May 2, 2004


KRASNOYARSK, Russia - Illegal logging and controversial business plans have ecologists raising the alarm in Siberia's scenic Krasnoyarsk region, Russia's prime forestry area and vital to a country struggling under massive air pollution.

"From Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, the taiga stretches without limit. Does it have an end? When you are on the top of a mountain, you see mountains all around... And all is covered by a dense forest. It gives you shivers," Anton Chekhov wrote in the 1890s.

But the famed writer's days are past, and now the sight is different -- criminal logging and arson gnaw at the sea of trees.

"In Russia, up to 30 percent of tree logging is illegal. Depending on the region, the wood then goes to Scandinavian countries or China," said Yevgeny Shvarts of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

"They do it quickly, a team of five or six people take a big truck, cut a large area and send the wood to China. It makes a good profit," lamented Galina Kuzmina, deputy head of Krasnoyarsk's forest protection center.

In addition, 2,000 fires last year alone -- most of them due to arson -- and the Siberian bombyx parasite has devastated entire swaths of the region's forest, she said.

But the government's new forestry code, which is still being drafted and allows the regions to privatise forest zones, is what troubles Russian ecologists most.

The Russian forest is currently almost entirely managed by the "leskhozes," local forestry administrations, which hand out licences to the lumberjacks and their firms.

"After the privatisation experience of the 1990s, public opinion will not stand for privatisation of forests," Shvarts fumed.

Environmentalists also fear that the new code would bar millions of Russians from the forests, who make their living by collecting cedar kernels, mushrooms and berries.

"They say here that Russal," the giant Krasnoyarsk-based aluminum producer, "is ready to buy up the region's entire forest," Kuznina said.

The government in turn hopes to encourage the creation of wood refining factories and paper and cellulose plants.

Russia, 70 percent of whose massive territory is covered by forests, nets 4.5 billion dollars (3.8 billion euros) annually from wood exports, but could profit more if it could refine wood at home rather than ship the raw material to be treated abroad.

The region's governor Alexander Khloponin has ambitious plans to chop down 49 million cubic meters (1715 million cubic feet) of wood annually where only five million cubic meters are now harvested.

"This would require important forestry territories and big investors who would build roads and replant forests as needed, like they do in Finland," he noted.

The governor hopes to attract enough capital to set up a cellulose factory, which would profit from the region's low energy prices.

However, he said he thought privatisation plans were too hasty, arguing that the industry could pass into the private sector only after the state set up efficient control systems -- which could take up to 15 years.

Informant: NHNE


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