Soviet 'Amazon' in jeopardy

Wednesday, April 24, 1991

The world's largest expanse of uncut forest — the northern forest of the Soviet Union — could be subject to new logging pressures as the Soviet Union invites foreign investment and joint ventures with European, Japanese, Korean, and North American timber companies.

"The boreal forests of the Soviet Union appear to be where the Amazon was 15 years ago", says Dr Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, a Washington-based group that identifies conservation priorities around the world. "If we have learned anything from our experience in tropical rain forests, it is that large pristine areas can be jeopardised very quickly when national authorities decide their resources should be exploited."

Opening large areas of this forest to clear-cut logging would place at risk wild species such as the endangered Siberian tiger (of which only an estimated 250 survive in the wild) and semi-nomadic native peoples.

Known as taiga forests, the forests of Siberia cover an area roughly twice as large as Brazil's Amazon forests. But these vast forests are fragile: trees regenerate slowly in the subarctic climate, and natural regrowth after clear-felling takes centuries.

Like the Amazon rain forests, the boreal forests sustain a variety of indigenous cultures that depend directly on wild plant and animal resources for their subsistence. Twenty-six distinct cultural groups, with a total population of more than 1 million, live in the northern forest zone.

To earn hard currency, the Soviet Union is opening these forests to exploitation by foreign companies, primarily in joint ventures arranged through the Soviet Ministry of Forestry.

Large-scale logging could have several consequences:

  • A thawing of peat-rich forest soils after clear-cutting could provide an enormous additional release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, speeding the greenhouse effect, according to George Woodwell, director of the Woods Hole Research Center, a research group that studies climate change.

  • Trade in raw logs could introduce exotic forest pathogens such as the pinewood nematode to regions where trees have no natural resistance.

  • There could be a breakdown of indigenous cultures such as the Yakut, Khants and Mansis peoples, who depend on the rivers and forests of Siberia for subsistence activities. At the first Congress of the Khants and Mansis peoples in north-west Siberia in August 1989, the two groups declared their forests off limits to logging and mineral prospecting. — Conservation International/PEGASUS
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