Russia's Far East: Deforestation with a Vengeance

Deforestation on a scale rarely seen in human history is now taking place in Russia. This former Soviet Union country contains roughly 20% of the world's forests, and unsustainable logging is threatening some 19% of those forests, mostly in the area known as Russia's Far East. These are some of the largest tracts of pristine forest remaining in the world, home to many indigenous peoples and some endangered species, including the Amur tiger. We need to be concerned that a large portion of the world's "green lungs" (second only to the Brazilian rain forest) is being sliced up.

Governmental and economic uncertainty caused by the breakup of the Soviet Union has led to ineffective and even corrupt forest management practices as massive and sometimes illegal cutting sends raw logs to Japan, China, and South Korea to meet their increasing demand for timber. The environmental effect on the earth is multiplied when Russian Far Eastern trees are cut: 65% of these forests are located in the permafrost zone, so logging there creates a vicious cycle. When the frozen soil is exposed to sunlight after cutting, the top layer is converted to swamp. This swamp in turn produces methane gas from rotting organic materials, which has a greater global warming effect than CO2. The swamp also creates conditions making reforestation almost impossible.

Local economies are also affected by the new practices. Before 1992, some 70% of the Far East timber was processed at local sawmills, adding value to the wood and cutting down on wastewood. So, more income per tree stayed in the local towns. Now, only 10% of the timber is processed locally.

Will Russia be able to institute sustainable forest management practices in the near future? Only time will tell, but without clearer policies on property rights and public oversight of management decisions, uncontrolled timber exploitation will continue. The potentially devastating environmental effects will continue to be felt well beyond the Russian borders.

References:

Pacific Environment Resources Center. 2000. http://www.pacenv.org/ttrpr.htm

Shivdasani, Sacha. 2000. "Corruption and Illegal Logging in Russian Forests," Earth Times News Service. http://earthtimes.org/aug/russia_corruptionandillegalaug2_00.htm

World Resources Institute. 2000. http://www.wri.org/wri/biodiv/temperat.html