is bracing itself for the privatization of its forests. The crucial step
in this process will be the new Forestry Code, a draft of which is to be
considered by the State Duma in the near future. An initial version of
the code, approved by the government in early spring, referred directly
to private ownership of forest land.
According to Greenpeace estimates, this could pave the way for privatization
of up to 90 percent of Russia's forests. The Natural Resources Ministry
does not seem to have any objections, apparently believing that the forests
will finally fall into "good hands."
What those hands will do with the land once it is theirs is another
matter. There can be little doubt that they will engage in the relentless
logging and export of timber. Currently, the sale of unprocessed timber
accounts for more than 50 percent of Russia's exports. If the draft code
becomes law, it will enable the sale of some 843 million hectares of forest
to private logging companies.
We are talking about big money. Forests are, like oil, one of the country's
chief riches. If private capital comes to rule the industry, the result
(as in the oil sector) will be the formation of oligarchic corporations
that control not just resources, but entire regions. The draft code also
allows the sale of forest land to foreigners. The only areas off limits
to non-residents would be those located in border zones -- national security,
after all, is priority No. 1. The rest of Russian territory, a huge swathe
of which is wooded, could be bought wholesale.
The original draft of the Forestry Code stirred up a murmur of disapproval
among environmental organizations and the wider public. Then the text
underwent some revision and some of the wording was toned down. Government
officials now try to avoid the word "privatization." As a result,
the document has become extremely ambiguous, although its general thrust
has remained unchanged. The long-term leasing proposed by the code's authors
differs little from privatization -- after 10 years of leasing, tenants
would be eligible to buy forest land outright.
Environmentalists complain of numerous technical flaws in the code and
a lack of explicitly defined rules and regulations. There are no provisions
for public oversight of forest land privatization, and the Cabinet is
even considering the possibility of privatizing nature reserves and protected
lands. Under the new code, a leaseholder who annually fells trees covering
an area of 1,000 hectares could limit replenishment efforts to a one hectare
area; formally, this would be in strict compliance with the code.
However, even if the code contained tougher regulations and mechanisms
for enforcement, they would just be ignored. Given that the government
admits its inability to control what goes on in the country's forests
now, clearly this task will become virtually impossible once the forests
are transferred to private hands. Incidentally, one of the main arguments
cited in favor of privatization is the government's inability to enforce
existing laws. The authorities are unable to prevent illegal felling and
timber smuggling -- so the answer, apparently, is to legalize them. Imagine
if in a few years we are told that the police are unable to prevent burglaries,
so it is necessary to pass a new law allowing thieves to enter our homes
unobstructed and take whatever they like.
Even Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky,
hardly a radical, has noted that "the reforms of the 1990s in Russia
have resulted in the creation of an economic system based on the complete
fusion of business and officialdom -- a system that is anti-environmental
by its very essence." If the authorities are unable to ensure order
in Russia's forests (or to protect historical monuments), it is not due
to a lack of resources or funding. When it comes to the war in Chechnya
or the maintenance of a giant bureaucracy, the government comes up with
the wherewithal, and the same goes for the upkeep of an expensive propaganda
machine. The powers that be are not interested in protecting public goods.
Indeed, their aim is quite the opposite: to facilitate the transfer of
these resources into private hands.
However, the potential impact extends far beyond the officials in the
Natural Resources Ministry and even beyond Russia's borders. Logging in
Brazil has long been a source of concern around the world. Russia's forests
are just as much the lungs of the planet as Brazil's, only for the eastern
hemisphere. If the planned reform is successfully implemented, its repercussions
will be felt throughout the whole of Europe.
Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.
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