Fires cost Russia '300 billion dollars' in deforestation

26th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Wildfires have cost Russia 300 billion dollars in forest loss, environmentalists said on Thursday, explaining the scale of the disaster by Vladimir Putin's "absurd" changes to forestry law.

The economic damage amounts to 25,000 dollars per hectare (2.4 acres), or at least 300 billion dollars, according to estimates based on the market value of timber and the cost of reforestation, said Alexei Zimenko, general director of the Biodiversity Conservation Centre.

"The figures are completely astronomical," Zimenko told a news conference, adding that they did not include several factors, such as the loss of wildlife like insects and rare birds and animals.

According to Russian environmentalists, citing data from the Global Fire Monitoring Centre, the fires have covered an area of 10 million to 12 million hectares in Russia since the start of the year.

The government's emergencies ministry says however that nearly 29,500 fires covering a total area of 935,286 hectares have so far been registered in the country this year.

Environmentalists say the authorities have purposely under-reported the scale of the disaster.

"Unfortunately, official data on the scale of wildfires is reduced by a factor of three to 10," several environmental groups, including Zimenko's Biodiversity Conservation Centre, WWF Russia and Greenpeace Russia, said in a statement released at the news conference.

Several economists have put the cost to the economy this year at roughly 7-15 billion dollars.

The fires wreaked such colossal damage due to the "absurd" forestry legislation and reforms passed since the start of Vladimir Putin's 2000-2008 presidency when he eliminated the Federal Forestry Service and introduced a new Forest Code, activists said.

Reforms spearhead by Putin, now the prime minister, turned Russia's prized forests into a virtual no-man's land as they led to the sacking of some 150,000 forestry officials, among other changes, they said.

As a result, authorities have been so helpless in the face of the worst ever heatwave and fires that local officials told residents in one village to jump into a pond if the fires reached their village, said Grigory Kuksin of Greenpeace Russia.

"The system of control over forests have collapsed," said Ivan Blokov, head of Greenpeace Russia.

He added that the catastrophe would repeat in the coming years unless the authorities reinstate the forestry agencies eliminated under Putin in an apparent attempt to save money.

"The forests look abandoned. And you know what happens to abandoned forests: they get plundered, they catch fire," said Nikolai Shmatkov, forest policy coordinator at WWF Russia.

Seeking to demonstrate he is in control of the situation, Putin himself doused fires in a water bombing jet and travelled around the country to meet Russians whose homes were destroyed in the flames.

He also replaced the head of Russia's forestry agency, after his policies were heavily criticised and he found himself shouted at by the victims of the fires in a rare show of public anger.

The fires might have also dealt a severe blow to a number of rare birds, including cranes, said Viktor Zubakin, president of the Russian Bird Conservation Union, adding however that ornithologists would get a full picture of the losses only in spring when they see which birds do not return to forests.

"By all accounts we've lost large habitats for rare birds," he added.

Putin in the past years has made a big show of his love for nature, publicly kissing animals, promoting efforts to save endangered species like the Amur Tiger and chasing grey whales on his most recent trip to the Far East.

© 2010 AFP

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