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Seeing the Forest for the Trees - Latvia’s Green Gold

  • 2011-04-21
  • By Monika Hanley

BUILDING MATERIAL: As the global economy recovers, so does demand for timber, and with Latvia’s forests being cut down at an increasing rate, the question of who manages the forests best – the state or private owners – arises again.

RIGA - There can be no denying that Latvia’s “green gold,” its timber and forest resources, has become the number one industry in Latvia and is continuing to grow. With a rapid system of exportation (of wood pulp and raw timber), especially to the U.K (which receives about two-thirds of Latvia’s timber), some have raised concern that the forests are being diminished quicker than new trees can be planted, all for the sake of fast money. Sustainable forestry has been a hallmark of the Baltics; however, the quality of Latvian forest management (both state and private owned forests) is being called into question.

A recent Al-Jazeera-promoted documentary, by Glenn Ellis, has brought to light several issues in the cleverly named “Latvia’s pulp fiction,” namely pointing out that the blame in deforestation lies with a poorly managed LVM Latvian State Forest (Latvijas Valsts Mezi - owning about half of the forest resources), which led to the loss of the international NGO certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This, in turn, is something that industry experts have seen as a very bad sign. However, the loss of this certification doesn’t seem to have quieted the saws in state-owned forests, and it has not shut the purses of international timber buyers. Despite the international success of Latvian timber, the management practices and decisions have been called into question. Is Latvia looking towards a forest-less future?

The most controversial practice in place - the clear cutting of forests. A quick plane ride will demonstrate the impact of clear cutting, with huge empty patches visible from the air. Agriculture professor Maris Strazds was quick to point out that, despite the quick cutting and sale of timber breathing life back into the economy, the negative effects are being ignored. “People do not realize the true scale of what is going on yet,” said Strazds.

Management

The practices of forestry depend largely on the owners, and the sustainability game becomes a showdown between state-owned forests, and those which are privately owned. Who does a better job? What is the best way for Latvian forests to be managed?

Lelde Vilkriste (Latvia State Forest Institute ‘Silava’) explains the role of private forest owners in Latvia since private ownership was reinstated. These so-called “new owners” may have led to an increase in clear cutting for fast profits due to poor management. “New forest owners are owners who after 50 years inherited forest property or got it by the privatization process. A generation of ‘new’ owners has no knowledge, experience or tradition in forestry. In a lot of cases they become owners without premeditation and ideas of correct forest usage,” she explained.

Swedish forestry management consultant Lars-George Hedlund has been familiar with the Latvian forestry industry since 1992. “Probably, forestry means more to the Latvian economy than to neighboring ones. It is very important that politicians recognize this and don’t create obstacles, like decreased gross truck weight and many other bureaucratic procedures for the industry and forest owners, which reduces Latvian competitiveness,” said Hedlund.

In terms of management, the key seems to lie in certification. As the certificate was removed after a critical audit took place and advice was not heeded, Hedlund states that the best thing state-owned forest management could do is to regain this certificate.

“State forest LVM needs to regain their FSC Certificate again. They have to take notice about some criticism from auditors and they need to strengthen their procedures and the team working with environmental and social issues. Latvia needs to develop the use of much more bio-energy, as bio-energy from the forests means small dimension wood,” he continued.

Certification

However, according to the executive director of the Latvian Forest Industry Federation, Kristaps Klauss, the FSC certificate is “a marketing tool and nothing else.” LVM went so far as to say that not only was the certificate unnecessary, but the procedures for determining certification were faulty. The main concerns stemming from the FSC audit were regarding management, stating that LVM had begun felling trees in a concentrated widespread cutting area. In other words - clear-cutting.

Instead of working towards their own Environmental Policy, of “ensuring the sale of FSC-certified growing trees and assorted round wood from all of the LVM-managed forests,” LVM criticized the FSC, saying “Professionals involved in the audit process were inconsistent and implied incompetence of the Latvian forest management issues, which has led to suggestions that it complicates the company-developed plan to reduce the environmental impact of disposal, fossil fuel consumption and reduction of forest management activities.” In short, a lack of international certification does not seem to have fazed the state-owned forests’ managers one bit.

