Borderlands: Illegal Logging Threatens Russia's Last Great Wilderness

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One month after the failed August 1991 coup that fatally weakened the Soviet Union, a group of Russian and American scholars gathered in Moscow to review what might have seemed a politically irrelevant topic--the historical dimensions of the environmental crisis in the US and the USSR. Among them were Nikolai Nikolaevitch Vorontsov Soviet Minister for the Environment, and the only non-communist to serve in Gorbachev's cabinet. Though largely unknown outside of Russia and overshadowed by the ebullient Boris Yeltsin, Vorontsov became something of a hero during the early pro-democracy movement as one of only two cabinet ministers to directly oppose the coup.

In a special issue of the journal of the History of Biology devoted to the conference, Vorontsov reflected on the question of environmental defense in the USSR: "The ideology of the inexhaustibility of our natural resources, of the endlessness of our forests, seas and fish--all this was the euphoria that dominated our consciousness until quite recently." At the same time that the ideology of inexhaustibility was coming to an end, the limits of empire and the redrawing of Russia's borders posed a new kind of ecological threat.

One of the questions that plagued Vorontsov in the early post-Soviet period was how decentralization, new borders, and the opening of markets would affect a nascent environmental protection movement. Vorontsov worried that not only would his ministry be dissolved, but that solving complex ecological problems across national lines would become more difficult. In an effort to address the challenge, he fought to preserve a centralized structure that would allow for coordination among the various republics on environmental issues. "The ecological map," Vorontsov told The New York Times in 1991, "does not correlate with political borders."

He was not speaking solely of disasters like Chernobyl and the starving of the Aral Sea--icons of Soviet mismanagement. Russia's ecological map is dotted with resources--forests, rivers, and lakes--that sometimes form and often defy political boundaries.

It is unlikely that Vorontsov, who died in 2000, included China as part of this new political and ecological landscape. Yet 17 years after his warning, the far eastern frontier has become a flashpoint in Russia's resource wars. As the border with China has become more porous, the trade in illegally harvested timber has cast doubt on the ability of regional governments to manage Russia's wilderness.

Nowhere is this more evident than along the Amur River, which forms a 1,755-mile-long border with China and is the largest free-flowing fiver in the Eastern Hemisphere. To the north and east of the Amur and its tributaries lies one of the greatest wildernesses on the planet and Russia's most biologically diverse region. Sparsely populated and relatively unspoiled, the Russian Far East provides habitat for four of the world's 15 species of cranes, nearly half of all wild Pacific salmon, and the 400 or so remaining Siberian tigers. It also accounts for close to one quarter of the world's forest cover--the largest contiguous expanse on Earth--much of which remains inaccessible because of poorly developed infrastructure and difficult terrain.

"The border out there is the river," says Darron Collins, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund's Amur-Heilong project. "And in this part of the world, it's not the Caucasus that defines Europe from Asia, it's the Amur itself." Wherever one draws the line between Europe and Asia, old distinctions no longer seem to apply.

South of the Amur, where the trade in illegally harvested timber has reached astonishing levels, much of the world's inexpensive wood products are manufactured. In the last decade, once forgotten border towns--buoyed by cheap labor and accessible ports--have become industrial hubs, their wealth and rapid growth a product of the global timber trade. …