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By Dmitry Mickiewicz, translated and published on Counterpunch and on New Cold War.org, Friday, May 27, 2016. Original published on Strana.ua, March 28, 2016, translation by New Cold War.org. Further below is extensive related reading.

Over the past two years, the forest cover in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine has been thinned drastically by human cutting of the trees. Environmentalists warn of impending disaster, but officials assure that the situation is under control.

Clearcut logging of Carpathian Mountains in eastern Ukraine, 2014-16

Clearcut logging of Carpathian Mountains in eastern Ukraine, 2014-16

Forests in the Ukrainian Carpathians are on the verge of extinction as the country faces an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions, environmentalists say. Ilegal loggers are illegally trafficking abroad entire trains of fir trees, earning millions of dollars. According to local residents, deforestation has dramatically intensified over the past two years.

The scale of the disaster can be seen in shocking photos of bird’s eye views of cleared mountain slopes which have been were published on the Internet. One of these photos is the southern slope of the Popadia Mountain at the junction of the Zakarpattia and Ivano-Frankivsk regions of the country, where logging is strictly prohibited by law.

Clearcut logging of Carpathian Mountains in eastern Ukraine, 2014-16 2

Clearcut logging of Carpathian Mountains in eastern Ukraine, 2014-16 2

Before the Maidan revolution of 2013, trees were growing quite densely. Now, less than three years later, a huge bare spots have formed. The green Carpathian Mountains are gradually turning into a desert. According to the deputy Yuri Gnepa of the Zakarpattia Regional Council, in the Mizhgirya district of Zakarpattia region, 40,000 cubic meters of wood were being cut down earlier. Now it is about 100,000.

Officials deny mass uncontrolled felling of trees. They say the rate of cutting complies with the norms of the preservation of the forest resource. The head of Lviv Regional Forestry and Hunting Agency, Anatoly Dejneka, says his agency is fighting illegal felling.

“Electronic registration of timber has been introduced in forestry enterprises. A special marker with a bar code is attached to each load of logs, through which we can determine the characteristics of the wood and the place where the trees were felled. What is going on in the woods will be able to be traced on the forestry agency website,” he says.

Wood sold abroad

Map showing Carpathian Mountain range

Map showing Carpathian Mountain range

In the opinion of some experts, the native mountains could become even more thinned out because authorities want to allow the free export abroad of cut timber. The government of President Petro Poroshenko has proposed that the Verkhovna Rada cancel the ten-year moratorium on the export of unprocessed timber (roundwood) that was approved in 2015. This has caused mixed reaction among experts.

“The timber export moratorium was aimed to protect forests from destruction and to support the domestic wood processing industry, which is breathing its last,” says Igor Sheludko, an expert on forestry.

“Instead of timber going to Ukrainian enterprises and feeding our workers and the economy, logs are being sold massively to our neighbors in western Europe. But this is unprofitable. One cubic meter of raw material costs 80-90 dollars, whereas treated lumber has a value ten times higher. We have to develop our own production. Ukraine is becoming a raw materials appendage.

“The EU countries did not like our moratorium on timber exports because they buy that timber from us for a song and then make furniture to sell back to us at high prices.”

European governments even provide subsidies to companies to export timber from Ukraine. But the same governments cherish their own forests. In Poland, Slovakia and Romania, trees are not cut on an industrial scale. Moreover, Romanians equate illegal felling to threats to national security.

In Sweden and Germany, to take another example, entire commissions are created to request permission from local residents when even one valuable tree is proposed for cutting. In Ukraine, the rate of cutting has reached some 300,000 hectares per year. At this rate, in a couple of years will be no more forest in the Carpathians.

The forests in Ukraine are being cut with virtual impunity. Only occasionally are loggers penalized, and even then the fines are ridiculously low. Those who illegally fell trees on a large scale are mere pawns; over them stands the forest mafia, protected by large interests. The sale of timber feeds local police, customs officials, prosecutors and influential thugs, who in turn provide cover for the illegal contraband. European customs officers collude in the trade, as well. It all deprives the public purse of Ukraine of billions of hryvnia.

Notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, economic consultant Eduard Naumenko advocates the abolition of the raw timber export moratorium. “The ban on the export of round timber is contrary to the [post-Maidan] Association Agreement with the European Union and the conditions of Ukraine’s membership in the World Trade Organisation because with the cessation of timber exports comes less national income as well as problems in accessing international credit. It is bad for the economy as a whole

“Besides, the moratorium will be lifted with conditions. Cutting rights will be sold at auction without the right to export. Only that which is left after auction can be bought by foreigners”

According to Naumenko, the moratorium has not helped solve the problem of deforestation. “Before its introduction six months ago, tree cutting happened at a savage rate to beat the looming deadline. For example, in Bukovina just two months before the moratorium, nine times the amount of wood was exported compared to before.

“Even after the legal ban came into force, railway carriages loaded with logs continued to go abroad. Illegal traders always know how to circumvent the ban. What is needed is tight control over cutting. ”

They cut healthy trees they say are rotting

Sources in forest enterprises in western Ukraine as well as environmentalists have told Strana [‘Country’] of schemes to illegally fell timber and the amount of profit earned. “The most common practice is cutting under the guise of tending old forests,” explained ecologist Olga Wojtowicz. “Healthy trees are cut after they are written off as rotten and dying.

“Another scenario is logs being taken under the guise of firewood and multiple loads of timber on the same harvesting permit. This can be combated by means of inspections and commissions, but we know that inspectors in Ukraine can be bribed.

“To solve these problems, at least in part, rules permitting cutting of supposedly unhealthy trees should be cancelled.”

Some of the most ruthless felling is taking place near the presidential residence in Guta, Ivano-Frankivsk region. Day and night, the locals are knocking down the native forest. The roads in these parts see almost around-the-clock scurrying of dozens of trucks laden with logs, making the landscape look like scenes after bombings.

Before, rivers were used to transport logs, but this is more difficult and expensive. In every second village, there is a mini-lumber mill that cuts fir trees into planks, after which the lumber is transported to neighboring Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.

A local resident confessed anonymously to Strana that the cutting is a revenue source for many of them. In the local mountains, chic khatynki [cottages] built from forest revenue are everywhere.

A local resident who moonlights as a lumberjack confessed, “Many locals cannot survive off of tourism. One must work illegally. A cubic meter of timber on the black market fetches 600-700 dollars. Every year, tens of thousands of cubic meters of wood are trafficked from the Carpathians.

Forest workers, say locals, are self-financed and are paid very poor prices for their wood. They cut down fine-quality wood and sell it to intermediaries, who then ship the wood to the West and make tens of thousands of dollars per week.

Another local, the owner of a tourist lodge, tells us he is not associated with the forest mafia. “I have enough to live on, there is no gain in cutting the Carpathian Mountains. Because of the cutting, we have floods. We have no one but ourselves to blame for this.

“We even ask compensation from the state,” he says with indignation. What will we leave to our children? Stumps and destroyed nature? It hurts a lot to see the felling of century-old oaks. Under this new government, cutting is happening at rates higher than before.

“It’s like the amber extraction in the Rivne region, where a relative of mine lives. He says that illegal mining has grown. Before, although the police had a share in the business, there was some restraint. Today, it is complete anarchy, there is no control and no one is afraid of anything.

“The ban on the export of timber is, in practice, a useless scrap of paper.”

‘We’ll drink imported water’

Experts warn that if nothing is done, Ukraine is headed for an “environmental Armageddon”. According to ecologist Olga Wojtowicz, western Ukraine can expect more natural disasters, more floods and drought.

“The trees which protected the river banks from erosion by swollen rivers are no longer there. Now only stumps remain. Nothing now slows the rapid river currents,” explains Wojtowicz.

“At the same time, rivers and wells in villages are drying up because the trees perform a water regulation function. Their roots hold back lots of moisture. For example, a large spruce tree can hold up to three tons of water. When it is cut, the moisture evaporates. The mountain dwellers are forced to walk for kilometers to find springs.

“The destruction of the forest degrades the soil and greenhouse gases are released. Have you noticed that in recent years, summer in the cities is becoming very hot, with no fresh air? This is the consequence, in particular, of mass deforestation. It’s no accident that trees are called the lungs of the planet.

“If you do not put things in order in the forestry sector, Ukrainians will begin to suffocate. We will be drinking imported water because sources will dry up. Remember, it takes about 40 years to grow a tree into maturity.”

Related reading:

1. EU calls to lift the ban on the export of timber from Ukraine; otherwise, further funding will not be released

Published in Timer Odessa, May 18, 2016 (enclosed is full article as translated by New Cold War.org)

Ukraine will receive the second and third tranche of financial assistance from the EU only after the country lifts the ban on the export of raw timber established in April 2015. This was announced by the Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Trade of Ukraine Natalia Mykolska.

“Removing this barrier to trade is a prerequisite for the continuation of the third program of EU macro-financial assistance to Ukraine–specifically the second and third tranches amounting to 1.2 billion euros—as well as for the further liberalization of trade with the EU,” stated Mykolska, as cited by the press-office  of her ministry.

A ten-year moratorium on the export from Ukraine of unprocessed logs was passed by the Verkhovna Rada in April 2015. This was an attempt to protect domestic wood processing companies that are lacking raw log inputs due to the fact that they are going mainly for export.

