Siberian tigers under threat as 'timber mafia' devastate Russian forests

Illegal logging in Russia
Illegal timber is transported in the Tayozhniy Wildlife Refuge, Far East Russia, in 2010. Photo: Michael Stuewe/WWF
Criminal gangs are increasingly smuggling Russian timber into China for manufacture into baby cribs, picture frames and toilet seats sold in the west. Those trying to thwart them face violence and corruption. Sebastian Strangio reports from Vladivostok

The Chinese city of Suifenhe sprawls amid the dun-coloured hills of eastern Manchuria, sitting astride the Chinese Eastern Railway at the point where it crosses the Russian frontier. Founded in the nineteenth century as an outpost of the Tsarist empire, the city is today a typical Chinese boom town of shopping centres and towering apartment blocks, some topped with onion domes in architectural homage to the city’s origins.

The city remains an important point of contact between the two countries: each day, busloads of Russian day trippers cross the border to buy up cheap Chinese clothes and electronics; to accommodate them, many Chinese signs are echoed in the angular Cyrillic script.

The city is also the main transit point for a pernicious and largely unacknowledged international trade in illegal timber. Environmentalists say thousands of cubic metres of Russian hardwoods are being illegally exported by train through Suifenhe each day, prompted by a rising Chinese demand and a culture of official corruption and fear – a trade that also threatens the world’s last remaining populations of Siberian tigers.

In Suifenhe, signs of the timber trade are readily apparent. As the railway wends its way into the city centre, it passes through a seemingly endless series of timber yards piled high with uncut logs and milled timber planks. From the town of Pogranichny on the Russian side, about 15 kilometres distant, trucks rumble along towards the Chinese frontier, laden down with wooden planks.

In China, the timber is processed into finished consumer products such as baby cribs, picture frames and wooden toilet seats, which are then exported. Many of the products end up on the shelves of major retailers in the West – the innocuous endpoint of a damaging global market chain. Despite constant statements of concern from the Russian authorities, the Far East’s logging industry is 'now beyond federal control, and overrun by criminal gangs', according to those behind Dark Forest,  a recent TV exposé of the official corruption at the heart of the trade.

Most illicit timber originates in the conifer-broadleaved forests of the Sikhote-Alin Mountain Range, which extends northward from Russia’s Primorksy region for more than a thousand kilometres. In a 2007 report the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) described the region as containing 'one of the most diverse assemblages of plant and animal species in temperate forests anywhere on the planet.'

Vital habitat

Known to environmentalists as the Ussuri taiga, the area is home to an unusual profusion of hardwood species, including varieties of ash, maple, elm and oak. It also supports the last remaining populations of Siberian tiger, the largest of the world’s big cats, whose wild population now numbers in the hundreds. Denis Smirnov, the head of the forestry program at the World Wildlife Fund’s Amur branch office, says that by destroying the food sources of tiger prey such as wild boar, illegal logging could endanger the existence of the Siberian tiger in the wild.

'There’s a direct link between the damage caused by illegal logging and the state of the tiger population,' says Smirnov, a St. Petersburg native who has been working in the Far East on environmental issues for the past nine years.

Rogue timber operators gained a foothold in the Russian Far East following the fall of the Soviet Union, when many of the region’s remote logging towns were hit by unemployment after the collapse of state support for the industry. Many jobless former loggers have since turned to illegal small-scale timber harvesting as a way of making ends meet.

'Providing their services to the "Forest Mafia" is often their only source of income,' states a recently leaked diplomatic cable from the US Consulate in Vladivostok, dated January 2009. 'Established companies are often finding it more profitable to use the services of these out-of-work villagers cutting down trees in unauthorised areas than to use legal, established channels.' Demand was also spurred by the opening of the Chinese border in the mid-1990s and the imposition of Chinese logging bans in response to flooding in northeast China in 1997.

Around 60,900 cubic metres of hardwoods are illegally exported from Far East Russia each year, according to lowball official figures, but the WWF puts the annual total at 'at least 1 million', a figure calculated by comparing the permitted amount of export logging with estimates of the actual exports. 'It’s incomparable, the detected and the actual,' Smirnov says. 'According to our evaluation, the percentage of the share of illegal wood in this hardwood flow is up to 75 per cent.'

According to the WWF, an estimated 30 per cent of illegal timber originates from legitimate concession holders, who underestimate the amount of timber stock in their concession areas and then covertly export the remainder. A larger concern, however, are the small- and medium-scale operators who work beneath the official radar in protected areas. A widely-abused loophole is to apply for a license to conduct 'sanitary' logging – the removal, for maintenance purposes, of dead or dying trees – which is then used as legal cover for the clear-felling of valuable hardwood. Rigorous customs inspections can easily be sidestepped through the use of forged legal documents or fraudulent declarations.

Undercover sting

In 2009, an undercover Russian documentary film crew sat down in a plush hotel lobby with Pyotr Diyuk, the head of the Primorsky region’s forest management authority. The journalists, posing as timber merchants, chatted casually with Diyuk about the region’s illegal logging problem, filming his responses with a concealed camera. Though they had taken care to conceal their identities as reporters, they probably had little expectation that Diyuk, a round-faced oligarch clad in a designer jacket, would give them such a brazen assessment of the official corruption at the heart of the Russian timber industry.

'Do you understand what logging means?' he asked the journalists, with an air of jaded resignation. 'It means everybody steals. They steal diesel, produce, chains, wood.' Diyuk went on to admit that the government planned to hold rigged auctions for ecologically-significant patches of woodland – even those protected under law. 'There is one remaining nut-harvesting zone, which is impossible to lease because the "greens" would raise hell,' he said. 'We just do intermediate logging there through the state logging enterprise. So, this year or the next, and the forest simply won’t be there.'

