[Marxism] China’s Voracious Appetite for Timber Stokes Fury in Russia and Beyond
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 9 12:30:36 MDT 2019
("Ecological Civilization"? My foot.)
NY Times, April 9, 2019
China’s Voracious Appetite for Timber Stokes Fury in Russia and Beyond
By Steven Lee Myers
From the Altai Mountains to the Pacific Coast, logging is ravaging
Russia’s vast forests, leaving behind swathes of scarred earth studded
with dying stumps.
The culprit, to many Russians, is clear: China.
Since China began restricting commercial logging in its own natural
forests two decades ago, it has increasingly turned to Russia, importing
huge amounts of wood in 2017 to satisfy the voracious appetite of its
construction companies and furniture manufacturers.
“In Siberia, people understand they need the forests to survive,” said
Eugene Simonov, an environmentalist who has studied the impact of
commercial logging in Russia’s Far East. “And they know their forests
are now being stolen.”
Russia has been a witting collaborator, too, selling Chinese companies
logging rights at low cost and, critics say, turning a blind eye to
logging beyond what is legally allowed.
Chinese demand is also stripping forests elsewhere — from Peru to Papua
New Guinea, Mozambique to Myanmar.
In the Solomon Islands, the current pace of logging by Chinese companies
could exhaust the country’s once pristine rain forests by 2036,
according to Global Witness, an environmental group. In Indonesia,
activists warn that illegal logging linked to a company with Chinese
partners threatens one of the last strongholds for orangutans on the
island of Borneo.
Environmentalists say China has simply shifted the harm of unbridled
logging from home to abroad, even as it reaps the economic benefits.
Some warn that the scale of logging today could deplete what unspoiled
forests remain, contributing to global warming.
At the same time, China is protecting its own woodlands.
Two decades ago, concerns about denuded mountains, polluted rivers and
devastating floods along the Yangtze River made worse by damaged
watersheds prompted the Communist government to begin restricting
commercial logging in the nation’s forests.
The country’s demand for wood did not diminish, however. Nor did the
world’s demand for plywood and furniture, the main wood products that
China makes and exports.
It is one thing for Chinese demand to overwhelm small, poor nations
desperate for cash, but it is another for it to drain the resources of a
far larger country, one that regards itself as a superpower and a
strategic partner to China.
The trade has instead underscored Russia’s overreliance on natural
resources and provoked a popular backlash that strains the otherwise
warm relations between the countries’ two leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi
Protests have erupted in many cities. Members in Russia’s upper house of
parliament have assailed officials for turning a blind eye to the
environmental damage in Siberia and the Far East. Residents and
environmentalists complain that logging is spoiling Russian watersheds
and destroying the habitats of the endangered Siberian tiger and Amur
“What we are doing now in Siberia and the Far East is destroying what is
left of the original intact forest landscapes,” said Nikolay M.
Shmatkov, director of the forestry program for the World Wildlife Fund
in Russia. The group has documented the destruction using satellite
images over a period that coincides with the Chinese logging boom in the
“It’s not sustainable,” he said.
‘Nothing Will Be Left’
China’s stunning economic transformation over the last four decades has
driven its demand. It is now the world’s largest importer of wood. (The
United States is second.) It is also the largest exporter — turning much
of the wood it imports into products headed to Home Depots and Ikeas
around the world.
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The total value of China’s timber imports — rough logs, timber or wood
pulp — has increased more than 10 times since China began restricting
logging at home in 1998, reaching $23 billion in 2017, the highest ever,
according to IHS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas.
The government extended a regional ban to the rest of the country at the
end of 2016. It now allows commercial logging only in forests that have
been replanted, a policy that environmentalists say other countries
The problem is that many have not, and Chinese companies have pursued
More than 500 companies operate in Russia now, often with Russian
partners, according to a report by Vita Spivak, a scholar on China for
the Carnegie Moscow Center. Russia once delivered almost no wood to
China; it now accounts for more than 20 percent of China’s imports by value.
“If the Chinese come, nothing will be left,” Marina Volobuyeva, a
resident of the Zamensky region south of Lake Baikal, told a television
channel after a Chinese company secured a 49-year lease to log in the area.
Russia sells such logging concessions at prices that vary by region and
type of wood, but on average, they cost roughly $2 a hectare, or 80
cents an acre, per year, according to Mr. Shmatkov of the World Wildlife
Fund. That is far below the cost in other countries.
In 2017, China imported nearly 200 million cubic meters of wood from Russia.
Artyom Lukin, a professor of international studies at the Far Eastern
Federal University in Vladivostok, noted that government corruption,
criminality and the lack of economic development in Siberia and the Far
East have also made the crisis worse.
“In many rural areas of the Russian Far East and Siberia, there are few
other ways to make money, or to make a living, than stripping natural
resources of the vast surrounding forests,” he said.
