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In the land of the forests: dispatch from Perm

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The Perm region once boasted well-managed forests, protected and processed for the common good. Today those forests lie abandoned or looted in the name of progress. The locals aren’t happy, but what can they do, asks Roman Yushkov?

Roman Yushkov
21 July 2011

 

From the plane window the Perm region looks like that ‘boundless sea of the taiga’ hymned in Soviet songs. And from here too, from below, it looks pretty much the same. Since childhood I’ve seen, and known, that I live amongst majestic and boundless forests. Great barges and rafts floated down the Ural rivers, into the beauty of the Kama reservoir. Endless freight trains of logs passed along the railways. The forests, made up of economically valuable species, mainly spruce and fir, were always considered one of the main strategic resources of the region. Logging and timber processing were an important part of our economy.

On the other side of the collapse

Time, however, changes priorities. In comparison with Soviet years my home of Prikamye has seen the majority of its industry dwindle and come to nothing. The region, which is about the size of the UK or France, is now purely a store of raw materials, and in reality only two things: oil and mineral fertilisers. Thus two or three giant corporations have become the sole masters of the region: the oil extractors Lukoil, along with Uralkali and Uralchem, suppliers of potassium and nitrogen fertilisers. These companies are the real power in Perm region today – they plant their own vice-governors, and fill the seats of the regional parliament with their own deputies. Almost no one needs the forests any more.

The Soviet system of timber industry enterprises and state purchasing has been demolished; everything has gone to ruin without the support of the state.

Timber preparation in the Ural taiga is today, if not completely worthless, simply paltry in terms of quantity. The Soviet system of timber industry enterprises and state purchasing has been demolished; everything has gone to ruin without the support of the state. Scarcely a tenth of what was logged in Soviet times is felled. Nowadays they cut all of 3.7 million cubic metres here annually, whereas in one year alone the forest growth in Perm region is around 29 million.

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More than 60% of Permsky Krai teritory are forests and woods. Spruce and silver fir tree are the most common varieties of tree.

The social consequences of the forest collapse are also evident: dozens of settlements constructed specially for lumbering have been abandoned to the mercy of fate. There is no work for the people, the authorities close schools and medical centres, since to support them is considered economically disadvantageous, and the roads are disintegrating and getting overgrown. People are deserting such villages in droves. Those who are in no condition to leave drink away their parents’ pensions – which have become the sole source of real money here – heading for degradation and extinction. An enormous expanse, tens of thousands of square kilometres, especially in the north of Perm region, is being depopulated before our eyes.

There is now little point talking about the timber processing industry which, like those furniture factories for example, totally crashed in the first post-perestroika decade.

In the southern part of the region, farmland abandoned two decades ago is increasingly becoming overgrown, turning into forest before our eyes. Agriculture, not particularly profitable on our freezing, clayey soil, is also extinct here. Against global food production there could be no competition: the internationals hold a firm hold on shop counters here, but that's another story.

Some might say this is a good thing: that industry has pushed off and no longer pollutes the environment, and the abandoned fields and pasture across the whole region are becoming natural ecosystems. Such talk evokes only a bitter smile. Even though I studied ecology at university and to this day do a little teaching in the university department of nature conservation, in no way do I celebrate the fact that our forests are not felled and our fields are not sown and are overgrown. Because if we, Russian idiots, do not do this ourselves, then on our overpopulated planet others will very soon come and do it for us. And then they will harvest our wheat and forests, and give us a good kicking. And rightly so.

Future masters of the forest

This dynamic is, in fact, clearly visible. Non-locals are already playing an increasing role in the procurement, processing and export of timber from Perm region. Nearly all the sawmill owners are representatives of Caucasian diaspora: from the (Russian) North Caucasus – Chechens, Ingush, Dagestanis – and from the South Caucasus: Armenians, Georgians, and – especially – Azerbaijanis. The Azerbaijani diasporas in particular are the most active of all, spreading across the region, including into those regions traditionally inhabited by the less populous Finno-Ugrian people, a people known from ancient times as forest dwellers, hunters and lumberjacks.

Occasionally, the appearance of southerners has been accompanied by ‘unexpected’ fires in the sawmills and timber yards of local entrepreneurs. But perhaps the most unsettling thing for the community is that the local population workers — Russians and Komi-Permians — are not employed there on principle. The Azerbaijani diaspora seems to be a state within a state, living by its own laws, bringing in workers from outside and carrying on with ordinary life as if in little Azeri towns.

On the other hand, the Azerbaijani entrepreneurs have quickly established close and secretive contacts with local authorities and law enforcement agencies. The nature of such relationships is highly suspect: documents in my possession, for example, indicate that certain Azerbaijani enterprises have not paid tax on their logging and timber processing for years (!) Police and the public prosecutor have also kindly turned a blind eye to many other transgressions, including frequent illegal logging and unsanctioned dumping of sawdust. At the same time, the newcomers are also more active, enterprising and united than their often slack, drunk and disunited Russian counterparts. There is no doubt they will win the competition for the Ural forests,

There, where there were urban lungs

Wealthy Russians want bigger plots of land to buildtheir mansions and do not think twice about circumventing forest preservation laws

The other aspect of the Permian forest problem is the situation of the urban and suburban forests. That is, with those very forests which should fulfil the most important ecologically and environmentally protective role, as the lungs of the towns and as places where the local population can relax. But here there has been a massive, barbaric felling of trees, automatically followed by construction on the cleared territory – generally of elite cottages. Now many of our bureaucrats, deputies and businessmen travel frequently to the West. There they have discovered that it is  supposedly prestigious to live not in the very centre of the concrete jungle, as they previously thought, but in one’s own house on one’s own little piece of land. Only our elite doesn’t want to pay attention to the fact that, for example, for Americans living in their own house it takes around an hour and a half to get downtown. Ours want to reach the town centre in 15 minutes.

