Forests of Russia and how they need protecting through better policy
There is little doubt that our worlds ecosystems are facing enormous pressures from multiple factors such as increasing global population, demand for fossil fuels and increased pressures on other natural resources. As populations of many countries move in to middle class, the demand for consumer goods of every type increases. This is particularly the case for the forests of the world. Consumer demands for furniture, floorboards, paper and many other associated products has seen increased logging in many of the world’s old growth forests. Forests are also being removed to allow for increases in pastoral land for the demand for meat and cereal crops. These pressures on a resource that, although can renew, are often extreme and lead to irreversible damage to land as erosion occurs and causes further damage to these fragile areas. Many nations view their timber resources as a source of income that unless is properly regulated, will result in losses of habitat for flora and fauna and can directly affect the indigenous people that may be reliant on the resources found in these forests. It is therefore worth investigating how capitalism, in this case, ever growing consumerism, could be on a collision course with sustainable practices and the need to satisfy a global demand for goods. It will be discussed how the use of the forest resources of Russia and how they can be better managed through changes to national policy that protects the resources for future generation. There is also a need to look at how internal and external pressure is required in order to achieve this and what outcomes will do to improve the current position.
Not only is Russia the largest country in the world, much of it is sparsely inhabited and contains vast swathes of forests, lakes, marshes and wetlands. It is important to focus in on the forests, their use, risks, management and how the increasing demand for timber is putting pressure on a region of the globe that plays a significant role in capturing and storing carbon. Russia’s forests, known as the Taiga, has more productive and mature forests than the rest of the entire planet. The boreal forests occupy 45% of the Russian territory, this is almost eight billion square kilometres. Fifty five percent of the world’s conifers and eleven percent of the world’s total biomass are contained in this region. Although they contain only a few species of trees, they are nonetheless an important part of the ecosystem for many of those living in the less developed parts of the country as they are a source of timber for harvesting and also of associated products such as mushrooms, berries and for hunting. Russia also has forty-five registered indigenous nationalities that rely on the forests for their sustenance and utilise as part of their traditional way of life. Additionally, parts of these forests are home to the critically endangered Siberian Tiger that occupy a region along the Russia/Chinese border. From an economic point of view, twenty one percent of the globes standing timber volume is represented in these forests. It is this significant amount that has seen the Russian Federation become one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of roundwood timber, as well as pulp, plywood and paper).
With the huge reserves of available timber and the proximity to a high demand market, China, Russian forests are facing increased pressure to fulfil an economic need for foreign currency. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, roundwood timber exports jumped from three percent to almost forty percent and sawnwood exports from six percent to over sixty percent. It is due to the high demands for this timber in China that logging in Russia is often carried out illegally and export figures are understated and that the supply side is inefficient and prone to poor governance and corruption. Even with multiple investigations in to the illegal activity, and prosecution in some cases, the various government authorities still struggle to contain activity along the large shared border regions. Even though excessive logging is occurring, the net amount of forested area in Russia has been growing over the last 25 years due to natural expansion and the crisis in the agriculture sector. However, as is often the case in the global timber trade, many of the older and larger trees are taken and much of the new regions have smaller and less diverse tree populations.
It is worth reviewing the counter viewpoint to the boreal forests of Russia and the need to ensure their protection. There is evidence that these forests, at higher latitudes, have led to a warming effect on climate due to the inability of the soil to remain frozen and ensure that carbon trapped in the ground is not released. There is a working project underway in northern Siberia attempting to demonstrate that the removal of forests and the return to the tundra steppe will lock in the carbon as it keeps the ground colder and avoids thawing. Modelling has demonstrated that the deforestation of these northern regions will result in a decrease of a quarter of a degree centigrade in the global annual mean temperature. These findings could be interpreted as justification for continued logging of the region as they result in a positive feedback loop for the environment. The distance from the market though makes the exporting of this timber unviable due to the current inefficiencies in the supply chain, as stated above, and maybe more suited to domestic markets.
