WE DO NOT PRESERVE WHAT
Within last ten years in Kazakhstan forests were treated as if they
covered most of the country’s territory. In reality forests cover only 4.2% of
the country’s overall territory. Moreover, this figure includes bushes and
desert plants. Actual forests grow on only 0.4% of the territory.
Steppes and deserts cover the vast expanses of Kazakhstan’s territory, 66% of
the country’s total landmass to be exact. As a result of human activities
deserts expand at ever growing rates.
Of course, land covered with woods bears not only aesthetic value. Trees protect
soils and regulate water flows serving as the Earth’s lungs emitting oxygen and
consuming carbon dioxide. Moreover, forests are homes to the vast majority of
the planet’s animals and birds. In practical terms trees are used in a wide
range of production processes, including production of furniture, paper, etc.
Seemingly all these factors indicate that it is beneficial to preserve and
expand forests, which every country recognizes as a part of the national
treasures. There are obvious practical and aesthetic reasons.
In Kazakhstan the need to preserve forests is particularly urgent since the
country is known for the harsh climate typical for the vast majority of its
territory. Low temperatures, dust storms and lack of water make redevelopment of
forests extremely difficult.
Nevertheless, we barbarously treat our limited resources.
Each year fires destroy thousands of hectares of woods. For example, from 1997
to 2002 more than 500 housand hectares of forests were burnt to the ground.
However, for the last several years firefighters’ forest air patrols received no
budget funds allocations.
Annually we cut down thousands of hectares of forests to satisfy the needs of
our neighbors, primarily, Uzbekistan and China. As a result, we currently serve
as one of the most active exporters of lumber. Surprisingly, not only wood
smugglers’ saws work near Semipalatinsk and Pavlodar in unique string pine
forests which survived through the Ice Age. Thousands of trees fall down every
year near Almaty, where agnificent Shrenk’s pines grow (Shrenk’s pines have been
included into the Red Book of endangered species).
In addition to widespread wood smuggling and careless attitude of government
officials in charge of forests protection and development, common citizens going
out for recreational purposes add to the problems of our forests. Apparently, a
lot of tourists believe that “even the world flood can take place as soon as I
leave”. Today’s tourists leave future generations with tons of garbage
destroying the grass, cut down young trees and bushes, burnt down areas of
All of these atrocities take place in the environment of ever decreasing budget
funding, taking place despite the fact that state and local budgets accumulate
all fees paid for the use of forests and associated resources (significant
amounts by any estimate). So, from every standpoint currently Kazakhstan is in
an extremely disadvantageous position with respect to forests conservation and
Just a few facts illustrating the overall trend.
Last year China introduced a 20 year ban on cutting trees leading to a steep
increase in commercial lumber prices in Kazakhstan to more than 50 USD per cubic
meter. However, entrepreneurs get well compensated for all risks and expenses
incurred in Kazakhstan – in China the same cubic meter of lumber will be sold
for 2-3 times its original price.
After Kazakhstan had banned exports of non-processed lumber, official sawmills
and smugglers desperately searched for alternative solutions and found them.
Trees with removed outer layers qualify as processed lumber. Hence enterprising
woodsmen carry out initial processing on-site where the trees are cut and then
transport supposedly processed lumber. The operation is easy to perform but it
allows to bypass the ban. The same methodology works for pine forests.
In southern Kazakhstan wood smugglers act in a different fashion. They
capitalize on careless attitudes of local authorities and environmental
protection services, pay certain amounts of bribes and cut down massive
quantities of archi trees (entered in the Red Book of endangered species) which
are particularly valuable because of extreme water resistance. Each year saws
cut down unique trees with the average age of 600 years. Archi trees do not grow
in Almaty region. However, there are desert bushes. Impoverished local
population has no means to procure heating coal, hence desert bushes serve as a
Scientists estimate that if we continue the same barbarous practices to support
our daily living then in about 12 years time we’ll have to live in a desert.
Kazakhstan’s overall territory is 272490.2 thousand square kilometers. The
territory is primarily covered with steppes and deserts. Forests cover 11427.1
thousand square kilometers or approximately 4.2%. Pine trees constitute 15% of
the total amount of forests, other types of trees – 14%, desert plants – 48%,
bushes – 23%.
