Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Russia’s Forests Need to be Saved Not Just from Fires but from Moscow, Activists Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 20 – Russians generally think about their country’s forests only when there are fires, conflagrations that are destroying up to eight million hectares of them each year. But the government in its complicity with various firms and foreign countries and by its failure to care for the future of this renewable resource is destroying even more.

            Typically, these problems are discussed separately with fires viewed as natural phenomena that may get out of hand, and government land management as completely separate; but in fact, they are deeply intertwined with the latter making the former far worse than would otherwise be the case.

            At present, Moscow officials say the country is losing 0.5 to 2.5 million hectares of forest to fires each year, but experts say that the actual figure is closer to 8 million. And they insist that this is the direct result of government policies, including both the destruction of the forest management system and the illegal logging the authorities have permitted.          

            As a result, some concerned about the forests and the future are asking whether Russia should return to the Soviet approach to forestry, one that with all of its shortcomings nonetheless protected the forest far more effectively than the current regime has. Dmitry Kokko of Svobodnaya pressa examines these discussions (svpressa.ru/society/article/285132/).

            Anna Rybalova, who heads the EkoSigal project of the For Truth Party, says that “forest fires and illegal cutting are inflecting unjustified harm to the environment of the country.” To prevent that from continuing, the country must revise its approach to forestry or it may face a future without sufficient forests.

            Vladimir Kedrov, an environmentalist, adds that the current system in Russia deserves no more than a grade of C minus, not so much because of the growing extent of fires as because of government policies that not only have led to the more and larger fires but to the destruction of forests through excessive harvesting.

            At the start of the Putin era, the Kremlin pushed through a new forest code, one based on the premise that in an age of capitalism, there was no role for the government. The forestry service was gutted with hundreds of thousands of its staff fired in the name of saving money, and many of them turned to illegal cutting because there was money to be made there.

            The government officially transferred all responsibility for the forests to the regions but did not give them the resources to control the situation, preferring to allow, often as a result of corrupt deals, Russian businessmen or foreign firms from China and elsewhere, to come in and do whatever they wanted.

            In Soviet times, Kedrov says, the country had a branch of aviation devoted to fighting fires. Now, that exists “only on paper.” It had fire monitoring towers across the country. But now most of those are abandoned. And as a result, no one knows what is going on beyond the urban areas – and companies are taking advantage of that.

            What is especially disturbing, he continues, is the complete collapse of reforestation efforts. In Soviet times, the branch was expected to reseed 150 hectares for every 100 lost in fires. Now, when 100 hectares burn, the government requires reseeding only one. “The powers call themselves a social state, but this in fact is anti-social.”

            Kedrov says that the only way forward to avoid disaster is to recreate a forestry ministry and to fund it adequately from the center. But everything is moving in the opposite direction now, and over the last five or six years, he says, staffing for forestry has declined precipitously. As a result, Russia’s forests are at risk not only of fires but from the government.

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