Report from the field in Russia

March 19, 2015

TFT’s Alastair Herd reports on his trip to Russia with Bjorn Roberts, where they learnt about how forests are managed to provide the raw material that goes into pulp and paper products.

Three hours’ bone-shaking drive from Archangel, under a louring Arctic sky, our mini-bus edged out onto the frozen Pinega River.

I reflected that I’ve been fortunate to travel far and wide with TFT – usually to tropical climes, but never until now into the ‘taiga’ (aka boreal), the vast band of coniferous forest that stretches through the northern latitudes in Canada to Sweden, Finland and Russia.

A further five hour drive lay before us until we would reach the remote logging town of Karpogory. There we aimed to learn more about the forests of this region and how they are managed to provide the raw material that eventually ends up in the pulp and paper products of our members.

We had donned our warmest thermals in preparation for the trip but upon arrival into Arkhanglesk the mercury was hovering around zero, rather than the usual minus 15 degrees Celsius we were expecting – more evidence of climate change perhaps.

While it meant we could shed some layers, the temperatures didn’t bode well for our trip to the forest with the threat of the roads melting and being washed away.

We hadn’t come all this way to turn back without seeing any Russian Taiga and so started our journey on the long road to Karpogory. We only realised the risks later down the road.  Driving over the first of many frozen rivers and lakes, our guide, Vlad the Translator, nervously slid open the door of the minibus indicating that it was a precautionary measure in case of the not unusual event of cars falling through the ice. Now was not a good time to stop and take photos.

The road to Karpogory wasn’t the most direct or well groomed, our experienced driver Nikolai driver couldn’t just put his foot down and go into autopilot mode. The trip highlighted the serious issue of infrastructure, or rather lack of it, and the challenges to forestry companies in these vast northern territories.

Highlighting the point, Sergei our wood sourcing specialist  from the company we were visiting, said he was sourcing timber from over 1,000 kilometres away – some by road, some rail, some even by raft. The situation is so dire that the use of zeppelins are  being discussed to extract the timber from the more remote areas.

The road was slick with ice. Nikolai had to slow down for the melting potholes that brought us to a crawl through some sections.  It gave us more time to gaze out of the window at the endless forest we passed by.

The forest lining the road, as elsewhere in the region, was a mix of Scots Pine, Spruce, Larch, Birch and Poplar, all regenerating after being clear-felled – the predominant felling regime in the area.

These clear-fell sites can be huge, up to 50 hectare blocks in some cases, though local legislation means that neighbouring forest cannot be felled within six years.

This creates a patchwork mosaic of different aged stands meant to support diverse habitats for the different animals endemic to the area such as bear, wolf, elk and birds like the Capercaillie. But due to the 150 year rotation period, (yes, you read that correctly, to put this into context, in Brazil this can be 4 years), and the pressure to find more raw material in forests further and further afield meant that harvesting practices had masked over cutting or revisiting stands earlier than permitted under the pretence of sanitary fellings.

Ginarai, the head forester we were travelling with, told us that after years of over-harvesting, destruction of intact forest, and fruitless battles between non-government organisations (NGOs) and timber companies, voluntary forestry certification is making a positive difference to the way the forest and landscape is managed.

Given the reports of corruption – Russia is ranked 136 out of 175 – and illegal logging in Russia, their foreign customers had initially demanded certification as a means to provide assurances of legality and responsible forest practices.

The company had to move with the times to keep their customers. In the past they would have maximised the harvest of standing stock, now they engage in consultation with environmental and social NGOs and the local communities.

This allows them to identify areas of importance such as key species and habitats and areas for ecosystem services, as well as hunting to conserve and protect within their forest leases.

It’s not all plain sailing – compromises are made, but things seems to be moving in the right direction. Ginarai concedes that while there is a great deal more bureaucracy he has seen a difference in the quality of the forest management.

This has seen an improvement through different harvesting techniques, protection of water courses, bogs and peatlands and leaving more diversity on site to aid natural regeneration of the harvesting sites.

It is after all Ginarai’s livelihood. In these remote Russian areas there are few employment opportunities, so managing the forest resources responsibly for future generations is all the more important.

This was highlighted very clearly many times during our journey to and from Karpogory, past numerous ghost villages of decaying log cabins. Built during the Soviet times by mass planned migrations from the south to develop the northern hinterlands, these villages are now in decline.

There is now a reversal. The young are now moving to the cities in the south because of lack of opportunities, leaving these settlements to be claimed by forest regrowing around them.

After 18 hours on the road driving towards the lights of Archangel the sun dipped behind the horizon and I found myself hoping to return one day, to drive that long, long road to Karpogory and see this vast precious forest again.

Hopefully, the next time I visit it will be better managed, intact and thriving, a resource for the forest industry, local communities and wild animals alike.

Na Zdorovie! (Good health)