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Boycotting Russia’s oligarch-run timber trade would deliver an overdue rebuke

Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine should bring renewed focus to the depletion of global forests, not provide an excuse to simply log elsewhere.

By India Bourke

Forests and conflict have always been tightly linked. Cyprus, during the Bronze Age, had lost most of its trees by 1200 BC, largely to provide fuel to smelt copper for weapons. In England in the 1660s, civil war led to widespread deforestation, with a resulting call to plant more trees kick-starting modern conservation. And now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is demanding that the world once again rethink the all too neglected relationship between trees and power.

As the largest wood exporter in the world, Russia’s timber finds its way into homes across Europe and the US via our furniture, our paper and (especially with the rise of biomass fuel, which burns wood to produce energy), via our heating. In 2021 the UK imported £295 million worth of Russian wood products. Even our KitKat wrappers are not in the clear, a new report from the NGO Earthsight reveals.

The companies logging this wood and exporting it are run by people with close historic ties to Vladimir Putin, the report finds. The timber-linked oligarchs include Alexey Mordashov, one of Russia’s richest man and owner of the wood exporter Sveza, and the billionaire partners Zakhar Smushkin and Boris Zingarevich, who control the pulp and paper giant Ilim Group. Last year, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, the owner of the country’s largest logging firm, Segezha, was quoted by the Financial Times as saying “we have always done what the president said, without fail”.

The West has added many of these figures to sanctions lists, including Roman Abramovich (the owner of Chelsea football club who, until recently, also held the largest single stake in Russia’s Far East timber group). But civil society organisations, led by Ukrainian NGOs, have also called for boycotts and sanctions to be levied on the Russian and Belarusian wood export companies themselves.

Russia announced on Thursday 10 March that it would ban the export of some of its forestry products, in response to economic sanctions from the West. Yet “this is a pointless, empty threat,” says Earthsight director, Sam Lawson, since the ban doesn’t include the main exports from its oligarch-controlled companies. “It is effectively a counter-boycott affecting only the small proportion of its exports that European firms have already voluntarily ceased trading.”

As Putin’s army continues to attack Ukraine, the need for further Western intervention is clear: so far only four of the top 15 importers of Russian wood identified by Earthsight have committed to halting their trade with the country (UPM, Stora Enso, Metsa, and Ikea). 

Furthermore, Russia’s dubious forestry practices should already have sparked alarm even before this latest conflict. 

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For too long illegal wood products have continued to flood into Europe, despite the existence of certification schemes and green labels. “Even conservative estimates suggest that at least 30 per cent of timber cut in Russia could come from illegal sources,” says Lawson, pointing to a previous Earthsight investigation which documented how wood harvested from protected Russian forests has ended up in Ikea’s furniture.

While these schemes have said that they won’t now give Russian wood their approval until the invasion ends, governments and many large importers of wood, such as International Paper and Mondi, have not yet followed suit.

If they don’t, then the message to the industry risks becoming one of blind eyes being turned to the misguided exploitation of timber around the world. 

Investigating illegal deforestation in both Russia and Ukraine will likely become even more difficult in the face of the Russian authorities crackdown on dissent. And, as Mary Booth from the Partnership for Policy Integrity think tank points out, the biomass industry is already using rising energy prices to boost arguments for burning wood pellets for energy (a practice that research suggests is degrading ecosystems and has been criticised as “greenwashing”).

“War profiteers always emerge during times of chaos thus it’s not surprising to see the biomass industry take this opportunity to promote logging forests for fuel,” says Booth. “But EU citizens and policymakers of conscience don’t have to fall for this.”

The reasons to boycott Russia’s oligarch-controlled forest products are multiple. Especially at this moment in time, with the global economy teetering under the weight of economic warfare, vested interests are looking to pushback against green reform of all kinds. The message sent to timber oligarchs in Russia and beyond should be clear-cut: forests, like people, must be protected.

[See also: “Austerity is coming back”: Tim Lang fears for food security as war rages]

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