In 20 years, Russia’s entire timber could end up in China, Japan, and Northern Europe By Yevgenia Kvitko
We may be the last Russians to see impenetrable forests. According to some forecasts, within 15 to 20 years, several climatic zones in Russia could shift with dense forests giving way to sparsely wooded areas affected by floods or droughts. Deforestation will, above all, affect the Far East, Altai and the entire area along the Chinese border. The reason: millions of cubic meters of timber illegally exported to China and Japan. The situation in Russia’s northwest, from where timber is exported to Scandinavia, is not much better. Today not only the greens but even the poachers themselves say there is precious little left to cut. Their business is doomed. The Ministry of Natural Resources has declared war on illegal timbering, not before time. Recently, it organized a conference with officials from the State Committee for Statistics, the Interior Ministry, the State Committee for Forestry, and the Tax and Revenue Collection Ministry taking part. According to official reports, illegal timbering in the country accounts for a mere 0.04 percent of overall timber procurement. Meanwhile, the WWF mission in Russia believes that between 40 percent and 50 percent of forest is cut illegally. It is one of the largest, smoothly operating criminal businesses in Russia. According to Yuri Kukuyev, deputy natural resources minister, last year illegal forest cutting caused 486 million rubles’ worth of damage. The WWF cites approximately the same figure, except that it is in dollars. The ministry may not be lying but is simply unaware of the situation on the ground. It gets reports from forestry services, some of whose officials are in the illegal business themselves while others are intimidated. Recently, several people were wounded in a shoot-out between forest rangers and poachers in the Primorye Territory. Last year, a forestry service director was killed there. Official statistics fail to keep pace with the number of attempts on forest rangers’ lives, threats against them, or acts of arson against their property. Furthermore, forest patrols feature probably the highest level of corruption in the Interior Ministry. Poachers pay police officers regular wages: It costs about $ 100 to clear an unscheduled timber truck (without a trailer – that is, seven to 10 cubic meters). In some estimates, approximately 1.5 million cubic meters of timber a year is cut illegally in the Primorye Territory alone. There is no way police on the take are going to give up their business. Even if they did, that would produce little effect. Under the law, criminal charges are pressed if a poacher has caused damage worth more than 20 times the minimum wage. The one tree that he was caught cutting is not worth that much while it is impossible to prove that the other 50 trees lying nearby have also been cut by him. Just as it is impossible to prove that a truckful of unlawfully cut timber constitutes a formal element of a crime. The maximum punishment is confiscation of cargo and a 50-ruble ($ 1.7) fine imposed on the driver for carrying undocumented cargo. Since the early 1990s, just one person has been convicted of poaching and sentenced to two years in prison. Of course both the federal and regional budgets are losing a good deal on the illegal business. For example, the 1.5 million cubic meters of timber that is illegally procured every year costs approximately $ 300 million (incidentally, this is the Primorye Territory’s entire budget). Timber goes abroad untaxed: This is not difficult to do since 90 percent of timber exporters are middlemen who enlist the services of third firms to cover their tracks. Far East or Altai residents, however, see so little support from the budget that they are unaffected by its shortfall one way or the other. There are more serious problems than that. First of all, the glaring gap in living standards. While middlemen are making exorbitant profits, wages in some villages abutting timber enterprises are paid in loaves of bread. All those who are not involved in illegal forest cutting or gathering ginseng (1 gram of ginseng fetches $ 100 on the world market, and so much of it is gathered that within five to 10 years, it could become effectively extinct in Russia) live in abject poverty. After 10 years of reform, production infrastructure has yet to be put in place in out-of-the way areas. As it is, people live off illegal timbering, picking berries, nuts, plant roots, etc. – a Stone Age community. The other problem is the environment. Forests that with the current rate of cutting have just 15 to 20 years to live, were formed way back in the tertiary period. They would take at least 300 to 350 years to reproduce. But even then they will not re-emerge in their present form. Overcutting in defiance of the scientific approach will at best produce undersized trees of inferior quality. Predators and artiodactyls will leave because of food shortage. The diversity of species will decline 50 to 70 percent. In short, it will be a different environment, and a different country.