Monday, February 21, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Russia May Not Have Any Forests Left to Sell in 20-30 Years, Experts Say

Paul Goble

Staunton, February 21 – Within 30 years, Russia may have so overharvested, legally and illegally, its forests and signally failed to plant replacement trees that the country which now has the largest forests in the world will not have any wood left either for domestic use or sale abroad, according to Russian and international experts.

And that situation, Rodion Rudnyev writes in “Versiya,” is about to be exacerbated by a proposed bill that would allow every Russian to harvest his own Christmas/New Year’s tree each year, a measure that would open the way to even more widespread theft of that country’s forest resources (

The Kostroma oblast duma has sent a proposed amendment to the Russian forest code that would allow Russians to cut down a tree for Christmas or New Year’s without being at risk as is now the case of fines that in some cases can at least theoretically reach up to 800,000 rubles (26,000 US dollars).

If that were all that the measure would do, Rudnyev suggests, no one would be too worried, but it is clear that the opening of such a loophole would be exploited by those who are illegally cutting down trees for profit. Indeed, he reports, up to a third of the 160 million cubic meters of wood being harvested in Russia now is “harvested” by criminal groups.

On the one hand, he continues, this illegal harvest and its illegal sale abroad is, according to the World Wildlife Fund, costing Russian government budgets almost one billion US dollars a year. And on the other, such illegal operatives rarely if ever plant new trees in place of those they have cut down, thus rapidly reducing the size of Russia’s forests.

Rudnyev suggests that the timing of the Kostroma “initiative” raises suspicions. After all, it comes “almost 11 months before the next holiday period,” but it coincides with “the moment when world markets have shown a record increase in the demand” for wood and when prices are extremely high.

According to Russian statistics, “from ten to thirty percent” of wood harvested in Russia is done so illegally. The large range is the product of different definitions. If one is speaking about individuals chopping down trees “without documents,” it is the former. If one is speaking about groups that exceed their licenses and overharvest, then it is the latter.

Because of its enormous forest holdings and because of the high price of wood, Russia is a major exporter of wood, but 15 to 25 percent of the wood shipped abroad is illegal in the sense that it either has been harvested without proper documentation or has been shipped without official sanction.

The profits being made in this sector are enormous, especially for those engaged in it illegally. According to some assessments, Rudnev says, the profits may reach 300 percent of costs, something that tempts criminal groups and that gives them the funds to put pressure on officials and legislators not to interfere or even to help.

As a result, Rudnyev says, the cutting down and sale of wood “is becoming one of the most criminalized sectors of the economy of Russian regions.” The reasons for that are clear: the risks are “minimal” because criminals and officials routinely protect one another, and even when charges are brought, those higher up the power vertical ensure that violators typically get off.

For example, the “Versiya” journalist writes, “in the spring of 2007, two officers from the economic crimes sector were arrested. They were found guilty in the misuse of their positions because they provided assistance to Chinese and Russian-language forest harvesting companies.” They were threatened with ten years in prison, but higher ups freed them in early 2008.

Having gone from the specific to the general, Rudnyev concludes by focusing again on the Kostroma proposal. The worst thing about it, he suggests, is that “federal subjects have already demonstrated their inability to deal with the administration and control of the forest economy.”

Some of them have not provided any financing for this control despite the requirements of the January 2007 forest code. While many of them did focus on “the catastrophic consequences of the fires of last summer,” they have almost not noted the barbaric [destruction] of the forests” otherwise.

The situation is truly dire. The international organization Forest Trends predicts, Rudnyev says, that “already after 20 to 30 years [this] gigantic illegal business [in Russia] will be able to destroy the largest forest region on the planet,” something that will have tragic consequences not only for Russia but for the international environment.

In Soviet times, people joked that if Saudi Arabia went communist, in five years, the Arabs would be importing sand. It will be truly tragic if half a century after the collapse of the USSR, Russians who have always been proud of their forests will be forced because of the actions of criminals and the officials who protect them to import wood.

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