To Russia, with love

WITH over 60 per cent of the world's reserves of non-tropical and largest stretch of boreal forests in the world, Russia holds the most important carbon pool in the northern hemisphere. A recent decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to include the virgin forests of Russia's Komi region in its World Heritage list, came as a relief for Russia's environmentalist groups.

The announcement followed a year-long Greenpeace campaign to stall logging projects in the area, famed for its six million ha of untouched softwood forestis - one of the world's largest stretches after the Amazons, and also one of the three surviving virgin forest belts left in Europe.

Russia's forests have regularly been falling prey to indiscriminate logging operations - at least 300 ha being axed daily. Over 1994, timber exports had risen by 100 per cent, unnerving the conservationists.

"We realise that export of timber is inevitable under the present circumstances," says Elena Surovikina, a coordinator for Greenpeace Russia's biodiversity campaign. "So for now, we are calling for a three-pronged forest policy. Firstly, final clearing of forests in any given zone must be stopped. Secondly, there is a need for more eco-friendly logging methods - the equipment and methods currently used in Russia are disastrous for the forest ecosystems. And thirdly, reforestation efforts must be stepped up."

A Greenpeace report for 1995 speculated that in Russia, forest areas lost to road b6ilding, horticultural ventures and even construction of country homes for the nouveau riche last year could be as much as 10 million ha. Surovikina revealed that state forestry agencies (Leskhozy) are bankrupt with no funds for fighting fires, guarding forests from illegal loggers or even for reforestation drives.

The Komi forests' new found status has strengthened hopes of the green groups. However, now the Karelian green belt on the Russian-Finnish border is in the eye of the storm. The 900 km-long green belt covers several vegetation zones and is home to several animal species.

Karelian authorities are obviously reluctant to abandon the lucrative project; instead, they are demanding recompensation from the European Union for their loss. Meanwhile, the local government is trying to push through a gold mining project in the area, much to the environmentalists' ire, who fear that more than 100,000 ha of forests may be destroyed in this venture.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been accused of imposing a comprador style economy on Russia. Last year, as a condition for granting a us $6.3 billion loan to Moscow, the IMF demanded full liberalisation of Russia's export system, including the natural resources sectors. Subsequently, dozens of firms joined the race to sell lumber and reap a huge profit margin. Wood in the Siberian taiga which fetches us $3 per cubic metre, sells in neighbouring Japan for us $60.

Nathaniel Trumbull, co-author of a book on natural resource use in the Soviet era, sums up the situation aptly, "By applying competitive Western economic practices to a largely unregulated natural resource market, the Russian government now risks squandering its natural resource, creating long-term economic loss and great environmental harm to Russia."