Diyuk continued: 'Everybody is stealing, everybody! That’s how we’re brought up. To sit out the working day, take our wages and steal something.'

When the team’s documentary, Dark Forest, was aired on the country’s Rossiya TV channel in May 2010, it sparked public outrage. Primorsky governor Sergei Darkin was forced to remove Diyuk from his post, and Moscow promised investigations.

While they shocked the public, the film’s allegations should not have come as a surprise to the federal government. In 2008, Valery Roshchupkin, head of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resource’s Federal Agency for Forestry, had expressed concerns about the thinning of the Far East’s forests. That year, he issued a report claiming that the country was putting in place a new national forest policy, including 'a tough customs policy', to staunch the flow of illegal timber.

Whatever Moscow’s official expression of concern, the disincentives for illegal operators remain overwhelmingly weak: the cost of operating 'legally' in Russia, with its heavy burden of taxes and unofficial 'fees', makes on the books forestry largely unprofitable.

Anatoly Lebedev, a Vladivostok-based ecologist who has been campaigning against illegal logging since the early 1990s, alleges that officials at all levels are still on the take. 'This system is very specifically created by government officials – local, regional and national – and they get a good profit from this activity, and that’s why they always defend this illegal business,' he says. 'This is the essence of Russian corruption.'

Again, the case of Diyuk provides a telling example. After the airing of Dark Forest, Diyuk was removed from his post with much pomp, but merely demoted to the position of his assistant. Smirnov describes Diyuk’s demotion as a 'cosmetic' manoeuvre that left most of his practical power intact.

Battling such entrenched interests can be a risky endeavour. During the winter of 2008-09, the summer house of Yuriy Bersenev, one of Smirnov’s WWF colleagues, was burnt to the ground by unknown perpetrators. A day before the fire, which followed a Russian TV story about the organisation’s work, Smirnov said he was also the near-victim of a 'traffic accident' while on patrol in the countryside.  Other colleagues have also been found dead in mysterious circumstances. 'The son of one of our colleagues died in quite a strange traffic accident, and it has still not been investigated,' Smirnov says.

In particular danger of retribution are the local informants that apprise activists of the situation on the ground. Smirnov says residents in one Primorsky settlement who sent a series of letters to the region’s governor requesting action against illegal logging had the windows of their cars and houses shot out. Local police, he said, then 'discouraged' the residents from lodging any further complaints.

Scent of success?

In spite of the obstacles, activists they have scored some limited victories in fighting against the illegal timber trade. In 2007, WWF succeeded in getting two forest management officials fired and arrested for their complicity in helping loggers to operate in the Tayozhniy wildlife refuge, a key tiger breeding ground in the Khabarovsky region.

In a December 2007 report, the Environmental Investigation Agency turned its focus on US retail giant Walmart, claiming that many of its timber products were 'highly vulnerable to containing unsustainably and in many cases illegally-logged wood' from the Russian Far East. The report claimed that 85 per cent of Walmart’s wood products were from Russian timber sourced in China, and that its American customers risked 'financing criminal timber syndicates and forest destruction through their purchase of basic home goods'.

It also noted, however, that the company was in a good position to weed out illegally-sourced timber. 'Wal-Mart’s legendary control over its supply chain can be harnessed for positive change,' the report stated.

The following year, the US Congress passed an amendment to the Lacey Act, an existing anti-wildlife trafficking law, extending its prohibitions to the import of illegally-sourced wood and wood products. Given the amount of the timber that ends up in the American market – the US diplomatic cable cites estimates that up to 90 per cent of hardwoods from the Russian Far East reach the United States – campaigners have hailed the amendment as be another weapon in the fight against the illegal Russian timber trade. At the time the Lacey Act amendment was passed, EIA’s executive director Alexander von Bismarck said it marked 'a new phase in the global effort to improve forest governance.'

Since the report’s release, Walmart claims to have taken steps to address the issue. A representative said in an email that the retailer is part of the Wood and Paper Sustainable Value Network, which continues to focus on 'increasing the supply chain transparency of products in this category from the forest where the product is sourced to the point when it’s placed on a Walmart or Sam’s Club shelf'.

The representative said that 25 per cent of timber furniture and 35 percent of wooden picture frames sold by Walmart now carry third-party certification.

In practice, however, some say there are clear limits to enforcement from the US side. Lebedev says as many as ten trains arrive in Suifenhe from Russia each day, each bearing 60 loaded cars holding around 60 cubic metres of timber – much of it illegal.

Given the lack of regulation in China, untangling the dense web of suppliers, middlemen and manufacturers who deal with the timber between its arrival in Suifenhe and its export to the US could be an unsurmountable challenge. 'The middleman is China, and we have very little capacity to conduct serious control there,' Lebedev says.
There may also be a glimmer of hope from Moscow, where the Siberian tiger has a powerful friend in Russia’s prime minister (and avid outdoorsman) Vladimir Putin. After the international Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg in November 2010, Putin signed into law a ban on the logging of Korean pine, a nut-bearing species vital to the tiger’s survival.

Next year’s APEC Summit, when the world’s eyes will be on the host city Vladivostok, could also provide a spur for the government to investigate forestry crimes, with Moscow keen to transform the image of the Far East as a 'wild east' plagued by corruption and neglect.

'The Russian authorities are interested in maintaining the image of the Russian Far East as a good territory, a good area for foreign investors. It could be quite difficult to combine such an image with the image of an area with highly-developed illegal logging,' Smirnov says. For environmentalists, however, promises of 'comprehensive' investigations have a familiar hollow ring. 'The question is', says Smirnov, 'will it be photo campaign, or will it make real changes to the structure?'

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