Eastern Kazakhstan – the extraordinary zone
This region deserves to be a subject of a special discussion. Eastern
Kazakhstan is the country’s most polluted region and at the same time serving as
home to Kazakhstan’s greatest forests.
Let’s talk about pollution first. Ten thousand stationary pollution sources
annually emit 240 thousand tons of industrial wastes. The region’s atmosphere
receives influxes of lead, copper, cadmium, zinc, arsenic, chlorine and other
substances. “Kazzinc” corporation is responsible for 46% of all wastes.
Local Environmental Protection Department and ecologists try to address these
issues. They demand to introduce new production technologies, monitor
atmospheric conditions. However, no real changes take place. The forces are
vastly different. Industrialists are today’s kings. They pay taxes and create
new jobs. And today’s benefits always take precedent.
Even local authorities openly state that the region’s ecological situation is at
critical levels. Local media outlets openly publish statistics related to water,
air and soils pollution. People know how dangerous it is to breathe here, and
consume agricultural products grown in the area. For example, everyone knows
that in the vicinity of industrial centers lead concentrations in cow milk
exceed acceptable sanitary level by more than 12 times! So what? People drink
milk anyway. Poor people do not care much about ecology. As a result, in the
region there are more than 2.6 times more patients undergoing cancer-related
treatment than the nation-wide average.
Now, as for the forests. Forests cover almost 50% of the region’s territory –
1.75 million hectares. This figure constitutes 48% of all nation’s forests.
Eastern Kazakhstan satisfies 80% of the country’s demand for commercial lumber.
However, fires (more than 200 thousand hectares burnt down since 1997),
industrial soil pollution and wholesale commercial cutting (more than 400
thousand cubic meters of lumber cut since 1997) are depleting the treasures.
Experts estimate that more than 300 thousand hectares are under the direct
threat of deforestation. Of course, some forest development efforts take place.
However, forest development covers only 2.5 thousand hectares. There are no
resources to do more, which means that it will take more than 100 years to
compensate only for the losses caused by fires. And this will be the case only
in the most ideal circumstances. For example, under the assumption that every
planted tree will grow up. In reality, only 50% of young trees survive.
Ten years ago wholesale commercial cutting was allowed and Eastern Kazakhstan’s
forests were a part of the safe third group of forests. Since then the region’s
forests have been reclassified as the first and second group forests meaning
that they require special care and attention.
Pine tree forests constitute a particularly acute aspect of the problem. In
1997-1998 the territory of pine tree forests decreased by more than 40%.
Droughts of the last several years hurt the immune systems of pine tree forests
leading to 20% of the forests being contaminated with assorted types of fungus.
The situation is closely tied to last year’s scandal involving the then Eastern
Kazakhstan region’s Akim (head of the regional executive branch), Mr. Vitalii
Mette. In June 2002 he made the decision to rent out seven forest management
units covering 1,380,000 hectares for 50 years to an Austrian company
Worldinvest Ltd. Foreign investor’s offer seemed quite attractive. Worldinvest
Ltd. promised to build a lumber processing facility worth around 36 million USD.
Mr. Mette insisted that the plant would allow to revive the region’s furniture
production industry. Akim was even willing to forget about the fact that
Worldinvest Ltd. had been offering to manage lumber production and processing
promising no funding to support forests development and environmental protection
In 2002 Mr. Mette sent a letter to Prime-minister Tasmagambetov explaining all
benefits of cooperation with the foreign investor. He was urging to accept
intensified lumber production rates in the region yielding to the foreigners’
demands. Mr. Mette’s key argument stated that the region’s forests contained
more than 80 thousand cubic meters of over-aged trees and resources allowed to
produce annually 600 thousand cubic meters of lumber instead of the current 115
Non-governmental organization “Bars” estimates that there are a lot more
over-aged trees scattered throughout the region – about 40 million cubic meters
or, approximately, 20% of all trees. However, the vast majority of over-aged
trees grow in hardly accessible areas, on steep slopes.
Naturally, ecologists loudly voiced their arguments against the idea of the
long-term rent. Experts demand an independent project assessment. So far, the
government has not rejected the project
Under current circumstances the Austrian company will most likely not be allowed
to reign in the forests of Eastern Kazakhstan, however, there are no guarantees.