Russia’s Far East Forest Mafia
Image Credit: Michael Stuewe / WWF

Russia’s Far East Forest Mafia


The vast forests of Russia’s Far East are being plundered. Prompted by rising Chinese demand for timber and enabled by a culture of official corruption and fear, environmentalists say a Russian forest mafia is stripping the region of rare and valuable hardwoods, a trade that threatens the world’s last remaining populations of Siberian tigers.

In China, timber is processed into finished consumer products such as veneers, picture frames and wooden toilet seats, many of which end up on shelves in the West, the endpoint of a pernicious and largely unacknowledged global market chain. Despite statements of concern from the Russian authorities, the logging industry is ‘now beyond federal control, and overrun by criminal gangs’, according to Dark Forest, a recent TV exposé of the official corruption at the heart of the trade.

Most illicit timber originates in the conifer-broadleaved forests of the Sikhote-Alin Mountain Range, which extends northward from Russia’s Primorksy region for more than a thousand kilometres. In a 2007 report, the Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency described the region as containing ‘one of the most diverse assemblages of plant and animal species in temperate forests anywhere on the planet’.

Known to environmentalists as the Ussuri taiga, the area is home to an unusual profusion of hardwood species, including varieties of ash, maple, elm and oak. It also supports the last remaining populations of Siberian tiger, the largest of the world’s big cats, whose wild population now numbers in the hundreds. Denis Smirnov, the head of the forestry program at the World Wildlife Fund’s Amur branch office, says that by destroying the food sources of tiger prey, illegal logging could endanger the existence of the Siberian tiger in the wild. ‘There’s a direct link between the damage caused by illegal logging and the state of the tiger population,’ says Smirnov, a St. Petersburg native who has been working in the Far East for the past nine years.

Around 60,900 cubic metres of hardwoods are illegally exported from Far East Russia each year, according to lowball official figures, but the WWF puts the annual total at ‘at least 1 million’, a figure calculated by comparing the permitted amount of export logging with estimates of the actual exports. ‘It’s incomparable, the detected and the actual,’ Smirnov says. ‘According to our evaluation, the percentage of the share of illegal wood in this hardwood flow is up to 75 percent.’

Rogue timber operators gained a foothold following the fall of the Soviet Union, when many of the region’s logging towns were hit by unemployment after the collapse of state support for the industry. Many jobless former loggers have since turned to illegal small-scale timber harvesting as a way of making ends meet. ‘Providing their services to the “Forest Mafia” is often their only source of income,’ states a recently leaked diplomatic cable from the US Consulate in Vladivostok, dated January 2009. ‘Established companies are often finding it more profitable to use the services of these out-of-work villagers cutting down trees in unauthorised areas than to use legal, established channels.’ Demand was also spurred by the opening of the Chinese border in the mid-1990s and the imposition of Chinese logging bans in response to flooding in Northeast China in 1997.

March 24, 2012 at 19:39

Great, Boring, boring boring! Another sob story I agree! Rubbish!

August 2, 2011 at 09:02

Here I see John Chan actually saying China has dreams of expanding in Siberia. I thought your precious commies have no inclination to expansion. Yet you are indirectly saying that China should take over Siberia.

May 26, 2011 at 11:06

Very little area came from the Qing in the Far East. The majority was taken from Tungusic, Mongolic, and other native peoples. The Chinese territory that you mention was Tungusic tribes that were fairly autonomous and not amalgamated under the empire thus not even Chinese and far closer to the Mongol in respect of ethnicity.

Perhaps if China gives Inner Mongolia back to Mongolia and Tibet goes forth as an independent state you could quip about the minute amount of area in the Far East that you as a successor state to those tribes could request back…

April 27, 2011 at 11:50

John Chan, you are right territory was taken from the Qing, but let’s not forget, the Qing dynasty was an EMPIRE, and it was not even Chinese. The Qing took China’s borders much further than any Dynasty other than the Yuan (another non-Chinese dynasty). China is still having trouble dealing with the fact that it inherited colonies from the Qing Empire in its West and South West, the CCP was fundamentally anti-imperialist, but has failed to recognise that it itself has colonies – as defined in the classic sense.

John Chan
April 26, 2011 at 23:17

Majority of Siberia was grabbed from China’s Qing Dynasty under the unequal treaties. So please do not be so self-righteous to view Chinese as expansionist when Chinese discuss about the ownership of Siberia.

John Chan
April 26, 2011 at 22:50

Russia has thousands of nukes, sure some of them work. The issue comes back to the same basic problem; it is the size and distribution of population. More than 90% of Russia population lives in less than 10 cities. It is a hard decision to make whether to keep a vast empty land or to preserve the race of Russian.

War mongering mindset is not going to help Siberian tigers nor Siberian forest and environment. When China tries to defend it territories, the West and its lackey are blaming China expansionist and aggressor. It seems to the West and it lackeys that China’s land is free for everybody to grab, and yet their territories cannot even be mentioned by the Chinese bloggers, the West and its lackey will even threaten nuclear holocaust if their lands are discussed by the Chinese bloggers. What kind of twisting reasoning and logic the West and its lackeys have.

April 25, 2011 at 08:24

Population density would only increase the rapidity with which timber is cut down. Ergo in China all those forests are gone because more people can participate in the economic benefits from their cut down. Legally or illegally is irrelevant its all based on profitability one way or another. The problem is ownership where people lease land cut down and move on where as in the states and Canada timber companies own and farm vast land parcels continuously making it feasible to have a continuous flow of economic good.

I used to think that China would encroach on Siberia as population permeate and populate the border lands but the reality is somewhat different. It seems the lack of infrastructure and costs of existence have a lot of impact on what actually happens. I doubt the two or three thousand dollar cost of keeping warm through the prolonged winter with a higher density and a higher marginal price per every good would be possible if population increased. This plays into Canada and USA as well where most goods in Canada are about 20% more expensive controlled for currency due to infrastructure differences and dealing with colder environment.

Politically it is highly unlikely for vast reasons for Russia to give up Far-East some of them are due to there being vast resources, actual stabilization of population growth and economic growth in Siberia, etc. Far East will begin to stabilize as well in time.

You seem to be under the notion that loosing 10 to 20% of territory is OK if you have enough and the majority of population will simply ignore the plight of the minority in those border regions for fear of their own well being, I think you are sadly mistaken. Russia has nukes I am certain some of them work.

April 22, 2011 at 16:38

Yawn. Another sob story?

John Chan
April 21, 2011 at 22:20

The inconvenient truth is that Russia is the wrong custodian to be entrusted for safe guarding the vast natural heritage in Siberia for the mankind. Russia simply does not have the population and other resources to prevent the plundering of the precious natural resources by the Far East Forest Mafia in Siberia. The international laws reflect the truth of Mother Nature, i.e. it is not yours if you can’t keep it.

The Russia population is declining, with its current population size Russian would be doing very well by just governing Russia’s European portion properly. Russians in Siberia know that if they don’t plunder the Siberia now, it would be a missed opportunity when they are eased out by natural process. Meanwhile other nations are happy for the wood supplies from a place that is not under their ecological jurisdiction. That’s unfortunate and sad situation for the Siberian tigers described in the article.

The solution to the root of Far East Forest Mafia in Siberia is to get someone that actually has the population and resources to safe guard the natural heritage in Siberia for the globe, mankind and all other living creatures instead of holding superficial political activities that merely for the participants to grab news spot lights.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief