Illegal Logging and Organized Crime in Russia

Posted: March 14, 2013 at 6:09 pm, Last Updated: May 28, 2013 at 6:34 pm

By Aaron Beitman

For a country so rich in natural resources, crimes against the environment pose significant problems for Russia.  In addition to economic repercussions, blows struck against the long-term viability of natural resources have implications for the health and security of Russian citizens.  As suggested in a recent news story, monetary rewards for crimes against the environment, such as illegal logging, are quite high, making it unsurprising that organized crime groups play a significant role in these activities.  This blog post reviews a book written by the late Gennady Zherebkin, a legal advisor for the World Wildlife Fund Russia.  Zherebkin’s book, the development of which was supported by TraCCC, addresses the problem of illegal logging in Russia, notes organized crime connections, and analyzes the Russian state’s response.

TraCCC maintains an extensive database of research related to environmental crime in the former Soviet Union, which may be accessed here.  In addition, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) provides excellent background material on global dimensions of environmental crime, with a particular focus on illicit trade in wildlife and timber.  The Forest Stewardship Council, an international non-governmental organization, works in Russia and other former Soviet countries to promote sustainable management of forest resources.

According to international experts, global losses from illegal logging amount to more than $15 billion annually, which may be compared to aid levels provided to developing countries.  In a number of countries, amounts of illegal and legal timber harvested are virtually identical.  With respect to Russia case, Zherebkin notes that increases in quantities of illegally harvested timber have been accompanied by a number of negative effects. These include widespread corruption and criminalization of the timber business, the growth of informal markets, damage to the image of Russian timber companies, a decline in investment in the timber sector, and impoverishment of individuals living in regions dependent on the timber sector.  Moreover, illegal logging increases damage to the environment and may exacerbate effects associated with climate change.

Zherebkin’s report highlights, among other things, the transnational character of illegal logging and the trade in illegally harvested timber.  As it were, a number of neighboring governments, such as China, have largely abstained from harvesting national timber resources.  Instead, these countries rely on Russia, despite the illegal sourcing of a significant portion of Russian timber supplies.  Illegal timber harvests, it should be noted, are legalized in a variety of ways.  The usual way of accomplishing this goal is mixing legal and illegal timber together and then using the documents associated with legal timber to cover the illegal harvest.  The same documents are used repeatedly for deliveries of timber products to different consumers.  This practice makes identification and tracking of illegal timber products extremely challenging.

For the organized crime groups involved in illegally logging, high profit margins are a major draw, which in turn facilitates extensive corruption among state officials.  Illegal logging in Russia is made possible by the participation of officials from various state agencies, including natural resources agencies and local administrative bodies.  These officials have necessary professional knowledge and experiences, are well acquainted with logging technologies, accounting procedures for timber harvesting, and maintain a wide circle of relevant contacts.  Attraction of these specialists to criminal activities allows illegal loggers to carefully plan their illegal activities and prevent detection.

According to Zherebkin’s research, significant policy changes over the past ten years have been unfortunately ineffective in addressing illegal practices in the timber sector and the attendant involvement of organized crime in these activities.  In 2005 and 2007, timber resource management agencies at the federal, local, and regional levels underwent a number of reforms.  For one, the federal timber inspectorate, which focused on the suppression of illegal logging in local jurisdictions, lost its authority to carry out these operations.  Responsibility for illegal logging suppression was transferred, to the Federal Natural Resources Oversight Service.  However, the number of inspectors in the Federal Natural Resources Oversight Service is rather insignificant and has meant that the agency has been unable to play a muscular role in fighting illegal logging.  Practically speaking, this decision left Russian forests without professional protection from the state and has created opportunities for extensive illegal logging by criminal groups.

According to Zherebkin’s research, there exist a number of companies in Russia which only purchase illegally harvested timber.  In this way, large and small criminal groups are able to provide raw materials for sawmills, furniture companies, and timber exporters.  As it were, the Russian criminal code provides serious punishment for illegally harvesting timber, but in practice fines meted out for these crimes are relatively insignificant and very few criminals are jailed for these crimes.  However, it appears that those prosecuted for these crimes lack property, proper employment, and official sources of income, which means that levying fines in these cases is a mere formality.  While Russian prosecutors have initiated a number of criminal proceedings in cases in these areas, Zherebkin argues that the quantity of cases initiated does not correspond with the actual number of crimes taking place.  With the knowledge that crimes are usually punished lightly or not all, criminals engage in illegal logging and trade in illegally harvested timber with an unfortunate degree of impunity.

Despite these myriad issues, Zherebkin underscores the point that Russian authorities have recognized the severity of illegal logging and associated environmental crimes.  Various Russian state agencies are implementing a number of measures aimed at preventing illegal logging and fighting trade in illegally harvested timber.  For one, the Russian Federal Forestry Agency regularly conducts aerial surveillance of forests, carries out checks of logging practices in key regions, and has formed an inter-agency task force to address crimes in the timber sector.

Nevertheless, it remains clear that significant policy changes have yet to be realized.  Zherebkin maintains that questions about the fight against illegal logging and timber trading must be brought into the national spotlight.  Greater public awareness of the impact of illegal logging and trade in illegally harvested products will hopefully set needed changes in motion.

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu