Russia's forests are important for the entire world. They make up more than 20% of the global forest resources and their economic potential is estimated at $100 billion. Stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic, Russia's woods cover nearly all of Eurasia. They are the biosphere's ecological lifeblood. However, today they are under threat. Timber is being mercilessly destroyed by the axe, fires and acid rain. Unfortunately, resisting this evil is not simple, as the state is short of funds to protect forests effectively.
For more than ten years, Russia has been implementing comprehensive economic reforms, painfully moving from planned Soviet economic management principles to a market footing. One negative effect of this process has been that two main elements of macroeconomic relations - forestry and the timber industry - have emerged in different sectors of the economy: the first in the state sector, the second in the private. The immediate result was a conflict between them, which the government is now trying to rectify, above all, through a new Forest Code. Work on this document is almost finished and on February 19 it will be submitted to the Government for consideration.
Meanwhile, Russian forests are suffering from wanton felling and a theft boom. A contributing factor is that felling in Russia is done not on the basis of per stump pay, as is practised throughout the world, but on the basis of a wood-purchasing certificate. Its selling price is a mere 25 roubles per cubic metre of timber (the price of 1 kilo of sugar) and anyone who has one has the right to go into the timber business. Since state control is lax, fellers often resort to uncivilised practices.
The paradox is that, while over the past 10 years timber procurement, according to official data, has fallen to one-fifth of its original level, timber exports keep growing every day. In the Far East, for example, more than half of round timber exports, according to unofficial figures, come from illegal felling. The situation is the same in Siberia: in the Irkutsk region, one-quarter of felled timber is illegal, while in the Krasnoyarsk region, it amounts to 700,000 cu m. And all of this goes to Russia's neighbours: Japan, South Korea, and China, with the latter "absorbing" up to 90% of Russian timber exports because the country is observing a 50-year moratorium on commercial felling.
The budget of the Krasnodar Territory (southern Russia) lost about 40 million roubles (about $1.4 million) last year as a result of unlawful felling. Things are no better in Russia's north-west: there are constant flows of illegal round timber into Finland and other European countries. How can this anarchy be stopped? Through laws in the first place, which is why the authorities are moving quickly to adopt them.
Another perennial woe of Russia's woodland is fire. In Siberia and the Far East, according to forestry experts, there are no wooded tracts that have not suffered from blazes over the past hundred years. Vast expanses (forests occupy more than half the country's territory, which itself makes up one-sixth of the planet's landmass) and an undeveloped road network make the consequences of forest fires particularly serious. The aircraft component of the forest fire-fighting service, which was established twenty years ago, became less effective in the 1990s because of financial difficulties.
The facts show that Russian forests are burning more frequently and fires are affecting more territory. The statistics for different regions, naturally, vary. In the taiga zone of Siberia and the Far East, 11,500 forest fires were registered last year, which destroyed 1.5 million ha. Difficult to access and scarcely populated areas make fire fighting complicated and spot fires quickly spread to considerable expanses. Whims of the weather, i.e. draughts and violent thunderstorms, are compounded by the "human factor", people's carelessness with barbecues, cigarettes and so on.
There were more fires in the Far East's Magadan region last year, which destroyed 35% of the forested area. The average figure for the country varies between 1% and 3%.
Fire fighting is subsidised from the federal budget. If a person responsible for a fire is identified, then the court makes him pay a certain sum. Burnt-up areas are handed over to the reforestation service, which plants young saplings on the devastated land.
A federal programme, "The Environment and Natural Resources of Russia", has been recently drafted. It has a special section dealing with fighting fires and their effects. The main things that can help here are increased financing for the forest protection service, new effective equipment and a greater role for fire-fighting aviation.
Specialists believe, however, that the greatest foe of the forests is acid rain. Apart from inflicting great damage on trees, it also affects soil. The concentration of acid rain is gauged from precipitated sulphur. It is particularly intense near Norilsk, a centre of non-ferrous metallurgy in the polar areas of Siberia, while another zone is the industrial hinterland west of the Urals. Pollutants brought by winds from Europe add to the effect of local toxins. The Urals intercept these flows, which discharge their burden of dirt near the foothills. However, the country's western border regions are hit the worst. The prevailing atmospheric current from the West dumps precipitation from virtually the whole of Europe with its extensively developed industry.
This is a global issue and there is no other way of addressing it than by taking targeted steps to reduce man's destructive impact on the environment.