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.
Forests in the Ukrainian Carpathians are on the verge of extinction as the country faces an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions, environmentalists say. Illegal 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.
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 barcode 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
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.”
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 (full article 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
4. IMF mission to Kiev makes progress towards releasing much-needed funds, Sputnik News, May 18, 2016
5. Ukraine: Log export ban entered into force this month, Fordaq News, Nov 13, 2015
6. Data on Ukraine’s forest cover, published on Mongabay
7. Chernobyl’s silent exclusion zone (except for the logging), by Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, April 23, 2016