The government cabinet of former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk initiated an abolition of the ban in early 2016, as this provision is contrary to the terms of the Economic Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU.

2. Ukrainian tourists publish evidence of protected Carpathian forests suffering total devastation, report and photos on Censor.net, Feb 22, 2016

3. Latest IMF mission to Ukraine May 10-18, 2016 and the state of Ukrainian government control struggle of the ‘Tisa’ border checkpoint in Zakarpattia region in western Ukraine, UNIAN News, May 14, 2016, original in English, excerpt:

… In this context, [recently appointed Prime Minister Volodymyr] Groysman recalled the case of smuggling of timber in Zakarpattia region. “There is a struggle for the checkpoint Tisa, where there is a major flow of smuggled goods,” he said. Through this checkpoint, expensive timber being illegally logged in the national parks across the Carpathians is exported from Ukraine.

In order to prevent further denuding of the Ukrainian Carpathians, the authorities took a radical step. On May 11, the Cabinet of Ministers supported the proposal of the Ministry of Environment to temporarily ban logging in forests and dismiss the head of the State Forestry. This was preceded by a trip of  Ecology Minister Semerak to the national parks in the Carpathians, where he saw firsthand the industrial scale of illegal logging.

For years, the forests in the Carpathian Mountains were destroyed under the guise of sanitary felling, but the most high-quality wood was chosen in order to export at the highest price.

It should also be noted that in the framework of the reform of the State Fiscal Service, Groysman instructed the agency to stop the illegal practices of tax police in the sphere of monitoring procurement and exports of walnuts…

4. IMF mission to Kiev makes progress towards releasing much-needed funds

Sputnik News, May 18, 2016 (full article)

WASHINGTON (Sputnik) — The International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission to Ukraine has worked out a staff-level agreement with Kiev on the reforms needed to disburse the next tranche of financial assistance from the Fund, IMF Mission Chief for Ukraine Ron van Rooden said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The mission reached staff level agreement with the authorities on policies needed to complete the second review under the EFF, subject to approval by IMF management and the Executive Board. The implementation of strong [reform] measures in these areas will pave the way for the IMF Executive Board’s consideration of the review, expected in July 2016,” van Rooden stated.

Officials from the International Monetary Fund are currently in Kiev with a nine-day visit to review the country’s loan arrangement.

5. Ukraine: Log export ban entered into force this month

Fordaq News, Nov 13, 2015 (full article)

In November 2015, the log export ban introduced by the Ukrainian Law Nr. 325-VIII (09.04.2015) entered into force.

There had been some negotiation efforts on the part of the EU Commission and the European Commissioner for Trade, Mrs Malmström, to prevent this, however they were fruitless. Thus, the law temporarily prohibits (for ten years) the export outside the customs territory of Ukraine of untreated wood from all tree species (except pine) as of November 1, 2015. The same will apply to pine as well, but later – starting from January 1, 2017.

As reported earlier, adoption of the legislative draft №1362 was favorably voted by 233 deputies while the necessary minimum of votes was 226.

The legislative draft in question stipulates a temporary ban for the following: unprocessed wood such as roundwood in the form of logs, poles etc. with moisture content exceeding 22% and sawn timber with the thickness exceeding 70 mm and moisture content more than 22%.

The law allows exports of those kinds of wood that were not mentioned above, provided that exported wood has the certificate of origin, with it being issued on the conditions regulated by the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers.

6. Data on Ukraine’s forest cover, published on Mongabay
http://rainforests.mongabay.com/deforestation/archive/Ukraine.htm

7. Chernobyl’s silent exclusion zone (except for the logging)

By Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, April 23, 2016 (enclosed is full article, go to original weblink for photos and maps)

PRIPYAT, Ukraine — The road through the forest, abandoned, is at times barely discernible, covered with the debris of fallen tree limbs, vines, leaves and moss pushing up through cracks in the crumbling asphalt.

The moss is best avoided, says our guide, Artur N. Kalmykov, a young Ukrainian who has made a hobby of coming here to the exclusion zone surrounding the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, set aside in perpetuity after the catastrophe in 1986. It can be radioactive, having carried buried radiation to the surface as it grew.

Above all, he says, watch out for windblown dust, which could well be laced with deadly plutonium.

Despite the dangers — which are actually minimal these days, except when the wind is howling — and the risk of arrest, Mr. Kalmykov is at home here. “In Kiev my head is full,” he said. “Here I can relax. I could hang out in Kiev. But this is more interesting.”

What Mr. Kalmykov and fellow unofficial explorers of the Chernobyl zone, members of a peculiar subculture who are in their 20s and call themselves “the stalkers,” have found is more interesting still: vast tracts of clear-cutting in the ostensibly protected forest.

