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Nothing else left to log: are eco-certified timber companies stripping Russia of its last old growth forests?

Russian ‘intact forest landscape’ loses 100,000 hectares in 12 years due in part to FSC-certified timber companies

Russia’s trees fuel our increasing demand for wood-based products. The country’s vast forests, which cover over 800 million hectares or almost half its land area, are a major source of wood for global timber, paper and pulp industries.

They are also home to some of the world’s most threatened wildlife species such as Siberian tigers and Amur leopards, as well as others like bears and lynx, and act as major carbon sinks.

Among Russia’s forested lands lie intact forest landscapes (or IFLs). These IFLs are large swaths of unbroken, old growth forests that encompass at least 50,000 hectares, harbor high biodiversity, and have remained mostly undisturbed by development. Russia, Canada and Brazil together hold about 65 percent of such IFLs in the world, according to a 2008 study. However, less than 10 percent of the world’s IFLs are currently protected.

A Siberian tiger in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, Primorye, Russia. Photograph (c) Wildlife Conservation Society Russia Program.
Intact forest landscapes are important for many animals such as this Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, Primorye, Russia. Siberian tigers once ranged across huge areas of northern Asia, but today exist only in a small area of intact forest near the Sea of Japan. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society Russia Program.

Extensive logging (both legal and illegal), land conversions, road-building, wildfires, and poor forest management practices in Russia have degraded much of its forests. According to recent figures from Global Forest Watch, Russia lost almost 37 million hectares of tree cover from 2001 to 2013.

Russia’s intact forest landscapes, too, are shrinking rapidly due to rampant development.

To address Russia’s deforestation and unsustainable logging of forests, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) came into Russia in the late 1990s. The FSC is an international non-profit body that certifies “responsible harvesting of forests” by providing a set of “environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable” harvesting guidelines to forestry companies. Members of FSC include NGOs (such as WWF and Greenpeace International), research organizations, certification agencies and private logging companies, all of which promote FSC-labeled products to consumers as options that are more sustainable than traditional products.

However, a recent Greenpeace-Russia report casts doubts over FSC-certified green logging in Russia, particularly within intact forest landscapes.

Questioning FSC-certification

“Most of the accessible and valuable forest resources in Russia are more or less gone,” Tatiana Khakimulina, a forest engineer with Greenpeace Russia, told “The resources that are left remain in the less accessible intact forest landscapes.”

One such IFL, the Dvinsky Forest, lies in the heart of the Arkhangelsk region in northwestern Russia. By analyzing satellite imagery for years 2002 to 2013, Khakimulina’s team found that FSC-certified logging companies were in fact cutting through high conservation value forests like Dvinsky unsustainably, instead of upholding FSC’s principles that aim to maintain their integrity.

Satellite image of Northern Dvina-Pinega (Dvinsky IFL) showing the different forest cover types. Courtesy of Greenpeace Russia. Click to enlarge.

An overview of former or current FSC-certified companies operating in Dvinsky forest. Map by Greenpeace Russia. Click to enlarge.

Recent figures from Global Forest Watch show that the Dvinsky forest lost almost 100,000 hectares of tree cover between 2002 and 2013.

“The forest logging companies see these IFLs as the main source of wood for them. And they actually base their wood supply on these IFLs.” Khakimulina said. “This is where there is a contradiction between FSC standards, and what is actually happening on ground.”

According to the report, local environmental NGOs had initially welcomed FSC certification of the Dvinsky IFL hoping that it would help protect it. However, after 14 years of FSC presence in the region, “large areas of forest within the IFL have already been destroyed,” the report states.

The report’s findings show that logging by the five companies under consideration was much higher than sustainable limits during the study period. In addition, the companies also appeared to have cut through forests that lie inside the borders of proposed protected areas in the region.

Moreover, outside the proposed protected areas, the five logging companies failed to comply with FSC’s standards on numerous accounts. In fact, the team states that the annual harvesting amount and rates have far exceeded values that which can be permanently sustained in the region. These practices are irreversibly destroying the forests.

Greenpeace’s contention, thus, is that instead of trying to eliminate destructive forest practices, FSC in Russia is actually “endorsing them.”

