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.