Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

Battling Siberia's devastating illegal logging trade

By Alfonso Daniels
BBC News, Dalnerechensk, Russia

Timber bound for China
Russia sends huge quantities of timber to China (EIA picture)

Wagons brimming with logs accumulate in the Siberian railway station of Dalnerechensk, more than 8,000km (4,971 miles) east of Moscow. They are waiting to cross the nearby Chinese border.

Once in China, they will be processed and used for construction or turned into garden furniture and other products to be sold in European and US shops.

More than a third of all Russian logs are smuggled by mafias, a practice that doubled between 2005 and 2007, according to official figures.

It is a huge business. China imports nearly six out of 10 logs produced in the world, after banning logging in its own territory following devastating floods a decade ago.

In total, 10m cubic metres of wood, equivalent to nearly a third of all logging in the Amazon, is harvested every year from Russian soil.

This fuels a massive illegal business that threatens to destroy the largest forest on the planet in 20 to 30 years, according to Forest Trends, an international consortium of industry and conservation groups.

My boss has a guy who shuts up anyone creating problems or speaking too much
"Yevgeni", illegal logger

Small logging brigades of some four men, with the help of trucks, are behind most illegal felling.

The head of one of these brigades, a burly young former policeman calling himself Yevgeni, agreed to tell me how the system operated from the inside, on condition his identity was not revealed.

"Quick, jump in the car! I'll be shot if I'm seen with a journalist," he orders as I arrive in a forest clearing.

"My boss has a guy who shuts up anyone creating problems or speaking too much," he explains later.


Illegal loggers usually carry guns, says Yevgeni, have sophisticated saws that cannot be heard beyond a dozen metres and place watchmen with satellite phones to warn of intruders.

Logging in Siberia
Environmental activists say valuable tree species are being taken (Picture by Roman Fadeev, BROC)

Once they deliver the logs to the sawmills, according to Yevgeni, the mafia "legalises" them by bribing officials.

"Most are corrupt - inspectors, policemen, they all protect each other," he says.

Nowhere are the effects of their activities more evident than in the remote mountain villages in the heart of Primorsky region, the last refuge of Siberian tigers.

Anatoly Lebedev, an ex-KGB agent who is now a prominent environmental activist, accompanies me to one of these places.

"In northern Siberia loggers leave a trail of destruction," he says.

"Here, the forests seem fine, but they're actually dead. They're taking the most valuable species like Korean pine, oak and linden, which are key to maintaining the ecosystem. It's a disgrace," he says.

On the way to the village, he jumps up and shouts: "Look! There goes one."

Mr Lebedev points to a truck laden with logs emerging from a small path in the forest.

Dry rivers

Hours later we arrive in the tiny village of Limolniki, a collection of wooden tin-roofed houses.

Nicolai Lizun, a 76-year-old retired civil servant wearing military fatigues, explains that during the Soviet period, the state logging company prevented any illegal activities.

"Now it's all out of control. Illegal loggers working for outside companies come here, destroy everything and leave. It's barbaric."

Russian forestry inspectors
Anatoly Kabaniets (left) and Alexander Samoilenko have both suffered for their work as forestry inspectors

Next to him, Vitali Tereshchuk, 21, says: "We used to collect strawberries, mushrooms and ginseng. We went hunting, but now the hills are logged, the rivers are dry and soon there will be nothing left."

The powerful Russian mafia barons behind this booming illegal business lavish their money on flashy mansions in the region's capital, Dalnerechensk.

But Alexander von Bismarck, from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-governmental organisation or NGO, says the main beneficiaries are Chinese mafiosi and businessmen.

"There's pressure on forests in north-western Russia, touching Scandinavia, but the main problem is in far-eastern Siberia where the mafia is particularly violent," Mr Bismarck told me.

"We went to a dozen Chinese wood-processing companies across the border and most told us that they export all over Europe."

Russian forest inspectors I spoke to said there was little they could do against such well-funded and organised gangs.

Their situation is made worse by the firing of thousands of their colleagues when the then president, now prime minister, Vladimir Putin scrapped the Forest Service in 2001.

Deadly risk

Alexander Vitrik, a local senior inspector, says that in the few cases where someone is arrested, pressure to stop trials is huge from the top levels of government.


"I can't give names, but they're protected by very influential people," he says.

Mr Vitrik admits that corruption among inspectors is rife, but declines to go into detail.

Despite these problems, some inspectors vow to keep on fighting.

Alexander Samoilenko, 57, whom I find in an off-road vehicle donated by a Western NGO, is dressed in military fatigues and armed with a rifle and camera to record evidence against any offender.

"Since March, I've only been given 600 litres of gas to patrol seven million hectares," he says.

Mr Samoilenko says those behind the illegal logging set fire to his car and then tried to burn down his parents' house, but failed.

His colleague Anatoly Kabaniets, sitting in the driver's seat, smiles when hearing this: "All this small stuff doesn't perturb us. My son worked as an inspector and was murdered, but we'll never give up."

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