Wartime Ecology

When Western European markets stopped buying Russian timber, Russia’s largest logging company scrapped environmental protections

20 Apr 2023
Wartime Ecology
Photo: Grigvovan / Shutterstock.com

Segezha Group, Russia’s largest timber company (and part of the conglomerate Sistema, which oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov owns), has stopped observing an opt-in ban on logging environmentally valuable forests since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. After Western sanctions made “ecologically sensitive markets” unavailable to Russian timber companies, Segezha stopped abiding by the logging moratoria it had previously agreed to for important areas. The company has withdrawn 1.5 million hectares of forest (3.7 million acres) across Russia from those agreements. In Karelia, in Russia’s northwest, the company has started logging on the territory of a planned nature preserve, a large tract of old growth forest that’s home to endangered species. Experts fear that other timber companies are likely to follow Segezha’s lead and back out of their own agreements around environmental protection.

This article was translated and edited by Meduza.

“We counted on their common sense”

Between June and November 2022, Russia’s largest timber company, Segezha Group, opted out of logging moratoria in ecologically valuable forests across Russia: in Karelia, Komi, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, and Arkhangelsk. According to World Wildlife Fund data, the total forested area that Segezha withdrew from protection and may now log is 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres). In Karelia, the company has already decimated 680 hectares (1680 acres) of valuable forest.

Environmentalists told IStories that Segezha refused to protect valuable forest because the principle of sustainable land use no longer made economic sense for the company. After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the European Union imposed sanctions on the import of Russian timber products, and the international organization the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) suspended certifications for responsible forest management in Russia. To be certified, companies had to leave a certain amount of old growth forest that they leased intact. The certification made it possible for Russian timber companies to trade in European markets.

Olga Ilina, a spokesperson for a Karelia nature preservation organization called SPOK, says, “We have a long history of cooperation with Segezha. The ecological values [the company] proclaims are an absolute necessity.” But, says Ilina, Segezha stopped abiding by the moratoria on logging last year, as soon as they lost access to “ecologically sensitive markets” because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Segezha Group destroys forests that have survived to this day in almost pristine condition
Segezha Group destroys forests that have survived to this day in almost pristine condition
Photo: Karelia nature preservation organization SPOK
Deforestation of untouched forests can lead to the destruction of endangered species
Deforestation of untouched forests can lead to the destruction of endangered species
Photo: Karelia nature preservation organization SPOK

The territory that Segezha withdrew from the logging moratorium is one of the last large pieces of untouched taiga in Karelia. Researchers have found large groups of endangered northern forest deer on this territory, as well as more than 70 types of endangered plants, mushrooms, and animals. The trees there can reach 300 years old. If the company continues to develop the forest, all of these species will suffer — and so will people.

“Intact forests ensure favorable conditions. Waves of drought, extreme temperatures, rainfall at the wrong time — these dangerous weather events are connected to climate change, including the reduction of untouched forested land. There’s a lot of evidence that intact natural systems ensure a stable climate. When we destroy them, we destroy our children’s future,” says Olga Ilina.

Environmentalists in Karelia have tried to convince Segezha to preserve the ban on logging intact taiga. “They said they’re lifting the moratorium because the FSC left Russia. But this territory is valuable regardless of whether the company is certified,” said the chair of SPOK. “To be honest, we were counting on their common sense.”

In January 2023, though, SPOK employees noticed that Segezha had started logging. In the environmentalists’ view, the company violated several federal laws governing the protection of the environment, wildlife, and endangered species. 

Environmentalists appealed to Karelia’s environmental prosecutor, who contacted the region’s Natural Resources Ministry. In February, the Ministry said they’d reached an agreement with Segezha and that the company had promised to stop cutting in the territory of a planned preserve, but they emphasized that logging doesn’t violate any current legislation.

“The lesser of two evils”

If a territory does not have protected status, the only forces trying to defend it from business interests are NGOs and activists. In Karelia, SPOK has identified and tried to protect intact forests for more than 20 years. Olga Ilina says that the state has no obligation to monitor territories that lack protected status.

In Russia, protected land accounts for only 15 percent of the country’s intact forest. Much of that intact forest has been leased by timber companies, and those territories constantly shrink due to logging and forest fires. Between 2000 and 2020, Russia lost another 15 percent of its intact forested territory — more than the global average. In recent years, unprotected forests have disappeared even faster. At the current rate, they may disappear altogether in 20–30 years. To combat that trend, environmental protection organizations have, since the 1990s, tried to convince timber companies to voluntarily agree not to log certain territories. 

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Since at least the 1990s, Karelia’s untouched region of taiga has been recognized as particularly valuable. In 2007, regional planners decided to include it in a nature preserve. In the 2000s, SPOK did persuade the companies leasing untouched taiga to abstain from logging on the planned preserve and to sign moratoria to that effect. Those companies later became the Segezha group. 

“The moratoria we signed with the companies were a choice between the lesser of two evils, because saving the entire territory was impossible, the companies would never agree to that,” says Ilina. They tried, instead, to get companies to agree not to log the least fragmented, most remote parts of the taiga, where the most valuable species are.

Permanently protecting a territory from logging means obtaining special status from the government, and that can take years to achieve. In January 2023, the Karelian Research Center began that process. Even if the territory does receive special protected status a few years from now, it will be open to logging until that point.

“After us comes the Flood”

In February 2023, Segezha posted on its official Telegram channel that the company supports the Karelian Research Center’s efforts to create a preserve and that they would remove the territory in question from their logging plans. But neither an agreement with the Natural Resources Ministry, nor public support for the preserve prevented Segezha from continuing to fell trees. In early April, SPOK activists noted that the company had cut another 140 (346 acres) hectares of valuable forest. In total, since late November, the company has destroyed 680 hectares (1680 acres) of old growth — almost two percent of the planned area of the preserve.

Satellite image of the cutover area
Satellite image of the cutover area
Photo: Karelia nature preservation organization SPOK

Cutting down trees isn’t the only problem to come with developing untouched territories. “Logging in those parcels isn’t just logging, it’s also laying roads. Poachers can use the roads. That increases the risk of physical harm to animals. And it fragments an untouched mass: even a dirt road can be an insurmountable obstacle for small animals. The area where animals can live is shrinking and their numbers are declining simply because the territory where they can live normally is getting small,” said one expert on environmental legislation.

SPOK, along with around 30 other organizations from Karelia and across Russia, has appealed to the Prosecutor General about the planned preserve. But if the Prosecutor General does nothing to stop logging in the area, experts believe it will set a very dangerous precedent.

One expert calls Segezha’s decision to remove leased intact forest from its logging moratoria “a stain on the reputation” of Russia’s timber industries, noting that it will make any future return to “ecologically sensitive markets” very unlikely. Of Segezha’s decision, the expert adds, “If your planning horizon is a few months, or a year at most, and you’re not thinking generally about the future, then from a purely financial standpoint the company’s actions seem completely logical. As they say, ‘Après moi, le déluge.’”