Russia: forests up in flames

While Russian officials have blamed the unprecedented wildfires on the hottest and driest summer in 1000 years, experts say the national disaster was man-made.

Published - August 23, 2010 12:06 am IST

A firefighter battles a forest fire near the village of Velino, 140 km east of Moscow, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010.

A firefighter battles a forest fire near the village of Velino, 140 km east of Moscow, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010.

Forests, Russia's greatest wealth after hydrocarbons, have turned into its curse this summer. The worst heat wave on record, aggravated by a severe drought, has triggered ferocious wildfires that have burned down scores of villages, left thousands of people homeless and forced an evacuation at the country's main nuclear facility.

With forests covering two-thirds of Russia's territory, wildfires break out every summer. But in previous years, they most often affected the sparsely populated territories of Siberia and the Far East. This year, deadly wildfires engulfed European Russia, where four-fifths of the country's 142 million people live.

At the height of the disaster, more than 800 fires raged in over 800,000 hectares in central Russia, which had almost no rains this summer as temperatures soared above 40° Centigrade, almost 20° above the annual average. Over 2,000 houses have burned, leaving thousands of people homeless; dozens have died in burning houses and fighting the fires. The Russian nuclear agency, Rosatom, had to remove all radioactive and explosive material from the Federal Nuclear Centre near the town of Sarov in central Russia, as forest fires came within 4,000 metres of the secret facilities where Russian nuclear weapons are made. More than 200,000 fire-fighters and army personnel battled the fires across the country.

Wildfires have destroyed a major naval equipment base and forced the moving of missiles at an air-defence facility near Moscow. Trial tests of Russia's newest missiles Bulava and Iskander have had to be postponed, as factories where they are manufactured were threatened by fire. Thick smoke from the burning woods and peat bogs blanketed Moscow and other cities, creeping into apartments, offices, stores and even the Moscow underground metro. Health officials have said that the death rate in Moscow has doubled, even as funeral services admitted that they had at least three-four times more work than they usually have at this time of the year. Satellite images have shown smoke from Russian fires rising 12 km above the earth and forming dense clouds of the type volcanoes produce. The smoke is known to have caused the cancellation or delayed more than 60,000 flights in Russia — two-thirds of the number of flights cancelled during Iceland's volcanic eruption in April.

New Forest Code

Officials have blamed the unprecedented wildfires on the hottest and driest summer in at least 1000 years. However, experts say the national disaster was man-made and the responsibility for it lies with the Russian government, and personally with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who disbanded the national forestry service that existed in the Soviet Union. Four years ago, Mr. Putin, then President, signed into law a new Forest Code, which disbanded the centralised forest authority.

In the Soviet Union, the state forestry service was responsible for forest monitoring, fire prevention and fire-fighting. It employed 80,000 forest rangers whose main job was to monitor the woodlands on a daily basis and put out minor fires before they could grow into major conflagrations. Under the Forest Code, the responsibility for forest administration, including fire protection, passed from the federal government to the regions and to the businesses leasing the forest area. This was done in line with the prevailing ideology of Mr. Putin's government that the state should pull out from non-strategic sectors and leave regulatory functions to market forces. State fire-fighting services are no longer responsible for putting out forest fires and government funding for wildfire prevention measures has been drastically scaled back. Russia currently spends about 3 cents per hectare of woodlands on fire fighting services. In comparison, it is about $4 in the United States.

The Soviet Union had arguably the world's best aerial task force that specialised in combating wildfires. It employed 11,000 firefighters, who would fly and parachute into remote areas to put out incipient forest fires with backpack fire extinguishers. It was probably the only way of controlling forest fires in the world's largest country where vast woodlands were — and still are — inaccessible by road. Under the forestry reform, the airborne fire service was pared down to 2,000 personnel, with monitoring functions only, and its fleet of more than 100 low-flying An-2 biplanes and helicopters given to the regions.

Moreover, the declared goal of the Forest Code was to modernise the industry and encourage sustainable forest use by large companies on long-term lease contracts acquired through auctions. In reality, the reform benefited corrupt bureaucrats and businessmen linked to them. The new law removed the federal oversight of forests and led to a dramatic rise in illegal tree felling and arbitrary transfer of woodlands to other categories of land that allow commercial development. The forest fire protection service was a victim in the game of corruption.

The Kremlin encourages regional authorities to abuse forests by abusing the law itself. As flames consumed the woodlands around Moscow, a centuries-old oak forest on the outskirts of the Russian capital was being cut down to make way for a 10-lane toll highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Khimki forest, part of the green belt around the metropolis called “the lungs of Moscow,” had been protected by law for decades. But the government moved the forest out of its protected status and allowed the construction to go forward, while the police beat up ecologists and local residents who protested the illegal tree-felling. Ecologists said the authorities turned down alternative routes for the road because they involved relocating hundreds of residents, whereas the forest is state property and therefore no compensation has to be paid. The project smacked of corruption, as the private company that won the contract also received the right to build shopping centres two kilometres on either side of the highway.

Russia's expert community was strongly opposed to the Forest Code, warning of dire consequences if approved. “The Forest Code spells catastrophe. It opens the way to criminal seizures of forests and plunder of timber resources,” warned Academician Alexander Isayev, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Centre for Forest Ecology and Productivity.

The government ignored the experts' warnings and a docile Parliament duly endorsed the bill. As a result, illegal logging in the past three years has soared from 20 per cent of annual forest cuts to 30 per cent, and the number of forest fires has doubled, according to ecologists.

‘Power vertical'

The way the forestry industry was reorganised highlighted the core weaknesses of governance in Russia over the past decade. Mr. Putin is rightly credited with pulling together a country that was falling apart when he became President in 2000. He defeated the Chechen insurgency, rebuilt the state machinery and returned Russia to the high table of powerful global players. However, in combating the chaos and turmoil that marked the era of President Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin fell into the opposite extreme. He created what the Kremlin proudly calls a “power vertical” — a centralised system of government devoid of any checks and balances. There is no credible opposition or any independent electronic media; Parliament rubberstamps government decisions and the courts never go against the authorities. There is no feedback from society to the government. This inevitably produces such blunders as the forestry reform, which has left Russia defenceless in the face of massive wildfires this summer, or the catastrophic accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydropower plant last year, which was largely the result of the carving-up and privatisation of the unified electricity generation system that existed in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin understands that his vertical power structure is highly ineffective.

“We have a vast network of governmental institutions and experts but their efficiency is extremely low and real risks are neglected,” he said in March. But he was aware of the problem five years ago, too. In his 2005 state-of-nation address, President Putin lambasted the bureaucracy as an “arrogant caste” that “understands state service as just another kind of business.”

Yet, today Russia is as far from multi-party democracy, political competition and bureaucratic accountability — classic recipes for improving the administration — as it was five or 10 years ago.

In a report released at the height of the forest fires, the Independent Association of Lawyers for Human Rights estimated the market of corruption in Russia at 50 per cent of the country's GDP.

In a revealing insight into how little trust he has in his subordinates, Mr. Putin ordered web cameras set up in fire-ravaged villages so that he could control online the state-funded construction of burnt homes. As a Russian daily said in a comment on forest fires: “It is not just forests that are on fire, it is Mr. Putin's power vertical that is going up in flames.”

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