Into the woods

The push for profits is putting the future of Russia's great forests, Europe's lungs, in peril. Andrew Osborn reports

Alexander, an introspective Ukrainian carpenter who has worked with wood all his life, strolled along the peaceful forest footpaths of Moscow's idyllic Arkhangelskaya Estate with a furrowed brow.

Once the private domain of Princes Golitsyn and Usupov, Russia's wealthiest pre-revolutionary aristocrats, the 18th-century palace and estate, though run down, still lives up to its reputation as "a corner of paradise".

A graceful forest of limes, larches, silver birches and pines goes on for mile after mile, the forest floor carpeted with a bewitching patchwork of buttercups, forget-me-nots and other wild flowers lit up by intermittent rays of sunlight.

Just 12 miles from Moscow, Arkhangelskaya's sprawling landscaped parkland and ancient forest is a world away from the concrete grubbiness and tacky kiosks of Tushinskaya metro station, the nearest stop.

But Alexander, who has been employed to restore the estate to its former glory, is perplexed. Though the forest is supposed to be protected, property developers have begun to cut swaths of it down to make room forkottedjy, second homes favoured by the country's rich.

A carpenter by trade, Alexander believes firmly in preserving the country's woodland. It is, he feels, a resource to be treasured. "We must protect this place at any price," he said. "It's of such enormous value but it will just become like everywhere else. Casinos and restaurants will follow."

Over the centuries, Russia's dense forests have been eulogised by the likes of Boris Pasternak and Anton Chekhov and painted by some of the country's greatest landscape artists. "From Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, the taiga stretches without limit," Chekhov wrote in the 1890s. "Does it have an end? When you are on the top of a mountain, you see mountains all around ... and all is covered by a dense forest. It gives you shivers." Adored by ordinary Russians for their quiet spirituality and their abundance of wild mushrooms and berries, forests are an integral part of Russia's national identity.

But in Vladimir Putin's new Russia, the future of "Europe's lungs" is looking perilous. The authorities - many of whom regard the forests as just another natural resource much like oil, gas and precious metals - are considering how they can squeeze the most money from the millions of pines and silver birches that cover 70 per cent of the world's largest country.

Environmental concerns come spectacularly low down the bureaucrats' list of priorities, pushed down by Russia's prevailing obsession: profit.

Forest fires, pest infestations, shambolic forestry management, rampant illegal logging and now the prospect of privatisation mean one of the world's most precious natural resources is at risk. "Russia's forests are of huge value," said Richard Aishton, the director of the Moscow office of the Institute for Sustainable Communities and a specialist on Russian forests.

"Twenty-two per cent of the world's forests are contained in Siberia. It's not the biodiversity that you find in tropical rainforests but it's still of value to the world. And if you destroy the forests you destroy the world's ability to soak up carbon dioxide gases to mitigate against the effects of global warming. They are a huge resource in a fragile frame and have a huge global impact biologically, ecologically and economically. They are under serious threat."

A draft law to radically change the way Russia's forests are managed has already been drawn up and is wending its way through the government apparatus. Although its final form remains unclear, it looks likely to allow for some privatisation - one draft said that companies could buy forestry land provided they had rented it for 15 years. It also looks likely to allow more building in forests in hitherto protected areas, in part to meet the voracious demand of wealthy, oil-rich Russians who are clamouring to erect palatial dachas, or country houses, all over the country.

Logging companies would be allowed to fell more timber in general, and many people are worried that public access to forests - which have always been owned by the government - would be curtailed.

Much of the powers enjoyed by regional leskhozy - forestry commissions - would be shifted to Moscow and the conditions for renting forests would be relaxed in favour of large logging firms which would be allowed to snap up 99-year leases if they wanted to (instead of the current 49-year average). The government says that the new law could be approved by the country's Duma (parliament) in September and become law by the end of the year. The Kremlin's desire to enact change is premised by one thing only - money.

Mr Putin has promised to double the country's gross domestic product within 10 years and to lift millions out of poverty. For that he needs cash. The sheer size of Russia's forests has had many bureaucrats rubbing their hands in glee.

Stretching from Europe into Asia, they cover a mind-boggling 1.18 billion hectares (4.5 million square miles), according to Russia's Ministry of National Resources. According to some estimates, they absorb 15 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, an amount second only to the Amazon rainforests.

They are also home to many rare species of animals and plants, such as the far-eastern leopard, the Siberian tiger, the Siberian cedar pine and the Korean cedar pine. But while Russia's forests may be huge, the government has failed to exploit them in an economically efficient fashion. An estimated 25 per cent of hewn timber is left to rot where it falls, a victim of the Soviet-era obsession with meaningless quotas. Even now, companies can be fined if they don't meet their cutting quotas.