Dvinsky has lost nearly 100,000 hectares of forest in just over a decade. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

Time-lapse of tree cover loss in the Dvinsky IFL between 2002-2013. Courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

What FSC stakeholders say

The Forest Stewardship Council, however, disagrees with the report’s stance.

In response to the Greenpeace report, FSC has stated on its website that “the Dvinsky Forest region is an example for effective stakeholder engagement processes that has resulted in strong and lasting solutions for threatened forest species and ecosystems.”

The FSC response added that the FSC-certification bodies have effective control measures in place that ensure strong disciplinary action against companies that fail to comply with FSC standards.

“Three of the five forest management certificates referred to in the Greenpeace article were suspended between December 2013 and February 2014 because they did not comply with FSC requirements; a fourth one had already expired earlier and was not renewed,” the FSC response stated. “It is fair to say that without FSC certification or under less rigorous certification schemes these forests might have been logged already.”

Vladislav Kheynonen, a certification manager with NEPCon Russia, an FSC-accredited certification and auditing body that suspended two of the logging companies in the region, pointed out some potential limitations of the report.

“The report does not distinguish between logging that took place during the period of certification, and logging that took place prior to, or after, the companies were certified….,” he said. “The case study of the Dvinskiy forest is also a good example of how certification practices have changed over time. Some practices that were deemed appropriate in 2002 under the FSC rules are impossible today. Unfortunately, the report does not focus on this key point.”

Logging road like these inside Dvinsky Forest lead to fragmentation and degradation of IFLs. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

According to Kheynonen, FSC has great potential in Russia. “Today FSC is the most advanced and influential forest certification system in the world,” he said. “This is because it develops high-quality standards in close collaboration with environmental, social and economic stakeholders.”

However, he added that the current Russian national FSC Forest Management Standard is too bureaucratic and unclear, especially when it comes to its environmental indicators.

“Work is on-going to revise the Russian national FSC standard. So hopefully this will improve,” he said.

Andrey Shegolev, head of the Arkhangelsk branch of WWF Russia, told that WWF Russia generally shares the FSC’s position stated in their response to the Greenpeace report. However, he agreed that the FSC system has its share of problems.

One main problem, according to Shegolev, is the way in which the maximum allowed annual harvesting volumes are calculated. In addition, until recently there was no alternate way of calculating the allowable harvest limits that the FSC could use, he added.

Alexey Yaroshenko, Forest Department head of Greenpeace Russia, agreed that the annual allowable cut is usually several times higher than what is sustainable.

“For example, the annual allowable cut for the entire Arkhangelsk region is more than 25 million cubic meters per year. This is what is allowed to be lopped for the whole region,” Yaroshenko said. “But the actual sustainable volume is significantly less than 10 million cubic meters per year.”

While alternative sustainable calculations are now available with FSC, Yaroshenko thinks it will be a while before any of these are implemented. “We do not believe that these will turn into a practical decision without [a] strong external push in the coming years,” he said.

Road adjacent to large clearcut inside Dvinsky Forest. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

The way forward

Greenpeace Russia has developed a list of recommendations that it hopes will make FSC presence in Russia more credible and effective.
According to one recommendation, FSC must certify logging operations in high conservation value forests or IFLs only after a protected area network is established within them. In addition, FSC must gradually stop certifying companies within intact forest landscapes.

“We understand that it is not possible to do this immediately, but we estimate that this can be done in the next five years” Yaroshenko said. “For example, all existing certificates will expire after five years. So if FSC now stops giving out certificates for new development inside the IFLs, this will eventually lead to a no-FSC policy, and thus no development in IFLs.”

Another recommendation is that the FSC services should take into consideration not only the total forest volume in their calculation of annually permissible harvests, but forest conservation, protected areas and ecosystem services as well.

Kheynonen added that the FSC standards are only as good as their implementation.

“Strict observance of the rules is key to the success of FSC,” he said. “And protection of intact forest landscapes requires close attention from the landowner, the State. Assigning formal protection status to these areas would thus be the most important action that can be taken.”

A temporary railway constructed for the transportation of cut logs. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

Intact forest abuts a cleared strip in the Arkhangelsk region. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.


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