Russia's forests in retreat

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SEIZING THE moment when Christmas trees are in the public consciousness, the Russian branch of Greenpeace has launched a campaign for more rational use of the forests that are potentially one of Russia's greatest assets.

At present they are wasted and the forestry industry joins most other sectors in depression and crisis. Absurdity begins at the Christmas-tree markets that have sprung up in Moscow and other cities so that Russians can take home the traditional yolka (fir) for New Year celebrations. The former Soviet Union occupies a sixth of the world's land surface and much is covered by evergreens. Yet the best-shaped firs at the Moscow market are from Denmark and cost $50 (pounds 31) a metre, a month's salary for the average Russian.

"We could grow our own trees much more cheaply but we are badly organised," said Igor Babanin, of Greenpeace. "The Danish farm their firs as the Dutch grow tulips. We do have a few evergreen plantations in the Moscow region but most Russians prefer to steal from nature than to buy."

Last New Year, Igor patrolled commuter trains with forestry inspectors and fined citizens coming into town with illegally felled firs. "Most of the people were innocent. They had bought the trees from cowboy operators. They are the real menace. They go into the forests and cut down far more trees than are needed. Then, after New Year, piles of firs are left rotting in the streets."

The waste in the Christmas-tree trade is only part of the story. The state, desperate for revenue, loses vast sums each year because of the way it taxes the forest industry. This month, Greenpeace activists tried to climb on to the roof of Rosleskhoz, the state organisation that supervises the industry, to highlight the problem. But they were brought down by pistol-toting security guards.

In most countries, tax is paid when a tree is cut, regardless of how the wood is to be used. In Russia, the cutting goes untaxed, as dues are supposed to be paid later, when the wood is processed. Dishonest or financially strapped firms underestimate the amount of processing and less tax reaches the state coffers.

Timber is valued by the Finnish tax man at $50 per cubic metre and even east European trees are worth $10.

But the cutting tax in Russia is 50 cents per cubic metre. "It is a hangover from Communist times, when the blessing of nature were supposed to be free to Soviet man," said Alexei Yaroshenko, a Greenpeace biologist and forest expert. "But it makes no economic sense. Some members of the State Duma saw our protest on television and came to talk to us. They were working out the 1999 budget and were interested in our arguments."

In all likelihood, Russia's tax anomalies will be ironed out over time. If that was the only problem, Greenpeace could be confident. But the organisation is raising the alarm over the disappearance of the forests themselves.

"Russia is such a big country that we have believed its resources were infinite," said Mr Yaroshenko. "The truth is very different." Greenpeace is particularly concerned about what it calls ancient forests, in other words those that have never been touched by man. It is frightening how few are left.

In northern regions of Russia, such as Archangelsk, Komi and Karelia, only 12 per cent of the woods have grown naturally for centuries, while the rest are "secondary forests", poorer woods growing where old trees were cut down. "If we continue logging at the present rate, all the ancient forests this side of Siberia will be gone in 10 to 15 years," said Mr Yaroshenko.

The consequences of forest loss in Russia, just as in the Amazon and other parts of the world, will be devastating. Not only do the original forests contain millions of types of flora and fauna but they also regulate the world's climate. When destroyed, they release huge amounts of carbon, which heats up the atmosphere. Greenpeace says the remaining ancient forests should be left alone and secondary forests and plantations should be better managed. With recycling technology, there is no reason why forests that have grown for 1,000 years should be cut down to make toilet paper.

One piece of news inspires Greenpeace this holiday season. After seeing the organisation's satellite maps of the world's dwindling ancient forests, the Svetagorsk pulp and paper mill, run by Swedes on Russian territory, became the first in the world to pledge to stop using wood from such forests.

"It's a drop in the ocean, but it's a start," said Mr Yaroshenko. "Go to your supermarkets and DIY stores and demand that the products they sell are not made at the cost of our last natural heritage."