev in mid-June, when I arrived to his garden in central Kochkor. It was a seven-acre land plot - quite big by local standards. As we sat in the shade of a tree, Almaz told me his story. In 2016 he, as the head of "Mirbek Nur' foundation, began his work in the field of agro-biodiversity implementing the "Slow food" principles. In 2017 he partnered with Institute for Sustainable Development Strategy Public Foundation (ISDS), and this year they launched their fourth joint project. Almaz went though many ups and downs in his career. As the youngest child in his family, he knew he would have the responsibility to take care of his parents. They worked at a tank farm and provided their kids with everything they needed, including good education. As a child, Almaz was actively involved in farming, in particular, chicken-farming, even owning cockfighting breeds. Whenever, his family visited the capital, which at that time was called Frunze, they would stop at a circus pet store. "I would refuse to go home until we went there. My parents bought me parrots, canaries, fish tank", Almaz said. His childhood dream reflected the interest. "I wanted to become the chairman of a collective farm", he added laughing. Unsurprisingly, after graduating from high school he chose to study at the Agricultural Institute. Then he served in Germany, witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union, got married, tried building a business by selling soap from Uzbekistan, worked as a surveyor at the State Registrar, spent several years at the security office of  the ACS "KyrgyzAltyn" at its various locations. Desire to spend more time with his family pushed Almaz toward establishing his own foundation, which he named after his son Mirbek and dedicated to developing sustainable agro-biodiversity in his village. His education and professional experience were the cornerstones of the revival of the Kyrgyz grey hen, which was born in 1960-s as a result of local breeders' experimenting with the New Hampshire, the Leggorn and the Plymouth Rock breeds. The uninitiated might think that the name refers to a grey-colored breed of the bird. However, that is far from truth. In fact, a Kyrgyz grey hen is characterized by its unusual color, which it inherited from its ancestor - the striped Plymouth Rock.

It was the only Central Asian breed to be included in the official encyclopedia of USSR. The Kyrgyz grey hen does not require a special care and can be bred even in a harsh mountainous environment. One hen can produce 180-200 eggs a month. Almaz currently holds 50 Kyrgyz grey hens and 20 chickens in his farm. He sells them for 250-300 som a hen, 30 som a chicken, and in spring the prices go up.  The hatching rate reaches 90%. Calls from interested buyers never stop. Hens spend spring and fall walking freely in Almaz's garden in their natural habitat. «In summer we keep them in the henhouse", Almaz said, showing me around. «I invest sales profits in maintenance and increasing the progeny. Last winter a new breed of groundhog arrived to our region, and it killed 30 hens, 10 geese, 3 turkeys, and 5 guinea-fowls in a single night. It has become quite a problem for us", Almaz complained. 

Thanks to his project Almaz became known in Tajikistan and later in Italy, where he went as part of a delegation of Kyrgyz activists to festival Terra Madra ("Mother Earth). In 2019 public foundation "Mirbek Nur" in its quest to popularize local breeds created a poultry-farmers club in Kochkor, where the members were offered a free Kyrgyz grey hen to breed. Later Almaz partnered with the Food Safety Alliance of Kyrgyzstan. Several news organizations specializing in agricultural business, as well as local media, reported on the Kochkor farmer's experience with breeding of the Kyrgyz grey hen.      

“Almaz Rayev's work is important for preserving local poultry breeds, as they are naturally adapted to our climatic conditions, meaning their propagation does not require any artificial involvement, which is why their meat is tastier and more nutritious. We support the creation of the club, as we believe it will help educate people and popularize local breeds", said Anara Alymkulova, the head of ISDS.

Almaz was supposed to go to Italy this year, but due to the pandemic all plans were cancelled. Recently, however, he was visited by specialists from the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences and their Japanese colleagues, who took blood samples from his poultry to determine its genetic code. Almaz says he looks forward to working with our scientists. 

