- The smoke here was so thick that it resembled
a heavy fog. Its acrid smell spread to villages more than 1,000 miles away.
To escape the forest inferno, many animals headed into the city. Startled
residents in one apartment building found a brown bear in their lobby.
- The Siberian taiga is a pristine woodland
of conifers, stretching 1.3 million square miles to Russia's Far East Pacific
coast. Comprising nearly a quarter of the planet's timber reserves, the
taiga is twice the size of the Amazon rain forest. It is one of the earth's
great lungs, generating oxygen and extracting pollutants, while providing
a refuge for endangered tigers, bears and birds.
- But huge fires have been raging unchecked
in the Siberian Far East for three months, devastating vast tracts of primeval
forest. United Nations experts who visited Sakhalin island and Khabarovsk,
near the Chinese border, this week called it a global catastrophe.
- "Forest fires of such a scale fall
in the category of worldwide ecological disasters," the U.N. experts
- "They bear consequences not only
for the ecosystem of frontier countries with Russia but also for a large
part of the Northern Hemisphere," the U.N. statement added.
- These 2.2 billion acres of woodland serve
as "sinks" that soak up carbon gases that add to global warming.
The forests host diverse plant and animal life and make up the traditional
homelands of nearly 200,000 indigenous people.
- Now the fires, as well as illegal logging,
are devastating these woods. Environmentalists say this poses a bigger
threat to the world's environment than the destruction of forests in Brazil,
Madagascar, or Thailand.
- Forest fires in the Far East are an annual
summer event, touched off by both nature and careless humans. But this
year was particularly dry, and the autumn rains are late. In Khabarovsk,
about 990,000 acres are still blazing and 2.9 million acres have been destroyed.
As much as two-thirds of the forest on Sakhalin, an island just miles off
Japan, have burned.
- "If there is no serious rain, Sakhalin's
forest will disappear soon," says Yevgeny Usov, a spokesman for Greenpeace
Russia. "The consequences are serious."
- Forest fires are difficult to control
in this part of the world because there are few roads or towns, little
equipment, and scarce funds. The fires began just as Russia's economy collapsed
and the central government is too distracted - and bankrupt - to worry
- Foreigners are filling the void. Japan
pledged $40,000 in humanitarian aid to the town of Gorky, which was ruined
by fire, while foreign oil firms working on Sakhalin have promised $50,000.
But Greenpeace estimates that total material losses in the region could
top $31.5 billion.
- That doesn't even take into account the
ecological havoc: As much as 50 million tons of toxic carbon gasses may
be emitted this year from the forest fires. And ashes falling into Sakhalin
rivers will make it difficult for salmon to spawn. This could affect the
red caviar industry on which the impoverished region depends.
- Environmentalists fighting to save endangered
Siberian tigers are glum. Protection efforts had made progress in stabilizing
the wild population at more than 400, but the fires are destroying traditional
habitats. "This means they will move closer to towns where they inevitably
will be killed by poachers," Greenpeace's Usov says.
- The attention on the forest fires is
obscuring another serious problem - the smuggling of valuable cedar, elm
and ash trees to China, Korea and Japan.
- Illegal logging has soared over the past
decade, especially since borders opened after the Soviet Union's collapse
in 1991. Russia's pervasive corruption means that truckloads of rare wood
regularly cross the border unchecked. It can be catastrophic when the trees
are cut down in areas of permafrost, where soil remains frozen year round.
Swamps are created on which new trees cannot be planted.
- Illegal logging is practically equal
to forest fires in terms of its threat to the taiga, says Vladimir Shetinin,
deputy chairman of the Primorsky region's State Committee on Environmental
Protection, based in Vladivostok.
- "The real smuggling is only beginning
now. Over the past three to four years smugglers got a taste of the money
they could make," he says.
- Ash is one of the most valuable woods
in the world, fetching up to $800 for a small piece, says Vladimir Stegni,
director of the Primorsky regional government's Department of International
Economic Relations in Vladivostok. Cedar is banned from export because
it is so endangered. But it gets to China anyway.
- Shetinin blames the economic crisis,
which he says is driving desperate men to smuggle. "Middlemen meet
laid-off factory workers and take advantage of their professional skills.
This is first-class work."