Russian History


Soil and Forests

Russia devotes about 10 percent of its land to agriculture, but land quality is declining. Erosion carries away as much as 1.5 billion tons of topsoil every year (see Agriculture, ch. 6). In the past twenty-five years, Russia's arable land area has decreased by an estimated 33 million hectares, with much of that loss attributable to poor land management. Experts fear that agricultural land management may deteriorate further under Russia's new land privatization as individual farmers try to squeeze short-term profit from their new property. In the early 1990s, an estimated 50 percent of arable land needed remediation and improved management for agricultural productivity to improve. Russia's southern regions, especially the Republic of Kalmykia, are losing about 6,400 hectares of agricultural land yearly to desertification. To the east, desiccation of the Aral Sea and expansion of the Qizilqum Desert in Kazakstan have a climatic drying effect that exacerbates desertification in Russia to the north and west.

In Russia an estimated 74 million hectares of agricultural land have been contaminated by industrial toxic agents, pesticides, and agricultural chemicals. Considerable land also is lost in the extraction of mineral resources. Unauthorized dumping of hazardous industrial, chemical, and household waste takes land out of production. Flooding is a problem near the Caspian Sea and in Stavropol' Territory, where the construction of reservoirs has removed land from use.

In 1994 about 22 percent of the world's forests and 50 percent of its coniferous forests were in Russia, covering an area larger than the continental United States. Of the 764 million hectares of forested area, 78 percent was in Siberia and the Far East. At that time, vast stands of Siberian forest remained untouched. Such broad expanses have an important role in the global carbon cycle and in biodiversity. In the 1990s, the atmosphere of economic stress and political decentralization has the potential to accelerate drastically Russia's rate of deforestation and land degradation, especially in remote areas. Environmentalists fear that timber sales will be used as a short-term stimulus to regional economies; already, Chinese, Mongolian, and North and South Korean companies have taken advantage of looser restrictions and the critical need for hard currency (see Glossary) to begin clear-cutting Siberian forests. Timber harvesting by Russian firms decreased dramatically in the 1990s, from 375 million cubic meters in 1989 to 110 million cubic meters in 1996.

Aleksey Yablokov, head of the nongovernmental Center for Russian Environmental Policy, has estimated that Siberia is losing 16 million hectares of forest annually to cutting, pollution, and fires--an amount six times the official government estimate and higher than the rate of loss in the Amazon rain forests. Fires, which normally improve biodiversity and long-term stability, cause excessive damage because of poor fire control measures. Large tracts of Russian forest, most notably 136,000 hectares in the vicinity of Chernobyl', have suffered radioactive contamination, which also increases the likelihood of forest fires. Because forests cannot be decontaminated, the distribution of radioactive particles in the trees remains constant over many years.

Inefficient lumbering procedures cause unnecessary loss of timber; as much as 40 percent of Russia's harvested trees never go to the mill, and unsystematic clear-cutting prevents productive regrowth. Forest management has improved gradually in the post-Soviet era. In 1993 the Supreme Soviet, then the lower house of Russia's parliament, passed the Principles of the Forest, national laws that include guidelines for management and protection. Because implementation of these laws has been quite slow, many regional jurisdictions have adopted their own management standards.

Acid rain from European and Siberian industrial centers and from power generation plants has reduced the Siberian forests by an estimated 730,000 hectares. Hydroelectric dams on Siberian rivers raise significantly the temperature of air and water, destabilizing the growing conditions of adjacent forests. Because of the enormous oxygen production and carbon dioxide absorption of the Russian forests (a capacity estimated to be second only to that of the Amazon rain forest), removal of large sections of those forests would have a drastic effect on the quality of land in Russia and the quality of air over the entire world.