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''Al Jazeera'' reports on Latvia's rapid deforestation

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The Baltic Course
Nina Kolyako
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he London based Qatari news channel ''Al Jazeera English'' has aired an investigative report on Latvia's rapid deforestation, blaming state-owned joint-stock company Latvijas Valsts mezi (Latvian State Forests, LVM) on cutting down the country's forests.

The television channel points out that Latvia is blessed with some of the most beautiful forests in the world and millions of square kilometers of pristine woodland that support a complex biodiversity of rare species of animals and plants, but with the Latvian economy in difficulties and the need for money pressing, those trees are being cut down at an alarming rate, informs LETA.

The channel's investigative report about Latvia's forest is called – ''Latvia's pulp fiction''. Overall, ''Al Jazeera'' describes the situation as alarming, and doubts an international NGO that certifies timber is being sustainably produced.

The report itself starts with a fragment from British Prime Minister David Cameron's address at January's UK-Nordic-Baltic Summit in London, where the British PM praised Latvia's untouched wilderness and environmentally friendly business ideas.

''But Britain's appetite for Latvian timber calls into question this enthusiasm,'' the report says, pointing out over a third of Latvia's timber is exported to Great Britain.

Last year, Latvia's timber exports increased 53%. Latvian wood is even currently being used in the construction of London's Olympic Stadium, ''Al Jazeera'' reports.

University of Latvia biology professor Guntis Brumelis tells the channel about Latvia's forests, as well as the diversity of the country's flora and fauna and the many endangered species that inhabit these forests.

Showing a video of forests being cut down in Latvia, ''Al Jazeera'' points out that these forests are state-owned and managed by Latvian State Forests.

Over a third of Latvia's timber is exported to Great Britain. Many of the products of the trade from furniture to wood pulp and paper are sold in the United Kingdom under a labeling scheme run by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international NGO that certifies timber is being sustainably produced.

A buyer, who purchases a specific wood product with a FSC label, is confidant that he or she is not contributing to the destruction of the world's forests.

However, the executive director of the Latvian Forest Industry Federation Kristaps Klauss believes that the ''FSC is a marketing tool and nothing else''.

Company's who wish to sell their wood products with the FSC logo must pay for the privilege.

''However, Latvia's forests, supposedly protected by EU law, are being cut down at an unsustainable rate. The Latvian timber is then passed on to UK consumers with the FSC logo,'' the report points out. ''A tree that has taken over a hundred year to grow can be reduced to logs in two minutes.''

''In Latvia, 150 harvesters work night and day, with a capacity to consume 15 million cubic meters every year, double the legal limit. But more harvesters are on the way, and there is no stopping them,'' the ''Al Jazeera'' special report goes on to say.

As the TV channel was told by a person from the Latvian logging industry, nobody really knows exactly how much of Latvia's territory is being cut down. Part of the confusion is that when an area has been replanted, it is reclassified as a forest, even though the saplings are just a few inches tall and will take a hundred years to reach maturity.

Latvian State Forests is the main beneficiary of this industrial destruction of the country's forests, the channel points out.

On the other hand, Latvian State Forests representative Tomass Kotovics maintains that the logging industry in Latvia is being administered responsibly, taking the ''Al Jazeera'' reporters to a logging site where the forest that was cut down was over 135 years old.

The channel points out that the practice of clear-cutting in Latvia, which is a controversial forestry/logging practice in which most or all trees in a harvest area are cut down, has become popular in Latvia.

The ''Al Jazeera'' reporters then take a ride on a helicopter, where they see full-scale of the clear-cuts in Latvia.

Ornithologist Maris Strazds points out during the report that these clear-cuts can in Latvia can be seen very well from satellite photographs, and are scattered all throughout the country.

''People do not realize the true scale of what is going on yet,'' Strazds points out.

The director of the Agriculture Ministry's Forestry Department Arvids Ozols explains 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.

However, ''Al Jazeera'' points out that logging on this scale is not sustainable and threaten the very jobs they claim to support.

Asked whether the government might increase the logging quotas again, Professor Brumelis points out that he believes that this is the limit which will have to go down at some point, because there will be much less wood available. ''It cannot go on like this forever,'' Brumelis points out.

Strazds also expresses his concerns about the quotas, pointing out that they were increased for a period of two years, but now these quotas have been extended for another three years.

''Al Jazeera'' points out that Latvia's capital Riga has always prospered from its forests, and timber has always been one of Latvia's main export products.

Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis (Unity) has denied criticism on rapid deforestation, pointing out that the main problem is caused by owners of private forests who do not replant their forests.

The Latvian State Forest Service is in charge of controlling and monitoring the operation of Latvian State Forests, but has had problems stopping the aggressive forest cutting of the state-owned company, as Latvian courts have overruled petitions by the Forest Service and local governments to deny logging permits to Latvian State Forests.

Deforestation in Latvia has also caught the attention of the FSC, which carried out an audit on the situation in Latvia's forests. The audit found out that the environmental impact of concentrated felling sites was not properly evaluated.

Commenting to results of the audit, Latvian State Forests spokesman Kotovics points out that his company does not agree with the audit's findings.

In its report, the FSC also points out that ''Latvian State Forests'' does not have a functional system of protecting key habitats of national and EU importance.

When questioned about this, Kotovics asked to stop the interview.

The FSC auditors said that logging levels in Latvia have doubled because of the actions of ''Latvian State Forests'', leading to a significant change to the country's eco-system.

''Al Jazeera'' reports that, following the audit, Latvian State Forests was suspended from the FSC, but was surprisingly reinstated within two days.

In the meantime, Strazds points out that the FSC certificate to Latvian State Forests has only helped the situation in Latvia's forests deteriorate.

As a shocking example of the aggressive logging of Latvian State Forests, the ''Al Jazeera'' report shows a video of logging currently taking place in a protected nature reserve, which is against both Latvian and European Union law.

Strazds points out that this specific nature reserve is an important area for wildlife and should have been protected by law. The area that was cut down even had an informative notice board, informing that it was a protected area and describing the rare species that inhabit the area.

Asked to comment on what the European Union can do in such a situation, EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik explains that Brussels can issue a warning at first, but later turn to the courts to issue Latvia a fine.

The ''Al Jazeera'' reports ends pointing out that if logging continues at its current pace, Latvia's rich and unique wildlife could be lost forever.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut