Can China log the whole forest in the south of Siberia? If you offer it, they will
WWF specialist Konstantin Kobyakov about how much our forest costs and how much contraband goes abroad
Konstantin Kobyakov, the coordinator of projects on high conservation value forests at the World Wildlife Fund of Russia, in the interview with Realnoe Vremya, tells us about whether the Russian forest industry will have enough own resources, whether China can export all forests in southern Siberia, and why the growth of forest area is not an indicator of good work of the Russian Federal Forestry Agency.
“On a national scale, the problem of deforestation in Russia does not exist, unlike in tropical countries”
Konstantin, are the areas of forests in Russia decreasing?
I can start with a simple answer: no, they are not decreasing but rather growing. But it's not that simple with these areas. It is quite difficult to count them in Russia because we have a very large area of tundra forests, where it is very difficult to draw the border between forest and non-forest. Given this very floating northern border of forests, very different estimates of their area can be found.
However, for most practical purposes, this assessment is not particularly important to us because almost nothing happens in that area in terms of anthropogenic activity. Yes, fires still occur there, but the forest is then restored in 99,9% of cases without any efforts of people to plant and care for it. Taking into account climate warming, forests are gradually moving further north, and new sections of it are appearing. This gives a large increase in forest area.
But what is more important to us is what is happening to the south of these territories. Here there are examples where there was forest but it completely disappeared — as a result of human activity. This is primarily due to the construction of infrastructure facilities: gas pipelines, cities, and quarries... But if we compare these losses with the total area of forests in Russia, they will be negligible.
According to the state forest register, there are more than 700 million hectares of forest area in Russia.
What are pressing local issues?
There are several major local problems with logging for infrastructure and with fires. For example, in the south of Siberia and the Far East (Amur Oblast, Khabarovsk Krai, Primorsky Krai) fires happen every year, so forest simply does not have time to grow. And there are really noticeable forest losses due to fires. But the situation here depends on the dynamics of fires — if there are fewer of them, forests will recover without any problems.
There is a problem with the reduction of especially valuable forests — for example, such news often comes from the Caucasus. Activists and environmentalists find, for example, that in the Caucasus nature reserve they are trying to cut forests for some ski trails, road construction. Scandalous stories reach the UNESCO World Natural Heritage Committee, but such attempts still continue. This is definitely a problem.
On a national scale, the problem of deforestation in Russia does not exist, unlike in tropical countries.
Twenty percent of felling in Russia is made by quasi-legal and illegal schemes
What are the estimates of the total number of illegal logging in Russia?
First we need to answer the question: what is meant by illegal logging? Periodically, officials from the Federal Forestry Agency try to reduce everything to the fact that illegal logging is logging without documents at all. That is, if men took saws, drove a truck to a forest, sawed something and tried to sell it — this happens, of course, but the scale of this phenomenon in Russia is small. This is exactly less than 1% of the volume of logging. If only there was this…
But we have a very big quasi-legal side, when, it seems, there are some documents for logging, but other types of trees are also cut, either in large volumes, or on a larger area. These volumes, according to our estimate, make up about 20% of the total amount of logging. If now Russia officially logs about 170 million cubic metres of wood, then in addition to this more than 30 million cubic metres are quasi-legal and illegal schemes. Official agencies also have recently joined our assessments.
The Federation Council has recently issued a resolution on the problem of illegal logging in Russia. They conducted their own research and attracted their own experts. This report has a figure that illegal logging is between 16% and 20%.
Where are the biggest problems with illegal logging?
If we start from the East of Russia and move to the West, then this is Primorsky Krai, Khabarovsk Krai, and partially the Jewish Autonomous Oblast — there are valuable timber species and it is very profitable to engage in illegal logging there. There is a special WWF report, in which we compare how much valuable wood is officially allowed to be logged and how much of this wood passed through the nearest customs points. In the Far East, the situation is very convenient for checking in this regard.
Almost everything that is logged there is exported, and there is almost no processing at the domestic level. It turned out that valuable species (oak, ash) were exported 2-5 times more than was allowed to be logged.
We have made some efforts to protect valuable forests. For example, we managed to get a ban on cutting Korean pine, which grows in the Far East. There is still a problem with oak and ash, but it is not as big as before. Now we already record an export excess of not 2 times but a maximum of 20%.
Then we have Siberia. In terms of illegal logging, this is primarily Irkutsk Oblast. There are no expensive woods, usually they log softwood — pine, spruce, fir. Good wood is logged under the guise of sanitary felling (sick, damaged and shrinking trees). The volumes are large, although now much attention is focused on this problem, and they have significantly decreased in the last year. It is clear that this is stimulated by demand from China, which does not care about the legality of our logging at all — in contrast to the European market, where there are a number of regulations to counter illegal trade.
Then the Caucasus. There, too, precious wood grows, which is associated with a significant part of the illegal turnover. But the export volume of valuable woods from the Caucasus is much less than from the Far East. There is no such bottomless barrel like China nearby where any amount of wood can go. In general, everything is processed locally. The volumes are not the largest, but the percentage of illegal logging is high.
We can also mention Leningrad Oblast, where there is also a serious problem with sanitary felling.
