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27 Jul, 2011 05:03

Forest fires: smoke screen for illegal lumber trade

Those who say that money does not grow on trees have obviously never been to Russia. Illegal logging is thriving all across the country as people learn how to profit from natural disasters.

Fire has long had a reputation as a bad master, but in Russia these days, it is increasingly being used as a good servant. With flames terrorizing the country’s forests every summer, some unscrupulous entrepreneurs have come to use it as a cover for illegal logging. The problem has reached such proportions that even the government has realized the chips are down. “In some regions considered ‘at risk’ of heavy forest fires, illegal logging is thriving. They cut down more than authorized, and then the area is set ablaze to cover their crime. Nobody can determine how much logging was sanctioned and how much was actually cut down,” stated Viktor Zubkov, Russia’s deputy prime minister.Fires, hurricanes, flooding – illegal loggers are using all sorts of natural disasters to cover their tracks. The woods near St. Petersburg fell in the path of a major twister last year. It uprooted thousands of hectares of mature forest. Many more were chopped down afterwards by opportunist loggers, who managed to secure a permit for the hurricane clean-up.  “They’ve got a permit that allows them to take away three truckloads of debris – a job that could be done in a few days. Yet their permit is valid for three weeks. You can easily guess the rest,” said Sergey Vinogradov from Green Patrol.Russia possesses about one fifth of the world’s forest resources. While the government contends that illegal logging accounts for just a few per cent of all timber production, environmental activists say the scale of the problem is much greater.  “We believe that 20 to 25 percent of all logging in Russia is carried out illegally. The figures are higher than a decade ago and are still rising,” Aleksey Yaroshenko from Greenpeace told RT.On a par with the Amazon rainforest, the vast Siberian greenery is often referred to as the lungs of the planet. At close examination, though, you would see it scarred all over the place.  Most of the illegal Siberian lumber goes to China. And while the locals already see the impact of deforestation on their own lives, they say their only other option would be far worse.The government officials say the state is doing everything it can to combat illegal logging. New legislation has just come into force. The number of forest rangers will be increased. In the meantime, however, the woodchips are still falling where they may. According to experts, it is the state’s inability to see the wood for the trees that is one of the main reasons why illegal logging in Russia is so widespread and so prone to any sort of punitive action. The federal authorities may condemn the practice all they want, but the current economic and regulatory environment ultimately makes the clandestine chopping of trees far more profitable and easy to carry out than doing it the “legal” way.