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 forests.

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 development.

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 perfect alternative.

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 efforts.

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 thousand.

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.


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