How Russian Oligarchs Fuel Conflict Timber and Deforestation

The unseen battle: exploitation, deforestation, and oligarchy power across worldwide forests.

Tue 18 Jul 23


Dozens of fighters from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group have arrived in the Central African Republic ahead of a constitutional referendum on July 30 that could see the country’s president seek another term in 2025.

As reported by Al Jazeera, hundreds of Wagner Group fighters departed CAR days after a short-lived mutiny in Russia in June, led by the group’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, raising questions about the future of Wagner’s military and commercial operations in countries including CAR.

French military officials spotted Wagner Group mercenaries arriving in the Central African Republic on Monday. (Photo Credit: Al Jazerra via Reuters)

The government previously said the fighters’ movement was a rotation of forces rather than a withdrawal.

“Every year there is a rotation,” presidential spokesperson Mokpem told Reuters yesterday, who acknowledged that photos on social media showing dozens on the tarmac were newly arrived mercenaries.

“Some go, and others arrive with logistics, and they do this regularly at all levels, on the military and administrative assistance.” 

“They are also here to secure the constitutional referendum,” the spokesperson said, declining to say how many fighters had arrived.

Footage provided by @NBCNews.
The Russian mercenaries exploit a vulnerable nation.

The country of 5.5 million people is rich in gold, diamonds and timber. It has struggled to find stability since independence in 1960.

As reported by Wood Central last week, the Kremlin has allowed the Wagner to hold onto its CAR businesses, including 186,000 hectares of the world’s rarest forests.

However, now All Eyes on Wagner confirms that Wagner’s interests also extend to the forestry trade in the CAR. 

According to sources close to the Kremlin, Putin will leave Wagner in charge of operations in other African countries that “pay for themselves” while seizing those that directly depend on Moscow.

In a report published last year, All Eyes on Wagner reported that forestry concessions from CAR yield considerable profits for Wagner and, by extension, have been used to finance the Ukraine invasion.

“Taking the hypothesis that 30% of the concession is exploited, the revenue potential could reach 890 million dollars on international markets, which is significant.” 

“Even if such numbers should be refined and some inputs are missing, wood exports could be a profitable business for the Wagner/Prigozhin galaxy and a way to bring back cash to a sanctioned Russia.”

Earlier this week, Russian leader Vladimir Putin denied that the Wagner Group existed. Footage courtesy of @CNN.

Russia first sent security contractors to CAR in 2018 and stepped up its support with more than 1,500 fighters, including instructors and soldiers fighting alongside the country’s army. 

Some soldiers are part of Touadera’s security detail and are regularly seen with him.

Before the referendum, the president will attend the second Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg later this month.

Footage courtesy of @aljazeeraenglish.
Conflict Timber Continues to Finance Ukraine Invasion.

Earlier this month, Wood Central reported that conflict timber connected to Russia’a war with Ukraine continues to infiltrate global timber markets.

Logs from Russia stacked outside Manzhouli, a Chinese border town, where the wood is processed and then shipped throughout the country and the world. China now makes up more than 60% of Russia's global trade. (Photo Credit: Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times in 2021 taken before the Ukraine War)
Logs from Russia are stacked outside Manzhouli, a Chinese border town, where the wood is processed and shipped throughout the country and the world. China now makes up more than 60% of Russia’s global trade. (Photo Credit: Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times in 2021, taken before the Ukraine War)

The ICIJ’s Deforestation Inc identified new routes through China, Turkey and other countries, adding to the traders using Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan previously reported by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

The group allege that more than 100,000 tonnes of lumber have entered Germany, France and other EU countries as part of one of Russia’s biggest illegal timber scandals.

Earlier this year, Wood Central reported that Russia’s export volumes following the decision by the EU to classify timber from Russia as ‘conflict timber.’

Russia’s largest timber company Opts Out of logging moratorium.

It comes at a time when Segezha Group, Russia’s largest timber company, has opted out of a logging moratorium in ecologically valuable forests across Russia.

The World Wildlife Fund reported that the total forested area of Segezha withdrew from protection and is now allowed to log up to 1.5 million hectares.

Security in numbers – Russian oligarchs manage timber companies, with timber sold linked to conflict timber. (Image Credit: Peter Keiner from Cartoon Movement via Voxeurope)

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the European Union imposed sanctions on importing Russian timber products, with PEFC and FSC suspending certifications in Russia.