Productivity is also poor; Russia may possess a quarter of the world's timber resources but it accounts for just 3 per cent of the global market. It could produce 550 million cubic metres of timber every year if it got its act together compared to the current production level of some 150 million cubic metres, according to the government. In financial terms, that would mean exporting timber, paper and wood products worth some £55bn every year compared to around £2.5bn now.

Then there is the question of forestry privatisation: the estimated value of the land has been put at £90bn.

The Kremlin has a burning desire to stop exporting raw timber abroad for low margins and to start processing more of it into, for example, furniture. "A huge percentage of wood that Russia sells now is a raw product. Nobody is benefiting from the value-added element," explains Mr Aishton. "It's Russian wood so it should be used for their profit."

Critics worry, however, that Russia's frustration with its forestry management could saddle the country with a new law that takes little or no account of the environment.

Under the new law, "it's not even understood who would be responsible for protecting the environment, who will be in charge or where the funding will come from," complains Alexey Yaroshenko of Greepeace Russia.

"It will be harder to set up protected areas in future and we're worried that they simply won't be set up any more." Mr Yaroshenko says he is also concerned that the government appears willing to rent forests to the highest bidder and to abandon the existing system where other issues, such as environmental impact, are considered. "The price of rent will be the only factor. Right now, the process has conditions which must be met but in future it will just be a question of money. The firm which offers the most cash can rent the land." Nor, he frets, will ordinary people be able to enjoy the fruits of the forest, a tradition which stretches back hundreds of years. "It's important that people's right to visit the forests, to pick mushrooms and berries, be safeguarded. It's especially important for small villages."

Not everyone is opposed to privatisation though. Mr Aishton believes it could be a good thing if handled properly (though he concedes he has doubts that it will be) and argues that Russia's forestry sector is in need of reform. "It just depends on who gets holds of it. It's a crap-shoot." Not as pessimistic as others, he also believes that if privatisation does happen, it will occur at a slow pace and that only small areas will be privatised initially.

Nor, he stresses, is ill-conceived legislative reform the only threat to Russia's forests. "They are under serious threat just from fires. Millions of acres are burnt every year in this place because somebody has gone out to have a fire and cook their shashlik (meat kebab). It sounds like a joke but it isn't - 95 per cent of fires are man-made."

Come the summertime, thousands of fires smoulder across Russia; the railway lines leaving Moscow are often flanked by bonfire after bonfire; local residents' favoured way of disposing rubbish. "You tack that on to the pressures from the gypsy moth - the pest that is attacking the forests - and illegal logging from China and North Korea and it all adds up to a lot of pressure on the wood," says Mr Aishton.

Russia is estimated to lose some £16.5bn a year in the illegal logging trade with China, Japan, Scandinavia and others; and 30 per cent of all logging that takes place is thought to be illegal.

The method rarely varies. Speculators move in overnight with a big truck, cut down a large swath and then drive the timber to China or somewhere else, bribing Russia's own cash-starved border guards along the way. Mr Aishton, who has worked with the Russian timber industry for 16 years and inspected sites all over the country, contends that a lot of the damage has already been done.

"I'm shocked when I fly over the country or drive through it just how much of the area is cut. Take a look at satellite photographs and you'll see it's a big jigsaw or patchwork quilt. You'd be amazed at how much has already been harvested." The country's wintry climate means regeneration is a slow process.

Russians favour natural regeneration rather than replanting and it takes 100 years on average for a tree to grow to its full size.

Nor are the rolling forests of Siberia the only wooded areas under threat. Environmentalists say forested areas outside Moscow and St Petersburg are being cut down at an alarming, and illegal, rate to make way for ostentatious dachas.

Campaigners have alleged that unscrupulous property developers deliberately infect the woods with termites so that they can legally clear and build on a previously protected piece of land.

Greenpeace says that Russia's forestry policy is a disaster. "No country can compete with Russia in the number of forestry officials (about 250,000). The country has sophisticated forest legislation which is so complicated and intricate [it runs to 10,000 pages] that even forestry officials can hardly work it out." The legacy of the failure of this policy, the group argues, is catastrophic.

"The outcome is quite obvious: poor forest settlements of jobless people, salaries that at best are enough to provide water and bread, out-of-date machinery and back-breaking labour conditions."

Forest protection and conservation are constantly short of funds, resulting in plentiful forest fires, piles of litter along forest roads, and illegal logging, it says. Money needs to be urgently redirected. "Otherwise, in 10 to 20 years, the Russian forestry industry will die."

In a country where the government is slashing social benefits for more than 100 million people and is poised to boost spending on home-produced arms by a third, however, the fate of Russia's ancient forests appears to be a distant priority.

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