In Russia, the forests are 100% publicly owned with private enterprises carrying out the management of the forests under lease agreements and contracts. After 1991, the forest sector struggled to adopt a stable market economy framework. There were internal tensions within government following the end of the Soviet era on how the ownership of the forests would be handled and a fear they would end up being owned by oligarchs or foreign interests, limiting the right of the citizens to access this resource. Management of the forests went through multiple iterations that saw governance centralised and decentralised several times until 2006 when the Russian Forest Code was implemented that transferred forest management to the eighty-five Federal Subjects. Different NGOs pushed for changes to the code to reflect better practices in forest management and ten of these recommendations have been adopted. As the Russian economy moved to a more capitalist one, the forest sector continued to lag in respect to contributing towards economic growth as intended. There is evidence that the decline in economic circumstances in regional Russia has resulted in the forests becoming important for collecting of natural resources as more people become dependent on them. Pressure from migration of people from the colder to the warmer regions and rural to city have also added to the difficulties in managing the vast forest resources with less people taking an active participation in regional issues, such as forest management.
The continual restructuring of the forest management and slow adoption of market principles has left the industry with several problems. One of these is the rising influence of the oligarchs on the Russian economy and it’s spread from the major capitals to regional politics. Other factors include short term planning and underutilisation in respect to economic payback, an example of which is the length of leasing periods that deter new investments. The biggest issue however is the inability to implement new policies due to the decentralisation of control and the ongoing corruption within the sector as, in its own right, the forest sector is otherwise unprofitable. Corruption has been identified in the awarding of contracts for government services as many are won using bribes and kickbacks, they are also difficult for many government agencies to regulate due to funding and resource constraints. The gap that needs to be closed for better protection of the forest resources is the lack of oversight by the central government and inadequate funding to the correct agencies to be able to better manage their resources. This level of inefficiency and corruption results in extensive illegal logging and poor reforestation or land improvements. Even Indigenous groups have faced challenges with local authorities when attempting to gain ownership of certain regions and have found that there is a level of misinformation being passed back to central government that distorts what is happening locally. Compounding this gap is the lack of data available to researchers to assist in policy formulation and the statistics that are available are of recent decades and not giving a clear picture of change over time.
When it comes to revising the forest policy in Russia, the main purpose would be to close the gaps that allow for corruption to take place and better overall management of the resources. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations state that there are four points to address when deciding policy, these are;
· How will the different interests of a society be met and what purpose do the forests serve?
· What rules will be used to manage and by who?
· Who will establish these rules?
· How will these rules be enacted and monitored?
The policy recommendation for better management of the forests would be to centralise control back to a federal level. This would assist in dealing with the lack of controls that have permeated through the industry as the regions where able to manage locally resources. Lack of statistical data and oversight has meant illegal activity has been occurring and that very poor records are maintained to understand the effects of this. This has also been noted by many NGOs who have called for more public involvement when it come to managing the forests, these meets the first point above. The inclusion of the private sector will also be important to the future of the forest industry as opportunities arise to develop value added products and increase the profitability of the sector through a longer-term view of forest management. Centralising control of forest management will also require sufficient funding to allow the development of this and other sustainable programmes and be inclusive of the advice form NGOs who have looked at best practice in other regions. Ensuring that all stakeholders take part in the process and the ownership is also shared will give more robustness to any policy and support at the top from government is key to demonstrate commitment.
The Russian forests are a unique resource that not only represent significant numbers in respect to size and importance to the planet but also serve a purpose as a source of revenue for the national economy and recreational activity for the people of Russia. The increased demand for timber products and the close proximity to China has meant the resource has bene prone to corruption and illegal logging activities. Multiple changes in policies and who is responsible for managing the sector since 1991 have not proven to be in the best interest of the forests. The proposing of the return to central control with strengthened oversight and improved data and engagement with different stakeholders is viewed as the best way forward. Long term goals of how to use the resources through collaboration with the private sector will be more effective and ensure the resource is available for future use. Capitalism, in the form of consumerism, does not need to be in opposition to those that regulate and control resource allocation and use. Left in its current state though, the risks to the Russian nation and the broader planet could be significant.