RIGA - As police arrested a company director last month on suspicion of illegally selling forest land, new statistics showed expansion in forest sector exports. But forests are suffering at the hands of small landowners, warned environmentalists.
Dainis Dadzis, director of the forestry company Privato Ipasumu Fondi, was detained for questioning Sept. 4 for an initial three-day period, said Krists Leiskalns, Latvian state police spokesman.
News of Dadzis's alleged crime came as new statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture showed a 14.1 percent increase in forest sector exports in the first half of 2000, compared with the first six months of 1999.
The increase was due to traders establishing more contacts "to (the) east and west," said Andrejs Domkins, president of the Latvian Association of Wood Processing Entrepreneurs and Exporters.
"This is a particularly energetic area of the economy because wood processors can compete on equal terms with companies in EU, unlike in the agricultural sector where EU farmers receive subsidies," said Domkins.
"As Latvian companies have accumulated capital they've been able to process wood, rather than exporting it in its raw state," he said.
The United Kingdom is Latvia's largest market for sawn wood, while Sweden is the main buyer of wood-pulp and wood-based fuel.
Increased processing capacity was also responsible for a 16.4 percent increase in wood product imports in the same period, said Aija Budreiko, of the Department of Forest Resources and Economics at the Ministry of Agriculture. With the up-turn in the Russian economy, more Russian and Belarusian timber is being processed in Latvia, then exported.
But the private sector, which accounts for around half of Latvia's forest, is often responsible for environmental damage, warned Rolands Auzins, head of the State Forest Service's Environmental Protection Department.
"The forest is a source of fast money for small owners," he said.
"Despite fines and education programs they don't regenerate the land. But regeneration is essential. We have to think ahead, not only about today or the next five years."
Owners' failure to attend seminars in the forest, because they live in Riga, far from their land, was particularly highlighted by Auzins.
But the situation is not necessarily worse than in Soviet times, he said.
"Then there was a lack of information. Now we know more about violations."
Private land represents a new challenge in Latvian forestry, said Ugis Rotbergs, country representative for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.
Land has been privatized as people have claimed plots belonging to their parents or grandparents in the pre-Soviet era. Much of this land is now relatively new forest, due to collectivization and deportations, which resulted in forest coverage increasing from 27 percent to 45 percent in the Soviet period. Owners often "cut, cash and run," rather than restoring the land to unprofitable agriculture said Rotbergs.
"Raising awareness and professionalism among new forest owners is now our top priority. We have to build their participation. Private forest owners are badly organized and we have very little knowledge about them."
Latvian forest policy is not about simply ensuring a continuous flow of timber, he said.
"Forestry has undergone an enormous greening here. Silvaculture used to be about keeping the forest clean and orderly. It was illegal to leave dead trees standing after clearances for example. This wasn't ecological. Now we set aside key habitats and large areas have been designated as national parks."
Depletion of the ozone layer is not necessarily going to be solved by replanting trees, said Rotbergs. The new policies reflect this.
"Standing timber is good for the ozone layer. But if you drain the forest to promote growth you release carbon from the soil. Natural systems hold an enormous amount of carbon. So we have to look at the whole system. Good forestry is needed in industrial as well as protected areas."
Reforms in the private forest sector require increased public awareness, said Janis Ulme, of Latvia's Environmental Protection Club.
"Something is wrong with the public's concept of how we manage one of Latvia's largest natural resources. We need to improve awareness but we don't have the resources or expertise," he said.
Some educational work is being done by the Children's Environmental School however, said Rot-bergs.
One issue bothering environmentalists around the world, genetically modified trees, is not yet an issue in Latvia, said Auzins, "although we don't know what private companies are doing."