The result is simple: for the last decade the axe has had free run of our urban woods, leisure and water conservation areas. Above all this has happened, of course, in the regional capital – in Perm and in the urban area around it. And that which only yesterday was common property, where mothers pushed prams and little children played football in the fields, today is rented out, then turned into the private property of those people close to the authorities. The former green belt and wooded areas around the reservoirs are being covered by the fancy towers of life’s new masters.

Take another example, from the conservation area of the Kama reservoir. The area contains especially valuable forests – forests of the so-called “first group”. One fine day a few years ago, a section of the forest in Dobriansky district (within the conurbation of Perm) was suddenly and without any explanation removed from the list of protected forests and given over for housing construction. Moreover, construction also began in the green belt along the waterside, where building is most strictly forbidden by law.

Somewhat miraculously, the construction was given the all clear by the powerful federal agency Rosprirodnadzor [the Federal Supervisory Service for Nature Management]. All efforts by civil society organisations to access the conclusions of this expert review were, however, met with unexplained but categorical refusals by the head of the Perm department of Rosprirodnadzor, Dmitry Klein. Thus one could not discover how state ecological expertise managed to get round the fact that houses were being constructed in a waterside protected zone of special ecological worth.

Upon further investigation it turned out that the owner of the construction turned out to be none other than Natalia Petrovna, a native-born Permian and former governor, and the wife of the minister for ecology and natural resources of the Russian Federation, Yury Trutnev. The old Russian rule that he who protects something also owns was thus once again upheld.

A protest in Upper Kuriya in Perm region, where a large chunk of forest had been acquired by an influential local businessman-politician

The process is being staged in grand style. It isn’t important that the selling off of urban woods for housing construction is also an infringement of the Forest Code and other legislation. The local authorities connive to take decisions to ensure that one or another tasty morsel of forest, it turns out, was never even part of the town woods! It’s no trouble at all to gently move a line or two on the electronic map – and so grab part of a town park or even a specially protected nature reserve. Everything depends on the will and influence of the client. Thus, last year the omnipotent Lukoil wanted to erect five new service stations in Perm, and not just anywhere, but in spots they particularly liked. As a result, a little piece of Victory Park – in honour of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War – was torn off for one of them. For the second the town authorities sacrificed a fragment of a strictly protected natural landscape. For two further service stations they gave up parts of the town forests.

The courts, too, openly play along with this. The technology is simple: you only need to procure a piece of land for rent from the town administration, under any pretext, to concrete over a square, and the court will initially register an incomplete housing construction in your name, and at the next stage it will grant you ownership of this piece of land.

Who will say ‘stop’?

One may well ask if there is any kind of local opposition to this orgy of corruption?

"It isn’t important that the selling off of urban woods for housing construction is also an infringement of the Forest Code and other legislation."

The answer to that is yes, there a movement to speak of (although one would certainly wish it to be more active and populous). The ecological group ‘Green Oecumene’, for example. and its most active member, retired accountant Valentina Viktorovna Ogloblina, conduct endless lawsuits for the fate of various parts of the forest stolen from the town. In a string of cases the courts of first instance should have recognised the construction as illegal and even ruled that it be demolished. But… in contemporary Russia it is impossible to imagine a situation in which a simple eco-activist or a civil society organisation could reverse the heavy machinery distributing material goods and win against the authorities. ‘Green Oecumene’ conducts endless correspondence with Moscow inspectorates, with ministries and departments, attempting to achieve justice. But what can one expect from ministries and ministers in the light of stories like the ones outlined above? Valentina Ogloblina has also complained to the European Court. However, the average time needed consider such a complaint is 5-7 years, meaning we can only wait.

So this is how life is in my forest region of Perm. The abandoned forests in outlying districts are ageing, falling, bending and burning. The urban and suburban woods are being looted right and left. Many are comfortably fishing in these troubled waters, but where will this chaos end? God only knows. I can only say that something is quietly stirring and building up in our population. Not long ago in Upper Kuriya, a micro-district of Perm, a firm affiliated with Yury Borisovets, a major businessman and United Russia deputy in the State Duma, was granted possession of a large piece of forest which had, until then, been used by the local community as a leisure area. They spent their days off here, held children’s holiday gatherings and so on. The town prosecutor’s office exposed indications of a crime in the granting of this piece of land to the firm. But at regional level this material was simply shelved. Building began on the site, and security guards were posted. But the indignant local inhabitants, disregarding the armed guards, invaded the stolen territory three times and destroyed the initial constructions. When this happened for the third time the guards opened fire, and three locals received gunshot wounds. The FSB and governor’s office are now involved in the case. The frightened builder has called a moratorium on the construction. The wounded are in the hospital, the healthy are sitting at home and storing up hatred. And who here would dare call this hatred unjust?

 

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