Forestry reforms could fall short without PM’s backing in Ukraine

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  • Ukrainian’s prime minister called for “a massive crackdown” on his country’s timber sector after allegations of widespread corruption and illegality.
  • The London-based NGO Earthsight first revealed the potential illegalities in a July 2018 report, and since then, independent investigations from WWF Ukraine and the EU’s Technical Assistance and Information Exchange have corroborated Earthsight’s findings.
  • A reform package that would allow for independent enforcement of Ukraine’s forestry laws and increased transparency has been approved by the country’s cabinet of ministers, but it still lacks the signature and public backing of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.

Ukraine appears to have stalled in a “massive crackdown” on corruption and illegality in its timber sector, according to the group that exposed the practices.

Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman launched the measures in July, following revelations from a report published by the U.K.-based investigative NGO Earthsight.

“The facts are terrible,” Groysman said in a government statement from July 18. “I will continue to unmask all the shadow schemes that are in effect. And I will struggle to prevent such schemes. The fight will be fruitful.”

Site of a recent clearing near Zakarpattia, Ukraine. Image © Earthsight.

But in the months since, progress has petered out, as a package of “meaningful reforms” still lacks the prime minister’s signature, according to Sam Lawson, Earthsight’s executive director.

“If he signs off on this reform process, then there’s some hope,” Lawson told Mongabay. Until now, though, much of the response has involved stepped-up enforcement to ensure that timber leaving the country has the right documentation, he said.

“[The corruption] is more deep-rooted than that.”


Earthsight’s investigation shed light on corruption in Ukraine’s forestry sector. Video © Earthsight.

Lawson and his team at Earthsight spent two years digging into long-standing allegations of illegal logging in Ukraine. At the center of the issue is the State Forestry Resource Agency, or SAFR. With 60,000 employees, it wields tremendous power in Ukraine, according to the report. SAFR, through a web of state forestry enterprises, generates 83 percent of Ukraine’s timber — an industry that accounts for around 2 percent of the country’s economic output. Much of what’s exported ends up in European Union countries.

At the same time, SAFR is also responsible for ensuring that harvests are legal.

“It’s a huge conflict of interest that’s been exposed repeatedly,” Lawson said.

Since Earthsight released its report, two independent investigations have corroborated the organization’s findings.

Railway cars loaded with timber in Ukraine. Image © Earthsight.

WWF Ukraine’s analysis (in Ukrainian) demonstrated that one-third or more of the wood that’s cut each year in the Carpathian Mountains could be considered illegally harvested. The finding has led WWF Ukraine to urge the country’s leaders to make systemic changes.

“[Only] by joint efforts of citizens and official structures we will be able to protect the forest from illegal destruction,” Dmitry Karabchuk, who led the project for WWF Ukraine, said at a roundtable discussion convened by several government agencies on Nov. 5, according to a statement.

In its own examination of the Ukrainian timber sector, the EU’s Technical Assistance and Information Exchange (TAIEX) found an “ineffective system of law enforcement to tackle forest crime.”

A clear-cut site near Ivano-Frankivsk, in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains. Image © Earthsight.

The authors also uncovered evidence of the widespread use of “sanitary felling” to justify the clearing of trees under the guise of promoting forest health. Lawson told Mongabay in July that this was “a common form of malpractice” by logging outfits in ex-Soviet states.

The TAIEX report notes that “all concerned Ukrainian authorities confirmed that half of all sanitary felling was … subject to misinterpretation and corruption which stemmed from the easiness of acquiring permits.”

In addition to an increase in transparency, the EU is now calling for a change in responsibilities so that SAFR is no longer responsible for policing itself. Instead, a separate — and independent — agency should take on that role, it says.

A researcher in a “state forestry enterprise” in Zakarpattia, Ukraine. Image © Earthsight.

“These are all fundamental forest governance reforms that are necessary to get to the root of the problem of timber corruption and illegal logging in Ukraine,” Lawson said.

Now, though, the necessary changes in forest management, already approved by Ukraine’s cabinet, hinge on the full-throated backing of the prime minister, Lawson said in a statement. And the stakes couldn’t be higher, he added.

“The future of Ukraine’s forests and its timber industry depend upon it.”

Banner image of a sawmill in Lviv, Ukraine, © Earthsight.

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Editor’s note: Mongabay has an ongoing collaboration with Earthsight on the Indonesia for Sale series.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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