Kazakhstan: Preserving wetlands boosts the economy

Kazakhstan women making felt.
Kazakhstan women living in protected wetland areas are making felt to generate additional sources of income. Photo: UNDP in Kazakhstan

For years, Valentina Zhakupbekova’s family depended upon illegal poaching for its survival in Kazakhstan’s vast wetlands, thousands of square kilometres of rich soil and abundant lakes, caviar-bearing fish, unique birds and aquatic flora.

“My husband had no employment, the fish he caught in the lake helped feed our children,” she says.


  • More than 1.6 million hectares of wetlands have obtained protected status in Kazakhstan.
  • Illegal fishing fell from 45 to 65 percent between 2004 and 2010 in the project sites.
  • Residents from 500 villages in the area developed eco-friendly business ventures.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economy around the wetlands declined sharply and many villagers in the area were left with little alternative other than poaching. The population of migrating birds and fish began to decrease, and the area’s ecological balance faced serious disruption. Even more damaging to the wetlands was the unsustainable use of water for industrial agriculture.

In 2003, a joint initiative by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Global Environment Fund (GEF) and the Government of Kazakhstan was launched to salvage and protect the wetlands. As a first step, Kazakhstan ratified the Ramsar Convention, a global environmental treaty for wetlands preservation. Now, seven sites covering more than 1.6 million hectares have become nationally protected areas, and two nature reserves in the region are the first in Central Asia to appear on the UNESCO Natural Heritage list.

UNDP helped initiate the revision of the country’s water code, introducing strict restrictions on the use of water in the wetlands and regulations for amateur fishing and hunting. As a result illegal fishing fell by 45 percent in the Ural River Delta between 2004 and 2010.

In addition to promoting institutional change, the project focused on educating the public across the country, including media outreach campaigns, the production of educational material and trainings on biodiversity. To help develop ecotourism, UNDP introduced an entrepreneurship programme in rural communities, allocating more than US$1 million to support community business start-ups in three pilot areas.

The initiative soon expanded into 25 protected areas across the country, enabling residents from 500 villages to develop new business ventures such as building greenhouses, creating fishing ponds and manufacturing souvenirs.

Trucks and motorboats now allow tourists to reach wetland sites without causing damage to the ecosystem. Over the course of a year and a half, more than 6,000 tourists have visited the Korgalzhyn reserve, yielding $40,000 in income and helping residents finance their operations as well as develop key infrastructure.

After the death of her husband, Zhakupbekova participated in one of these workshops and learned how to create felt products from the abundant supply of wool in the area. Today, she sells her popular handmade slippers, boots and jewelry in her own retail shop, and has trained seven other women, including some with disabilities.

"These lands gave us everything: food, shelter, peace and inspiration for many years," she says. "Today, I am happy that I can also preserve them in reward".