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Russia: Virgin Forests Under Threat

Environment ministers from more than 100 countries that are signatories to the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity will meet next week (8-19 April) in The Hague to discuss how to better balance human needs with the planet's environment. A key part of the discussions will focus on what can be done to ensure the survival of the Earth's remaining untouched, old-growth forests. Russia is home to some of Earth's largest ancient forests. But increased, uncontrolled logging in Siberia and Russia's European Far North is raising concerns about the forests' future.

Prague, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For years, the world has heard about the plight of the shrinking Amazon rainforest. Uncontrolled logging leading to deforestation, loss of habitat, soil erosion, and climate change are usually associated with tropical regions.

And while these problems continue to affect countries like Brazil and Indonesia, a new, potentially vast region of concern has appeared on environmentalists' radar screens: Russia.

More than one-fifth of the world's old-growth forests are found in Russia. Home to countless animal and plant species, Russia's ancient forests also play an important role as so-called "carbon sinks," absorbing harmful gases at a rate second only to the Amazon in effectiveness.

But the long-term existence of these green "lungs" is being put in doubt as the unregulated plunder of Russia's richest old-growth forests, especially in the Far East and Northern European Russia, continues unabated.

A five-year study by the U.S.-based World Resources Institute, using images from both Russian and American satellites, found last year that only 14 percent of Russia's northern forests remain untouched by man. While the overall quantity of trees being logged today in Russia is actually lower than in Soviet times, due to the collapse of the centralized timber industry, the way forests are being cut down is now far more destructive.

Bankrupt state logging concerns have been replaced by hundreds of small operators focused on exporting timber to growing markets in Europe and Asia -- often illegally and with little concern for forest management. Oliver Salge, a campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace, explains:

"They don't log secondary forests (those regenerated from native, or primary, forests), but now they are going directly into the up-to-now unlogged forests. This means that the decrease [in overall logging] doesn't equal [greater] protection, because now the valuable forests are on the edge of extinction. This means that behavior has to be changed, especially in Russia. Until now, no one can see any forest management in Russia at all."

In order for old-growth forests to be viable as habitats to large populations of animals and survive periodic natural disasters such as fires, large tracts have to remain intact. Incursions by loggers threaten the existence of these ecosystems and ultimately the harm done outweighs any initial economic benefit.

"At the moment, the situation is that no one is logging in a sustainable manner," Salge said. "The Russian forest sector more or less works in a [way] which is called 'cut-and-run.' They come into an area, cut 100 percent of the trees, and leave the area as fast as possible. This means for the community in this area that they have jobs for a few years, but then the forest industry disappears -- the people remain without any work, without any future -- and this shouldn't be the case. So, they have to change their management."

Coming up with solutions that are economically feasible and environmentally sound is the goal of next week's conference of signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Since the convention was signed at the UN's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago, almost no attention has been focused on protecting Russia's virgin forests.

Part of the problem also lies in drafting a definition that will suit all parties. Olli Saastamoinen, forestry professor at Finland's University of Joensuu, spoke to RFE/RL:

"It is a borderline which you have to agree on. What are the features, the characteristics of forests so that they fulfill the label 'old-growth forests?' It might be that in some cases, the forestry authorities and environmental movements have some disagreement where this borderline goes."

According to Saastamoinen, one thing regulatory authorities in Finland have learned in recent years is that what was once literally considered deadwood is actually a crucial component of virgin forests and should not be cleared:

"The most important criterion [in an old-growth forest] is the amount of decayed wood, wood which is rotten and which benefits many other endangered species because the endangered species -- beetles and others -- really like the decayed wood. That's a really valuable habitat for them."

Experts say international gatherings such as the planned Hague meeting are important because they allow experts to share scientific findings such as this as well as to draft policies that cut across international lines. Greenpeace's Salge says Asian and European countries, as consumers of Russian timber, bear some responsibility for the destruction of Russian old-growth forests:

"In Asia, the biggest demand for ancient forest products from Russia is in Japan and China. And in Western Europe, it's in Germany, the U.K., and The Netherlands. So, both parts of the world are responsible for the destruction of the ancient forests and this is the reason we are calling especially on Western European governments to take responsibility for the destruction of the ancient forests in Russia, because their countries are the biggest consumers."

Statistics tell the tale: According to the Center for International Trade in Forest Products at the University of Washington, over 40 percent of China's total log imports now come from Russia. Volumes of raw logs coming through the three main rail lines that connect Russia and China have increased tenfold in the last few years, from 430,940 cubic meters in 1996 to 4,058,519 cubic meters in 1999. In addition, the 3,000-kilometer border between China and Russia has scores of road crossings that allow the export of logs to China by truck. There is at present little monitoring or legal oversight of this timber trade.

In the past decade, the volume of official Russian timber exports to the European Union has risen by 50 percent. Sweden and Finland -- once themselves major exporters of the commodity -- are now Europe's largest purchasers of Russian timber, which they process and resell at a significant markup.

The Swedish and Finnish examples illustrate a point conservationists have long stressed: rather than striving to cut down old-growth forests at ever-faster rates, Russian loggers should instead direct their energies at building a well-managed wood-processing industry, which would earn the country higher returns at a lower ecological cost.

For now, Russia's huge size ensures the Northern Hemisphere's last great virgin forests will not immediately disappear. But if Moscow continues to do little to counter environmental pillaging, time may eventually run out for the country's once-limitless taiga.