The taiga is a world so cold that soil and rock are frozen a kilometre deep; so vast that forest fires can burn for months, unnoticed except by satellites. Its dark, closed forests of pine, fir, spruce and - hardiest of all - larch are home to the rare Siberian tiger as well as reindeer, brown bear, sable and salmon. Siberia contains more than half the world's coniferous forest and a fifth of all the planet's trees. The forests cover six million sq kms - an area twice the size of the Amazon rainforest - and the largest part of the belt, girding the northern hemisphere, separates the temperate lands from the Arctic.
The Earth Summit in Rio last summer agreed that the great northern forests deserved as much protection as the rainforests. But as tropical rainforests disappear, logging companies are turning to Siberia - and Russian officials, particularly local administrators battling with Moscow for control of their resources,
are only too happy to oblige. Following the foreign companies into the land of Dr Zhivago, however, are the environmentalists. Last autumn, Greenpeace chained its ship, Rainbow Warrior, to a barge owned by the South Korean trading company Hyundai, to protest at timber exports to Japan.
Hyundai is already cutting 1,300 sq kms of wood a year from the broad-leaf conifer forests of the Sikhote Alin mountains of Primorskiy, home to the Siberian tiger. It plans to triple its output, clearing 4,000 sq kms of forest (an area the size of a large English county) each year. The largest trader in Asian tropical timber, C Itoh, is logging the larch and spruce forests of Khabarovsk; and the American company Weyerhaeuser has similar plans around the River Botcha.
The main limitation on exploiting Siberian timber is lack of transport. But the loggers are building their own roads - just as they have through the forests of South-east Asia. Large areas have also been opened up by the recent completion of one of the communists' most gruelling engineering projects - the Baikal-Amur Mainline, a second Trans-Siberian railway running through the heart of the timber region. It was started under Stalin and ended under Gorbachev.
Rapacious foresters are not new to Siberia. One state timber enterprise - the Ust-Ilimsk combine, set up in the Seventies near the route of the Baikal-Amur railway - had its own new-town, airport and hydroelectric power plant, which flooded 2,000 sq kms of forest. The combine was assigned an area of forest the size of Switzerland, where it set about removing every tree, leaving behind eroded hillsides and boggy valleys.
Siberian forests do not contain the teeming, noisy masses of life found in tropical rainforests. They are silent and bare. They probably contain, in total, fewer species of plants, animals and insects than a single hectare of the Amazon. But their destruction could create huge areas of bog as permafrost melts, and have just as serious an effect on world climate as the loss of tropical forests.
The great northern forests of Siberia, Canada and Scandinavia, like their tropical cousins, are huge stores of carbon. Siberia's trees contain an estimated 40 billion tonnes of carbon - seven times the annual global output of carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels. Their destruction will unleash more carbon dioxide into the air, exacerbating the greenhouse effect, and reduce the natural 'sinks' that can absorb pollution.
Russian scientists last year estimated that almost 10 per cent of global man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are absorbed by the Siberian forests. This effect shows up in the pronounced annual 'wave' in the graph of carbon dioxide levels in the global atmosphere. In the summer, when these forests grow, they suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and concentrations of the gas in the air decrease from Murmansk to Melbourne. In winter, when the northern trees stop growing, concentrations rise again. Tropical forests grow all year round and do not have this effect.
Where northern forests are chopped down, the permafrost melts much more quickly, creating huge and often permanent areas of bog in which trees will no longer grow. According to Antony Scott, director of research at the Siberian Forests Protection Project in California: 'Roughly half of permafrost forests become swamp in the wake of timber harvests.'
This melting could have global implications. Much permafrost is frozen bog; it holds massive amounts of methane ('marsh gas'), generated in warmer periods in the planet's history. Methane is a greenhouse gas second in importance only to carbon dioxide. It could be released in large quantities, though nobody knows how large.
Optimists point out that cutting down the Siberian forests might have a cooling effect, countering global warming. The theory is that the forests currently absorb solar heat, which would be reflected back into space if the forests were replaced by snow and ice. Nobody knows how this would affect world climate.
Nor does anybody know what effect global warming would have on the forests. Will they grow faster and extend their domain further into the Arctic? Or will they fail to keep up with the pace of warming, and collapse into a quagmire? To answer such questions, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), a think-tank funded by governments, has begun a research programme into Siberian forests in collaboration with the Russian Academy of Sciences.
A second aim of the project is to find ways of protectinq the forests while still allowing their wealth to act as a springboard for Russian prosperity. Stalinist inefficiency is one target. More than half the wood cut from Siberian forests never reaches a processing plant; many logs simply disappear while floating in rafts downstream, the favourite method of wood transport. Ill-equipped Russian factories also use three times as much wood as their West European counterparts to make products.
Another target is better forest management, to prevent forest fires which claim more than 10,000 sq kms (half the size of Wales) each year, and control disease and insects, which take a similar toll. Ninety per cent of Soviet timber is clear-felled - that is, no tree is left standing in the forest. This destroys all undergrowth, creating soil erosion.
After a detailed study of old Soviet forestry statistics, Anatoly Shvidenko of IIASA reckons the number of trees in Siberia fell by 20 per cent between 1966 and 1988, a much higher figure than had previously been suggested. The Yakutsk region lost more than 10 per cent of its trees in five years in the mid-1980s. Many of the forests could disappear in 40 to 50 years.
Can they be saved? Some parts are protected as nature reserves, notably the cedar forests. Forest reserves have a pedigree stretching back to Peter the Great, who created the first to protect the sable. But the potential for damaged forests to recover is much smaller in Siberia than in a tropical rainforest. The cold means natural regrowth of timber is painfully slow. Replanting by foresters is rare and often slipshod - a mere 2,000 sq kms in 1988, says IIASA. Only half of the new trees survived.
The hope for the future is that foreign methods will reduce the wastage. The fear is that foreign markets will merely increase the rewards for pillaging the forests.
A small team of Western forest scientists travels to Siberia this summer with the Siberian Forest Protection Project to identify sites for 'sustainable' forestry initiatives - selective harvesting of trees and proper forest management, rather than rapacious mining of the forest. One group will travel to the lower Bikin valley in Primorskiy, where Hyundai wants to clear-fell the forest, to talk to the indigenous Udege people, who oppose Hyundai's plans. Another will go to Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia, heart of the old state forest industry.
Some researchers doubt that the new drive to harvest Siberia's forests will come to much. The region is too remote, they say; the price of removing timber too high. But the pressures for development, especially of the Siberian Far East, on the doorstep of Japan and Korea, are growing. There are plans for a huge pounds 30bn industrial and trading zone straddling the Chinese-Russian border, which will make money from exploiting the region's timber and other natural resources.
'Let the taiga be burned and felled]' proclaimed Vladimir Zazubrin, one of Stalin's favourite writers, in 1926. 'Let the fragile green breast of Siberia be dressed in the cement armour of cities.' Now, thanks to capitalist knowhow and markets, this ecological disaster may be about to happen.-
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