The main Chinese transit point for Russian timber is Suifenhe, a sprawling border city of concrete apartment blocks and onion-domed shopping malls, the latter an architectural nod to the city’s origin as an outpost of Tsarist Russia and a muted sales pitch, perhaps, to the busloads of Russians who cross the border each day to buy up cheap Chinese clothing and electronics. Crossing into China from the Russian border, signs of the timber trade are readily apparent: on its approach, the railway snakes its way through a seemingly endless series of timber yards, piled high with uncut logs and milled timber planks. At the highway border crossing, too, trucks rumble past, laden with milled planks.
Anatoly Lebedev, a Vladivostok-based ecologist who has been campaigning against illegal logging since the early 1990s, says as many as ten trains arrive in Suifenhe from Russia each day, each bearing 60 loaded cars holding around 60 cubic metres of timber – much of it illegal.
According to the WWF, an estimated 30 percent of illegal timber originates from legitimate concession holders, who underestimate the amount of timber stock in their concession areas and then covertly export the remainder. A larger concern, however, are the small- and medium-scale operators who work beneath the official radar in protected areas. A widely-abused loophole is to apply for a license to conduct ‘sanitary’ logging – the removal, for maintenance purposes, of dead or dying trees – which is then used as legal cover for the clear-felling of valuable hardwood. Rigorous customs inspections can easily be sidestepped through the use of forged legal documents or fraudulent declarations.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Russian officials have repeatedly voiced concerns about the forestry situation. In 2008,Valery Roshchupkin, head of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resource’s Federal Agency for Forestry, issued a report claiming that the country was putting in place a new national forest policy, including ‘a tough customs policy’, to staunch the flow of illegal timber. Since Dark Forest aired on Russian TV in May 2010, however, the federal government has also faced a considerable public backlash. In response to the film, which caught Primorsky region forestry chief Pyotr Diyuk on camera admitting complicity in the illegal timber trade, Moscow again promised investigations.
But due to the region’s endemic levels of corruption (another post-Soviet legacy) the disincentives remain overwhelmingly weak: the cost of operating ‘legally’ in Russia, with its heavy burden of taxes and unofficial ‘fees’, makes on the books forestry largely unprofitable. Lebedev alleges that officials at all levels are on the take.
‘This system is very specifically created by government officials – local, regional and national – and they get a good profit from this activity, and that’s why they always defend this illegal business,’ he says. ‘This is the essence of Russian corruption.’