Much of the wood from Russia crosses the border in Manzhouli, a former
nomadic settlement that became a junction in the Trans-Siberian Railway
at the turn of the 20th century. The trade has transformed what was once
a sleepy border town into one of China’s main hubs for wood processing
In the last two decades, more than 120 mills and factories have sprung
up. They process raw or rough-cut lumber into plywood, and manufacture
veneer panels, laminated wood, doors, window frames and furniture.
The factories cover dozens of acres on the city’s edge and have created
more than 10,000 jobs in a city of 250,000 people, according to a
New construction has made the city an architectural homage to Russian
culture. Many buildings have features like faux onion domes. There is
even a replica of St. Basil’s Cathedral that is a children’s science
museum, and a hotel in the shape of what officials claim is the world’s
largest matryoska, or nesting doll.
Zhu Xiuhua’s career has traced the arc of the Russian trade.
Now 50, Ms. Zhu moved to Manzhouli when China began restricting logging.
She began brokering imports from Russia, then in 2002 began to seek the
rights to log Russian forests directly. Four years later, she founded
the company she owns today, the Inner Mongolia Kaisheng Group, one of
the city’s biggest.
Ms. Zhu now oversees three factories in Manzhouli, as well as
concessions to log 1.8 million acres of Russian forests near Bratsk, a
city next to Lake Baikal, and to transport them to China. “We are
growing every year,” she said.
When pressed, she declined to discuss her concessions in detail, but
according to the company’s website, she had invested $20 million in
Russia by 2015. China’s official Xinhua News Agency estimated the
conglomerate’s assets at $150 million in 2017.
The border crossing at Manzhouli, marked by two arches and divided on
the Chinese side by a green wire fence that stretches for hundreds of
miles. The Chinese side is a park that is closed to foreigners. The
crossing has become China’s largest landlocked port for goods, including
wood, coal and petrochemicals.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times
In Ms. Zhu’s view, the trade is a classic case of supply meeting demand.
She described it, perhaps overconfidently, as enduring.
The next step will be to seek more concessions westward. “Krasnoyarsk,”
she said, using first the Mandarin version of the name before
pronouncing it in Russian. “You could not log all of it in 100 years,”
There are international protocols that seek to control where and what
kinds of trees are logged, and the United States extended the Lacey Act
in 2008 to ban the import of wood obtained illegally anywhere, but such
regulations are difficult to enforce.
In some countries, like the United States and Canada, logging is
strictly policed, but Chinese companies often exploit lax oversight
elsewhere and log in protected forests, according to officials and
In Russia, logging commonly encroaches on areas outside the allotted
boundaries and companies that export wood to China are known to falsify
Logging without contracts is also common, while arsonists are suspected
of having set fires to forests, because scorched trees can be legally
culled and sold.
In 2016, the Department of Justice accused Lumber Liquidators of
illegally importing hardwood flooring that was mostly made in China
using timber illegally harvested in Russia’s Far East.
The booming trade with Russia has transformed Manzhouli, which was once
a sleepy border town. Much of the architecture has Russian features,
while many shops and restaurants advertise in both languages, catering
to tourists and traders.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times
Accusations of corruption have stoked public anger in Russia. A question
on the extent of illegal logging prompted an acerbic response from Mr.
Putin in his annual news conference in December. He called Russia’s
forestry industry “a very corrupt sector.”
Protests against logging — and Chinese logging in particular — have
erupted across Siberia and the Russian Far East. They have stoked ethnic
tensions along a border that extends more than 2,600 miles between
Russians and Chinese who had long had mutual suspicions shaped by
political and cultural differences.
One protest last May in Ulan Ude, a regional capital near Lake Baikal,
resulted in scuffles with the police and eight arrests. “Stop the
barbaric deforestation,” a sign declared.
The issue has become so politically volatile that in January the head of
Russia’s forestry service, Ivan Valentik, faced pointed questioning in
the upper house of parliament, which does not usually challenge Mr.
Putin’s government directly.
He defended the concessions, but also sought to shift blame to the
Chinese companies for not fulfilling their contracts — by, for example,
replanting forests. He suggested that Russia could be forced to end
direct sales of timber to China.
In China, the State Forestry and Grassland Administration did not
respond to written questions. Officials have previously pledged that
Chinese companies would adhere to local laws and be mindful of the
Ms. Zhu initially said she did not worry about the protests inside
Russia since everything her company did was done according to Russian
laws. After the latest round of public hearings in Moscow, however, she
sounded less sanguine.
“Russia is changing now,” she said by telephone, and then declined to
answer any more questions.
Claire Fu contributed research in Manzhouli, Heihe and Beijing.
Follow Steven Lee Myers on Twitter at @stevenleemyers
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