Mr. Kalmykov, a computer programmer who discovered the clear-cut areas while exploring the zone on his weekends, took his findings to Stop Corruption, one of the civil society groups that popped up in Ukraine after the Maidan revolution two years ago, events supposed to usher in a new era of clean government in Ukraine.

And yet on Ukraine’s dirtiest patch of land, Stop Corruption says, based on the stalkers’ evidence, the under-the-table dealings of the bureaucrats who manage the area are flourishing as always. Distracted by the 30th anniversary of the catastrophe on April 26 and the general turmoil in Ukraine, the group says, the Exclusion Zone Management Agency has turned a blind eye to the Chernobyl logging.

The Zone of Alienation, as it is also known, is a rough circle with an 18-mile radius, fenced off with barbed wire. Access is strictly controlled, so that delegations and guided tours typically travel a few fixed routes. Outside those areas frequented by tourists, Stop Corruption said, under the guise of salvage logging of trees killed in wildfires, healthy pines are being felled in great numbers for sale in Ukraine and Romania, from where the timber may be resold throughout Europe.

“We thought these incidents were isolated and unimportant, but when we started to investigate, it turned out the problem was gigantic and systemic,” said Vadim V. Vnukov, the group’s head lawyer.

Lumber from Chernobyl, while not exactly glowing in the dark, would pose risks to anybody living in a house made from it, Mr. Vnukov said.

“There is a clear health risk here,” he said. “We ran into a system worked out over the decades, and under any government, this system of corruption was preserved.”

Today, scientists say, the average radiation level in the zone is about a quarter as harmful to human health as it was in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and fire. A typical reading in the zone is about 100 microsieverts per hour, or comparable to the exposure that an airplane passenger might receive on a trans-Atlantic flight.

But harmful risks lurk. Placed near the moss, for example, a Geiger counter hummed like an electric shaver. “It’s not as dangerous as it seems,” Mr. Kalmykov said with a shrug. “Some people are just radiophobic.”

In an interview in his offices in Kiev, Vitalii V. Petruk, the head of the Exclusion Zone Management Agency, denied that any illegal logging had taken place since he assumed the job in September. But since the revolution, he is the fifth director of the zone, which like the rest of Ukraine has been in a state of flux. Loggers fell burned trees after forest fires, to avoid pest outbreaks, and cut firebreaks and routes for electrical wires, he said. Since 2004, it has been legal in Ukraine to sell timber from the zone if it passes radiological controls.

Mr. Petruk is an unabashed advocate of increased commercial activity in the zone, including logging.

“How do we turn our shame into our advantage?” he said. His answer is “Zone of Change,” a proposal by his agency for increased logging to feed a chip-fueled steam power plant at the site that he noted would reduce dependence on Russian natural gas.

Into this landscape recently, one careful step after another, Mr. Kalmykov pushed deeper into a thicket of vines and fallen branches.

(To show reporters sites where he suspected illegal logging activity, Mr. Kalmykov and all in his party obtained permits to visit the zone, in contrast to his usual practice of slipping in to explore surreptitiously.)

At an abandoned house on the roadside, with the rhythmic chirp of a Geiger counter in the background and moldy children’s clothes lying about, an eerie sense arose of a sneak preview of the end of the world.

The concept of the exclusion zone, an important experiment for the nuclear industry, was to limit, through isolation, the lethality of an accident at the nuclear plant. (Fewer than 200 people stayed here after the evacuation of more than 100,000.) Radioactive elements degrade at predictable intervals, called half-lives, that can vary enormously. Particles left in the soil while their half-lives tick past harm nobody; the average particle half-life at Chernobyl is about 30 years.

But logging in a post-apocalyptic forest would pose a number of health concerns. Trees, like moss, absorb radiation from the subsoil. Also, clear-cutting churns up soil, stirring radioactive dust and accelerating erosion.

At one point along the road, the forest opens to a clear-cut area of several acres, sliced into healthy pine groves, though near a burned patch. “Look, they didn’t touch the dead trees,” Mr. Kalmykov said, pointing to the still standing, blackened pines.

“During the change in government, nobody was paying attention, and people didn’t miss this moment” to make some money, he said of the loggers. “Everybody knows. The necessary people get the necessary money.”

A logger, his sweaty face flecked with dust and sawdust, said he simply cut the trees marked by his bosses at the exclusion zone administration. “I don’t decide,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “They say we don’t need the burned logs.”

Asked if he worried about radiation, he said he did not, as by now the radiation had settled deep into the soil. “We stamp it down so it does not come out,” he said, patting the ground with his boot. “Want to buy some wood?”

8.  Kindred lands: Comparative study of mountain regions, especially the Carpathians & Appalachia, published by Berea College, Kentucky (2015?)

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