Preserving our frogs and forests

Another project, in which Almaz is actively involved, is preservation of the Central Asian frog and bottomland forests around Kochkor. "Hard work was always encouraged in my family. In seventh grade I started working at our local forestry. I did weeding, clearing, mowing. When I was a kid there were tons of frogs («kyzyl koltuk» in Kyrgyz) around the forest, grass and puddles everywhere. But when I, after getting married, went there with my wife for a vacation, we found no frogs and almost no grass. Frogs are hunted for their meat, which is believed to possess medicinal qualities, plus that groundhogs infestation. That led me to write a project on preservation of bottomland forests, which is the natural habitat of these endangered frogs. This year I and several ecology experts plan to organize public meetings with local authorities, Ecological Inspection office and school students to discuss the issue. We need to raise awareness of the importance of this frog species for the regions' ecosystem. It is connected to many other issues as well, such as preservation of bottomland forests and need for a ban on cutting of sea-buckthorn and hawthorn, as frogs in the region serve as an indicator of the ecosystem's health.  

Every resident's understanding and contribution is paramount in resolving the problem. The organization's goals include creation of a mini reserve in the forest and planting of trees in cooperation with the Forestry Units in September-October of this year».

Engaging the younger generation

Almaz was once offered the position of a school drill instructor. Many years later Almaz returned to school to educate students on ecological ideas. He currently works closely with K. Kadyraliev school in Kochkor. This year a multimedia center was opened in the school, and experts from “Kyrgyz Journalism School” taught students the basics of journalism. Since the beginning of the quarantine the students prepared and published over 30 articles on the school's Facebook page. Within the project, in which thirteen students participated, flesh drives, a computer, a printer and two cell phones were purchased. «We have worked with Almaz for four years, conducting seminars on Slow Food for teachers and students», says Elvira Ermekova, the principal of Kapar Kadyraliev school. «The students in the program are graduating the ninth grade this year. They have their own gardens, make delicious salads, and know a lot about healthy diet. Their practical and theoretical education pushes them to learn and discover more on their own. Today Janar Algojoeva from partner organization "Amanat Omur" conducted a seminar on medicinal herbs and creation of an ethno-botanical garden. Children actively participated in the master-class. We also organize competitions among our students, where the winners receive certificates and small prizes, which motivate them to further spread the ideas among their peers and parents».

Almaz is determined to continue his work at Kapar Kadyraliev school educating children on biodiversity, healthy diet and ecological preservation. They even created a garden on a window-ledge, preparing planting stock. Slow Food philosophy: "Good, clean and fair", which argues in favor of GMO-free food, is gaining popularity among the younger generation. 

As we walked around his garden, Almaz shared with pride how despite the harsh Kochkor climate and the mountainous environment, all vegetables his family eats are home-grown: greenhouse cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, cabbage, pumpkin and even broccoli and salad. Fruits and currant provide additional vitamins all year long. Naturally, Almaz is an active member of the Kochkor gardeners club. "Young people say that Kyrgyzstan is doomed because of the corruption in politics, they all want to leave. But I am a patriot, I want to stay, and I try to convince the youth that hard work pays off, and only lazy people end up poor and hungry. It is important to teach our children the value of honest labor so that they can live and eat well», says our Kochkor activist Alamz Rayev. 

Author: Tinimgul Eshieva

Reference

Slow Food is a movement, which arose in 1986 in Italy in response to the growing fast food industry and later spread to other countries. Today it is a part of the global slow movement. The fundamental objective of the Slow Food organization is creation of restaurants that are opposite of fast-food chains, i.e. restaurants that provide healthier food, as well as preserve traditions of national and regional cuisines, supporting culture of a traditional dining. 

Slow Food promotes the philosophy of providing every person in the world with access to quality food, which is healthy, delicious, profitable for producers and harmless for the planet. 

The organization stands against standardization of taste and cultures, unchecked power of transnational corporations in the food industry and agro-industrial complex. Its approach is based on the concept of food quality, which is defined by three interconnected principles: tasty, clean and honest.

Good: fresh and fragrant seasonal products that are pleasant for the senses and are part of the local culture. Clean: the production and consumption of food that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or human health. Fair: affordable prices for consumers, fair pay and decent working conditions for manufacturers. Terra  Madre  is a global food fair in Italy promoted by Slow Food every year.

 

The Public Foundation ‘Institute for Sustainable Developemnet Strategy” is a non-governmental organization, which was established in Kyrgyzstan in 2012 to promote the concept of sustainable development. The main focus of the foundation’s activities is to support the efforts of the custodians of traditional knowledge and practices, whose role is to care, represent, and raise awareness about attitudes, species, art forms and bio-cultural objects, which are carried through generations.

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