In fact, Latvian timber exports grew by over 50 percent in 2010 compared to 2009, exporting over 500 million lats’ (714.2 million euros) worth, primarily to the UK, Sweden and Germany.  
Latvians as a people are very attached to their natural surroundings and claims of deforestation have reached the ears and mouths of the average citizen. The Ministry of Agriculture explained “that the recent increase of Latvia’s logging quotas is only a temporary measure, due to the consequences of the economic crisis. The quota was increased to keep jobs within the Latvian logging industry.” Despite this explanation, the idea that the forests may be depleted has caused alarm among locals and international conservationists. LVM have long since said that they make a concerted effort to conform to sustainable practices, and plant new trees for those that have been cut down. However, locals have come out and said that this practice is simply not enough to ensure sustainable growth.

“Yes, they maybe replant the trees, but what good comes of it if they cut all the mature trees down right now? It will take a lifetime to grow and all the forest animals will be long gone by then, when the now-planted trees will turn into a new forest,” explained the aptly named Janis Kocins (little tree), a student at the University of Latvia.

The outrage over so-called de-forestation has been examined carefully by forest managers as well as by agricultural academics, taking a look at the whole picture. Some 1,000 years ago, Latvia was covered with about 80 percent of mixed forest (birch, pine, spruce), with little open land. When the population rose, more land was used for agricultural production and, by 1920, as little as 23 percent of Latvia remained forestland. During Soviet times many forested areas were left unkempt and thrived, and by the turn of the century the official percentage for Latvian forest coverage was 47 percent. Currently the figure hovers around 50 percent, according to Professor Zigurds Zalins (University of Agriculture, Jelgava).
Professor of Agriculture Dagnis Dubrovskis has defended the system of forest management and the 633.4 million cubic meters of timber that is managed through a combination of state and privately owned companies. “The annual timber extraction volumes are being controlled at a sustainable level and are not exhausting the country’s forest resources,” said Dubrovskis.

The forestry sector, employing about 83,000 people (according to the Latvian chairman of the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, Arnis Muiznieks) has also acknowledged that the privately owned forests are doing an increasingly better job at forest management.

But would private ownership of the forests provide better management? “Today 50 percent of forests in Latvia are privately owned. From the point of growing wood, and producing an economic result, it is generally worse managed than state forests. In the last 20 years some of the 150,000 different forest owners have sold their restituted forests,” said Hedlund.
The increased timber quotas have led to bigger profits and more work for local foresters, however, the long-term economic impact may not continue heading in the current upward direction. Senior economists from Swedbank and SEB Bank have predicted that 2011 will even see a slowdown in the industry already. “Speeding growth rates will decelerate, due to a gradually disappearing base effect; however, the industry will also show growth in 2011. In addition, the industry will benefit from constructive collaboration with Russia and the CIS countries,” said economist Dainis Gaspuitis.

Future of Felling

The Latvian forestry industry has not seen much of a setback despite losing the important FSC certificate. Instead, in late March, the industry received a boost from the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), who just approved the latest draft of the Latvian Forest Certification System.

While the true impact of forest management or mismanagement is yet to be seen, it is clear that there is a rift between the activities of private owners and the state. The statistics are tricky on the subject of forestry, with such seemingly inane questions as “what do we qualify as a tree?” being brought into play. According to a forester in Cesis, there is a difference between what the state counts as a tree, and what private owners classify as a tree.

“I think that the state will do anything to make it seem like there are more trees. In reality, a 7-inch sapling should not be counted as useable timber,” said the rural forester who preferred to remain anonymous.
While the current quotas in place may be beneficial economically in the short term, the long term looks bleaker, as regardless of good intentions, the forests are not being replenished as quickly as they are being felled. Forestry academic Professor D. Brumelis summarized the situation well, saying “It cannot go on like this forever.”