On International Youth Day, we celebrate the voices of young people at the frontline of the land and environmental movement.
Ermek Shabykeev was born and raised in the village of Kara-Talaa in northern Kyrgyzstan. Ermek has always admired nature and could spend hours in the mountains watching sheep or relaxing on the shores of the unique Issyk-Kul Lake.
Ermek, 32, grew up studying tourism and dreamed of developing the country’s ecotourism potential. He is especially concerned about the condition of the land around his village, where swamps have turned into a natural habitat for swans
and sea buckthorns and reeds have been neglected and turned into a landfill. Because of this reason, private poachers have been eyeing to seize these neglected lands for their own economic interests, using destructive ways like burning the land to merely build a private resort, in one instance.
Seeing this problem, Ermek became determined to mobilise the villagers with a proposal to protect this land, one that had rich biodiversity and had been passed down to them by their ancestors.
The local communities were skeptical at first, but Ermek’s constant and accurate knowledge-sharing, coupled with his structured plans and confidence helped convince the villagers. “Many young people in Kyrgyzstan do not always lead traditional communities, as there is a moral respect to always listen to the elders. But my experience has shown that through good communication, we can mobilise people for one common goal,” said Ermek.
The villagers managed to obtain permission in December 2019 to create a community reserve ruled by a community management system, known locally as “jamaats”. After receiving all documents, Ermek initiated the cleaning and fencing of this spot of land to prevent livestock from grazing by installing an electric fence. Together with the villagers, they received grants and support from global donor institutions like the UN Global Environment Facility (UN GEF) and local companies and organisations like ILC Asia member Rural Development Fund (RDF).
The most important thing for Ermek is the involvement of the villagers in protecting the reserve, particularly the youth. His work has inspired two young residents of his village, for example, who now volunteer in the reserve every day during the summer, collecting garbage and helping to count the birds. Birdcounting educates young people about the value of biodiversity and creates local incentives for successful protection and preservation of birds by monitoring their quantity.
Together with other organisations, Ermek now teaches local children birdwatching and tools to be an ecotourism travel guide. As a result of community work, experts from the Academy of Sciences in Kyrgyzstan recently conducted an assessment that indicated an increase in the number of birds, namely the whooper swan, - one of the endangered species based on the Kyrgyzstan Red Data Book - the mute swan, as well as ducks and migratory flamingos.
Tourism in the form of birdwatching provides income to local communities in the village and employs young people as ecotourism travel guides who are already so well-versed on the biodiversity of their village.
“My message to young activists who aspire to protect lands and restore ecosystems is to not be afraid of risks, be accurate and transparent with the local community, and believe in what you do. Not only the future belongs to young people, but the present is also crucial for the entire planet,” said Ermek as he concluded the interview.