Russian forest for China: “The sector must be decriminalised, otherwise, there may not be any forest left”

The director of the Institute of Forest of the Siberian office of the Russian Academy of Sciences commented on Russian authorities’ decision to ban forest exports to China

The Russian Ministry of Nature offered to completely ban forest exports to China. The decision is linked with a problem of illegal deforestation, particularly, in the Siberian taiga. Deforestation is considered to be one of the main causes of the wildfires that have shocked all Russia this year. However, it is believed in Siberia itself that, first of all, the Chinese have nothing to do here: mainly our people cut the taiga down. Secondly, the fires aren’t almost linked with illegal woodcutters — forests are burning mainly in hard-to-reach places where the forest has no value. Director of the Institute of Forest of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences Aleksandr Onuchin told Realnoe Vremya newspaper about it. Ecologists, in turn, consider that the decision of the Ministry of Nature won’t simply “reach Siberia”, while people will find loopholes to avoid the ban.

China to be denied Siberian forest because of wildfires

Russia can completely ban forest exports to China, Minister of Nature Dmitry Kobylkin said about it in an interview with Vedomosti. At the same time, the minister noted that Beijing could escape the ban but only if it also joined the solution of the problem of illegal deforestation in the Far East. Russian authorities can make such a decision against a background of wildfires in Siberia and the Far East, which caused indignation among the Russian public. Even if forests burn regularly and some ecologists and experts don’t see anything catastrophic, the forest problem has become one of the most discussed topics this year — and the consequential smog that reached Central Russia (including Tatarstan) from Siberia. Governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai Aleksandr Uss who said that there was no sense in putting out the wildfires and it was “even harmful somewhere” added fuel to the fire.

Russian authorities refused to put out the fires that threatened settlements for several weeks explaining it by huge areas of forest were in remote places that were hard-to-reach for special equipment to put out the fire, in “control zones”. A fire in such places can’t be put out officially if its damage doesn’t exceed or isn’t comparable with the costs on putting it out. Opponents of such inaction assume that the risks were evaluated wrongly, and no measures for keeping the fires in “control zones” were taken — “it was assumed that precipitations in the short run would do all the job”.

Refusing to put the fire out, the authorities cited natural factors: anomalous high temperature, too few precipitations, a higher amount of dry thunder, which brought to low humidity and simultaneously high temperature. Opinions that the forests were burning as a consequence of wilful arson with an alleged purpose of suppressing illegal deforestation (not a consequence of carelessness in a hunt or berry picking aggravated the situation.

It is thought that up to 20% of wildfires break out as a result of natural causes, but 80% are of human origin. Though the forest recovers in short historical terms, while losses of the fauna are quickly restored, the Russian authorities finally made a decision to put out the Siberian fires under public pressure, including in “control zones” for which federal money had to be used (in some regions that are responsible for putting fires out, “control zones” didn’t have money to do it), including money of the Ministry of Emergency Situations and the Ministry of Defence. And Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev publicly announced his own proposal on 1 August that the fires were set to fire deliberately. In addition to the ban on forest exports to China, the Ministry of Nature assumed that not regional leaders made a decision to determine “control zones” of wildfires but it was done at the federal level.

Aleksandr Onuchin: “The main fires are in places where wood isn’t cut down — it has no value”

“How can the ban on forest exports to China be linked with the fires?” Director of the V. Sukachyov Institute of Forest of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences Aleksandr Onuchin was surprised in a talk with Realnoe Vremya’s correspondent. “As far as I am concerned, China doesn’t cut down so much wood, mainly ours cut it down. The wood is exported to China, yes.”

According to Onuchin, the main fires are in places where wood isn’t cut down: in the Evenkia taiga, in the north of Irkutsk Oblast, in Yakutia. There is neither road nor forest there that would have some value for woodcutters. This is why he thinks that deforestation and the fires aren’t linked directly. Aleksandr Onuchin doesn’t agree with the assumption that the fire caused, for instance, in Krasnoyarsk Krai by illegal deforestation (which will soon go to China) is gradually moving to the “control zones”.

“More productive forests are cut down, in an accessible zone. And fires can’t spread to thousands of kilometres. All fire sources come about on the spot. They appear in spots [on the map] like a leopard’s skin. If it was a fire, there would be a line, a front, but there is no such thing,” Director of the V. Sukachyov Institute of Forest of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences explains.

He agrees that at the same time the problem of illegal deforestation exists. The timber industry today is “quite severely criminalised”, former interior ministry employees who cover the deforestation are in. The Institute’s task is not to oppose this deforestation but evaluate ecological consequences of deforestation or fires and elaborate a system of sustainable forest management, which would allow reducing the share of illegal deforestation — reforestation, afforestation. The average forest growth in Russia today is 1,3-1,5 cubic metres per hectare of the forest a year, including 10 cubic metres per hectare at best.

This year’s outcry due to wildfire happened because of winds

Aleksandr Onuchin, in turn, explained the public outcry linked with the fires in Siberia by seasonal conditions.

“The area of fires in Russia as of 1 August didn’t differ much from the average areas of fire since early 2000. There had been greater fires. 12 million ha of forest burnt down in 2012. It was 7-8 million ha during some years. This year it’s been also 8 million ha. Though considering that the fires are going on, the number can become a record. But the outcry was caused this year because of a change of winds. Northern-eastern winds have reined this year, western winds did previously, all the smog headed to Yakutia, northern regions with low density, Irkutsk Oblast. “And now the smog has reached Krasnoyarsk. Boguchan, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and people have begun to be indignant.”

“The front of the fire is spread to hundreds of kilometres, how will you put it out?”

The expert in forests thinks it is correct that people are being indignant. But the problem hasn’t appeared today. It can be solved, Onuchin supposes: with an introduction of a system forecasting the appearance and development of fires, which should have been done a long time ago. In addition, it is necessary to create a decision making centre to decide which fires to put out and when to start. Since fires can be put out in the beginning with few resources: “it can be even stamped out”.

“When a fire develops for ten days… Then planes gather, discharge water, but it is already late to put it out. The front of the fire is spread to hundreds of kilometres, how will you put it out? Gather planes from around the world, send them there, but they won’t do it quickly. Rain is needed. We have to wait for the weather. If we had foreseen the situation, all this could have been avoided,” Aleksandr Onuchin notes.

At the same time, he thinks that fires in remote districts will remain, which won’t have to be put out because they won’t become catastrophic, as there will be some screens or barriers, and the fire will stop on its own sooner or later.

“To avoid today’s situation, the whole world should put effort. The Forest Code should change. The attitude to the forest should change. And we should get to implement a sustainable forest management system. And the timber sector should be decriminalised at the state level, otherwise, there may not be any forest left in 15 years. We already feel a deficit of forest.”

“The decisions made in Moscow in the last 30 years don’t get to the regions”

Ecologist Aleksandr Vodyanik, an adviser to the mayor of Krasnodar and expert in issues of creation of the comfortable urban environment and green zones, is sceptical about the initiative of the Russian Ministry of Nature. Aide to the secretary of the Russian Public Chamber, expert of the programme Comfortable Environment in the Project Office for Arctic Development (POAD) Vodyanik supposes that there might be no question to the ministry’s decisions. But these decisions aren’t then applied in practice.

“The decisions made in Moscow in the last 30 years don’t get to the regions. And if they do, they get in a way you can't imagine. Moreover, what is created in Moscow doesn’t get to Siberia at all. There is such a “wild field”. The ministry finds it hard to check the execution of its own orders and decisions because of remoteness. Not the ban on forest exports is the case because our people will anyway find loopholes to avoid the bans. How much have we talked about a normal, regulated export of Siberian wild plants? And there is no advance. And we can’t say that Moscow hasn’t made some necessary decisions, while illegal export goes on,” Aleksandr Vodyanik notes sadly.

It should be reminded that scientists of the Krasnoyarsk Scientific Centre of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences expressed an opinion in early August that the forest in Siberia would be able to recover after the current fires no earlier than in 60-100 years. So a pine or larch in the south of Siberia can grow into a mature plant in 60-70 years. “Consequently, a century might not be enough to restore forests in the northern taiga where severe fires are burning now,” senior research fellow of the forest pyrology laboratory of the Sukachyov Institute of Forest of the Krasnoyarsk Scientific Centre of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences Aleksandr Bryukhanov explained. 3 million hectares of forest was on fire, while now, according to Director of the Institute of Forest Aleksandr Onuchin, it is already 8 million hectares.

By Sergey Afanasyev