Yehor Hrynyk, “Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group”, [email protected]
War in Ukraine continues. Initiatives endangering forests only gather pace!
Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC 2022) in Lugano: was there a place for forests?
Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC 2022) took place on 4-5 July in Lugano, Switzerland. Over 1000 participants attended the event, including high officials from Ukraine and numerous EU countries. URC 2022 aim was to represent the plan for rebuilding Ukraine developed by Ukrainian government and discuss further steps for its implementation, in particular, through financial aid from partner countries.
The Minister of Environmental Protection of Ukraine, Ruslan Strilets, represented environmental block of the plan involving forests. The promulgated plans and action plans, in particular, cover the following:
- Construction of 7,500 km of new forest roads;
- “Renewal” of forests (which effectively means cutting the old forests);
- Purchase of harvesters and forwarders (which effectively means increase of forest harvesting speed) etc.
The plans also contain other activities which can become fatal for natural ecosystems. For instance, increase of plough land area, buildup of mineral production, building of new hydro power plants and new melioration systems etc.
The documents which were made public during URC 22 were severely criticized by Ukrainian environmental NGOs. They believe plans on different sectors (e.g. environment and agriculture) are inconsistent and non-systemic and envisaged numerous actions do not correspond to the European Green Deal principles.
On the other hand, true priorities for environmental protection – for instance, approval of seven draft laws essential for the environment or the list of key reforms in the forest sphere that were supported by dozens of NGO in Ukraine and EU, are either not included in the action plan or included only partially.
The question whether the plan for environmental renewal and conservation represented by the Ukrainian government is going to receive funding from Ukraine’s partner states, still remains open.
The next set of EU sanctions against russia should contain more effective requirements regarding russian timber
The next set is a stellar opportunity to add to the existing sanctions regarding russian timber and make them more effective.
Export of timber and timber products is an important source of income for the russian military machine amounting to USD 14 billion per year. The fifth set of sanctions establishes prohibition to import the majority, but not all timber products from russia.
In addition, the wording is too vague to clearly define whether it is forbidden to export products made of russian timber in the third countries (China, Uzbekistan, Vietnam etc) or transported through those countries. Absence of inambiguous prohibition will allow russia easily avoid sanctions selling products through intermediaries in other countries.
It is also unclear if exporting timber harvesting and processing machinery and equipment as well as spare parts to russia is forbidden. This prohibition would deal a blow to the wood processing sector which mostly depends on delivery of European equipment to russia. Unfortunately, dealers of European and other harvesting equipment are still operating in russia.
Therefore, all the above aspects need to be included in the sanction package, which is still being emphasized by numerous Ukrainian and European NGOs.
Ukrainian government plans to unite hundreds of Ukrainian state forestry enterprises into one
The majority of Ukrainian forests belongs to the state and are managed by state forestry enterprises which number over 170 and mostly receive no funding from the government. Numerous problems of this arrangement as well as possible solutions were repeatedly articulated at all levels.
In June 2022 Ukrainian government put forward an initiative to unite all state forest enterprises in Ukraine into one enterprise, which came as a surprise for many. The government believes it would allow to remove the conflict of interest in the forestry sector, enhance sustainable operation for forestries that cannot make money on logging and solve a number of other issues.
The initiative instantly caused strong criticism from many sides. Forest representatives communicated the risk of job losses, communities spoke about decrease of local budgets revenue, and environmental public mentioned the risk of forests being carved up during the joining, as well as the risk of further privatization of state forests.
The initiative received no support from the ‘environmental’ committee of Ukrainian parliament. During discussion, MPs emphasized that a number of laws need to be amended prior to uniting forest enterprises. Some deputies were apprehensive that uniting forest enterprises was initiated by an owner of large wood processing companies, businessman Leonid Yurushev who can lobby decisions through the officials he controls. MPs believe that uniting the forestries will facilitate Yurushev companies’ access to timber, which has nothing to do with real reforms.
Further destiny of the governmental initiative remains unknown.
We believe that Ukrainian forest management reform is overdue. However, it should be approached in a weighted and systematic manner, engaging all stakeholders and taking into account all possible risks. Doing it properly in the situation of the russian invasion is virtually impossible.
Government represents new legislative initiatives on forest management
In the previous newsletter we reported a number of legislative changes accepted shortly after the full-scale russian invasion that facilitate forest harvesting:
- In late April 2022 the government represented draft law of the Cabinet of Ministers’ decision. It envisages cancellation of almost any limitations on notorious sanitary cuttings, expand the application sphere for other cuttings and introduce the notion of cutting related to the military necessity.
Following significant public criticism, the Ministry of Environmental Protection promised to the cancel the effective limitations on sanitary and a number of other cuttings. However, the document has not been approved yet, which means the final version will require analysis and conclusions.
- In a similar fashion, discussions of the new Rules of cutting in Ukrainian forests escalated in May. This document is supposed to harmonize the rules for all possible types of cutting. New rules of cutting are clearly necessary. However, environmental NGOs’ proposals regarding real ‘environmentalization’ of the rules were mostly discarded. The effective version of the draft law hardly introduces anything in terms of forests protection. The next opportunity to ‘environmentalize’ forest husbandry in Ukraine may be far away. Similar to the joining of forestry enterprises, the feasibility of passing the new Rules of cutting under the circumstances of war is dubious.
- Another document which is being approved is an initiative to ‘digitalize’ the issue of logging tickets (a permit to cut wood) and export certificate for timber products and lumber. The benefits of this digitalization are dubious, as they create additional load on officials that issue logging tickets. Moreover, at present the government discards proposals of the public to increase the process transparency, in particular, providing public access to all documents that will make it possible to track timber harvesting and sale on each stage.
- There is positive news too. On June 20 the parliament approved the draft law 5650. This document is an important step to preserve naturally-afforested agricultural lands numbering up to 500,000 hectares in Ukraine. If the law is passed, the state will finally acknowledge the existence of naturally-afforested agricultural lands and allow citizens and communities to preserve these forests and not turn them into the plowed land. However, it is the first step only: actual preservation of naturally-afforested agricultural lands requires amending forest management rules which presently are non-adequate and unprofitable for small private forests’ owners.
Fires and illegal logging of forests in Chornobyl exclusion zone
Forest fires continue in the forests of Chornobyl exclusion zone. According to employees of Chornobyl biosphere reserve, over 400 hectares burned out in July this year alone. Since the beginning of full-scale invasion, fires covering over 26,000 hectares were registered in Chornobyl forests. Some of those were as large as 7,600 hectares.
The situation has been aggravated by the fact that the exclusion zone was under occupation in March. Not only did russian troops lay mines on large areas of the zone, they also stole or damaged more than a hundred pieces of firefighting equipment, which makes fighting fires much more complicated.
At the same time, the State Bureau of Investigations reported about the suspicion to a high official of the exclusion zone for illegal logging in the area over 100 hectares. The fact of the illegal logging was found back in 2020 by NGO Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group experts. The official is looking at seven years in prison. It is one of a few examples when illegal cutting in Ukraine was investigated and it will be not a forester, but a high official to be potentially prosecuted.