There are already a lot of videos on Youtube where people with irritation comment on cars with wood passing to China or huge stacked bundles of wood ready to be transported. Can China export all forests in southern Siberia?
If you offer it, they will. Still, it is important to consider the problem from the point of view that forests is our concern, not the Chinese's. Of course, it is good when someone tries to solve it for us and introduces a measure against the purchase of illegally cut forest, as Europe and the United States do. But we should not expect that China will also make sure that we have legal logging.
On the other hand, the volume of roundwood that is exported is not so large in percentage terms. It is less than 16-17% of the total volume of logging. In other words, we do not have a situation where the entire forest is exported as roundwood.
In Russia, measures were taken to reduce the supply of roundwood for export, increased duties and quotas were introduced — and the volume has significantly been reduced as a result. But China has largely replaced this volume of roundwood with exports from other countries, including the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
“The US, despite the huge GDP, does not consider it shameful to sell wood for export”
Do the United States ship its roundwood to China? I can't believe it.
Yes. Sea transport is one of the cheapest. The main thing is to have access to it. We just have a problem with that. The United States, despite its huge GDP, does not consider it shameful to sell wood for export and replace us in the forest market in China.
At the same time, we cannot say that we have a huge growth in processing in Russia. Basically, everything was limited to the fact that they began to sell wood to China in the form of boards.
Prohibitive measures can work, but in combination with others, not alone. We need a set of measures to support the woodworking sector. Simple restrictions and bans have changed almost nothing for the Russian forest sector.
How much does the Russian forest cost?
On average, a roundwood of a small pine tree costs 3-4 thousand rubles per a square metre, and the price of a large one reaches 6-7 thousand. For the most precious woods, everything is more difficult. There are rare woods prohibited for logging that are smuggled out. It is juniper, boxwood, maackia, castor aralia, sycamore etc. Among the valuable species that can be logged and officially exported, the most valuable are beech, oak, and ash. Their price depends even more on the quality and diametre of the tree. If approximately, then 9-12 thousand rubles per cubic metre of average quality and up to 50 thousand — for high quality. But there is a very large share of illegal money turnover. I gave you only official figures, the real price can start from 20 and reach 100 thousand per cubic metre.
Is there only one tree cut down in a cubic metre of pine, or more?
Quite on average, you can assume that in there is one tree in a cubic metre. This is suitable for the northern and middle taiga, where there are main volumes of logging. Wood reserves in the taiga zone can be estimated at 200 square metres per hectare, also on average.
“We are already entering a crisis of forest supply”
Are there any global problems for forestry in Russia? For example, how big problems does the oil and gas industry create?
The contribution of the oil and gas sector to deforestation and environmental degradation is certainly there. The biggest problems with this are in Siberia. Now there is a very developed oil and gas infrastructure, a lot of main and local pipelines — respectively, this is due to spills and emissions. The conversion of forests to non-forest areas and their fragmentation is all there, but I wouldn't say that this is a global problem.
If we talk about problems in forestry in general, the main one is that we have almost no forestry. Theoretically, it should provide people with forest for various purposes. A good forest should be grown both for timber harvesting and for social needs. In suburban areas and green areas, there should also be a convenient well-groomed forest for recreation. The latter is not developed at all in our country. Historically, our forestry saw its task only in providing for the needs of the forest industry.
But our forestry does not perform even this task. In reality, as I said, forests are not getting fewer, the area is even growing. But for industry, it is not just any forest that is important. Young aspen forests are not very interesting to them. The most expensive raw material, if you do not take rare hardwoods, is large coniferous wood. And it's getting less and less. In reality, we are already entering a crisis of forest supply.
Forest industry enterprises in Russia really do not have enough wood. This is because we do not have a forestry sector, and in general it did not exist in Soviet times, with the exception of certain regions in the low-forest zone. There was only an imitation of it.
Forest seemed to be planted, but then there was no care for it. As a result, it turns out that on the site of logging, instead of spruce or pine trees, aspen grows. Even if spruce trees are planted after logging, they will still die without proper care — they will be drowned out by fast-growing deciduous trees. But this aspen tree is not in demand by the industry, there is nowhere to use it. Yes, the spruce forest here will grow naturally — but only in 100-150 years. But current enterprises are unlikely to live up to this time.
This is a real problem that is unknown to the general public. Its presence is strongly denied by our forest officials, who report everywhere on reforestation areas: “We restore forests more than we cut.” What is more, out of the number of restored forests, forest plantations are only less than 20%. The remaining 80% includes the so-called “promotion of reforestation”. In other words, they come to the forest, see that it started to grow — so the job is done. But then there is no maintenance of this forest at all. And this system works like in our garden. If you plant tomatoes in the garden in the spring, and then the next time you come in autumn in the hope of harvesting, then there will be no tomatoes there.
In nature, forests are restored through the change of species. In our taiga, on the site of a felled or burned coniferous forest, first pioneer species grow — aspen, birch, and after 60-80 years they are replaced by coniferous species. And only after 150 years, coniferous forest is restored. But the cycle of work of modern enterprises in the forest industry is designed for 60-80 years.
Now we get that there are neither forestry products nor forestry. There is even nowhere to get the planned volume of timber harvesting — either you need to go into unproductive tundra forests, or die. That's the choice we have now.