TFT's Romain Su shares his experience of a recent visit to Podporozhye
One year ago, Alastair Herd concluded his report on his trip with Bjorn to Russia wishing that “the next time he visits, the forest will be better managed, intact and thriving”. This is yet to demonstrate for Karpogory, 200 km east to the icy port of Arkhangelsk, but our recent expedition to Podporozhye, closer to the former imperial capital Saint Petersburg, gives some ground for optimism.
True enough, doing field assessments for TFT, we are unlikely to have the chance to see thriving forests in Russia, not because they don’t exist, but under such latitudes, forestry operations are mainly carried out during the winter season. When the weather becomes milder, the soil is so muddy that it is hardly possible for vehicles to go out of paved roads.
Therefore, except for the noise of engines, our impressions of Russian forests are composed of immobile, dumb landscapes covered with a thick layer of snow at the bottom and finer powder on tree branches. Despite appearances of endless spaces, these tall and skinny silhouettes densely populate the land, as if they were trying to stay warm by standing as close as possible to each other.
Lost in the woods
From time to time, the monotony of the landscape is briefly paused by a lonely man wearing military-style clothes and bearing skies on his shoulders. He is a game warden, responsible on his own for preventing illegal hunting on an area covering hundreds of square kilometres. There is a similar disproportion in Russian forest rangers, though the situation has improved since the low point of the 1990s.
Lost in these territories, you might more likely meet a bear than a human being, even if contrary to common stereotypes about Russia, it will be rather brown than white. The colour is important, because some species can climb trees while others can’t, so a correct identification is crucial in choosing the adequate defence strategy.
In any case, repeating Misha, Misha, Misha as if you were talking to your friend Mikhail – in Russian, Misha is the short form of this name and refers to the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games – will certainly not save you.
Another common thought about Russia is that everything there is huge, and actually this one is quite accurate. The forest lease we visited, from which originates the raw material entering into the composition of product packages for our member, counts a few hundreds of thousands of hectares, larger than the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. And that is only a small fraction of one of the 85 so-called subjects (regions) of the Russian Federation.
However, poor forestry management in the past makes difficult nowadays to source valuable timber: an excessively dense tree cover limits the possibility for individuals to develop, in particular in a cold climate where the growth season is short. Second, reliance on natural regeneration after wide clear-cutting campaigns – an excuse not to bother too much about reforestation – has favoured species like aspen, which grows and reproduces faster than other types of trees but at the same time hinders their apparition and doesn’t have the same economic value as for example spruces or birches.
International companies which have started to operate in Russia in the 1990s have been trying to improve the state of forest stocks by introducing, with the support of local and worldwide NGOs, new management techniques like intensive forestry. Though this is not exempt of flaws, in a region where high conservation value forests (HCVF) are rare, concentrating economic exploitation on smaller, but very productive areas sounds like a reasonable way to continue being able to meet consumers’ needs while limiting negative environmental impact in the wider sense – road construction, traffic.
In an environment subject to political fluctuations, this is a real gamble. Yet forestry in these northern latitudes is by essence a long-term business, and what is planted today will be harvested by our children at the earliest, if not by their own children or grandchildren. In Podporozhye, nurturing seeds is not only about digging holes to grow young spruces, but also transforming local forestry practices through trainings, study visits and pilots which can prove their effectiveness and feasibility. That is why working in forests requires a lot of patience, even though sometimes at TFT we would like to see more transformation occurring immediately. We might not see in the nearest future intact and thriving forests in Russia, but knowing that we are contributing to prepare the ground for them is already a certain solace.