Olga Ilina, a Karelia nature preservation organisation spokesperson, said, “We have a long history of cooperation with Segezha.” 

“The ecological values [the company] proclaims are an absolute necessity.” 

The region is amongst the most heavily forested in Europe. (Image Credit: Voxeurope)
“Opt out” followed FSC suspending Russian certificates.

But, says Ilina, Segezha stopped abiding by the moratorium on logging last year as soon as it lost access to “ecologically sensitive markets” after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The area that Segezha withdrew from the logging moratorium is one of the last large tracts of untouched taiga in Karelia.

Researchers found large herds of the endangered northern forest deer and more than 70 species of endangered plants, fungi and animals.

The trees can reach 300 years of age. 

Environmentalists in Karelia have tried to persuade Segezha to maintain the ban on logging. 

According to SPOK, which until last month was the Russian branch of the WWF, the FSC suspension drove the decision.

“But this area is valuable regardless of whether the company is certified or not,” a spokesperson for SPOK said. 

FSC certification has been a power for good in Russia. Footage courtesy of @Karma-lj1by.

Last month SPOK broke ties with the WWF after Russia claimed that the ENGO was an “undesirable organisation.”

Russian officials claimed that the organisation was running “tendentious” campaigns against the nation, which it said were aimed at “shackling” Russia’s economic development.

In January 2023, SPOK employees noticed that Segezha had started logging. 

According to SPOK, the company has violated several federal laws protecting the environment, wildlife and endangered species.

The environmentalists have appealed to Karelia’s environmental prosecutor, who contacted the region’s Ministry of Natural Resources.

In February, the ministry said it had agreed with Segezha and that the company had promised to stop logging in a planned nature reserve area but stressed that it didn’t violate existing laws.

Russian protected areas account for just 15% of intact forests.

In Russia, protected areas account for only 15% of the forest. 

Much of this forest is leased by timber companies, and these areas are constantly shrinking due to logging and forest fires. 

According to data obtained by Global Forest Watch, Russia lost 15% of its forests in the 20 years to 2020 – higher than the global average. 

In recent years, unprotected forests have been disappearing even faster. 

At the current rate, they could disappear altogether in 20-30 years.

Environmental organisations have tried to combat this trend since the 1990s to persuade timber companies to agree not to log certain areas voluntarily.

The memorandum was signed in 2007 and committed to end deforestation

In the 2000s, SPOK persuaded companies leasing untouched taiga to refrain from logging in the proposed reserve and sign a moratorium. 

These companies later became the Segezha Group – closely held by Oligarchs connected to the Kremlin through the Sistema holding company.

The Taiga larch forest in the Western Sayan Mountains in Krasnoyarsk Region in Russa dated February 13, 2018 (Photo Credit: Reuters via Ilya Naymushin)

“The moratorium we signed with the companies was a choice between the lesser of two evils because saving the entire territory was impossible; the companies would never agree to that,” says Ilina. 

They tried, instead, to get companies to agree not to log the least fragmented, most remote parts of the taiga, where the most valuable species are.

Segezha Group drives Russia’s export market for timber. Footage courtesy of @GG_cinema.

In February 2023, Segezha posted on its official Telegram channel that the company supports the Karelian Research Center’s efforts to create a preserve and that they would remove the territory in question from their logging plans. 

But neither an agreement with the Natural Resources Ministry nor public support for the preserve prevented Segezha from continuing to fall trees.

Since November, 2% of the preserve area has been destroyed.

Since November 2022, SPOK reports that the company has destroyed 680 hectares of old growth – almost 2% of the planned preserve area.

Cutting down trees is one of many problems with developing untouched territories. 

“Logging in those parcels isn’t just logging; it’s also laying roads.” 

“Poachers can use the roads, which increases the risk of physical harm to animals,” said one expert on environmental legislation.

SPOK and around 30 other organisations from Karelia and Russia have appealed to the Prosecutor General about the planned preserve. 

But if the Prosecutor General does nothing to stop logging in the area, experts believe it will set a dangerous precedent.

One expert calls Segezha’s decision to remove the leased intact forest from its logging moratorium “a stain on the reputation” of Russia’s timber industries, noting that it will make any future return to “ecologically sensitive markets” very unlikely. 

The expert adds to Segezha’s decision: “If your planning horizon is a few months or a year at most, and you’re not thinking generally about the future, then from a purely financial standpoint, the company’s actions seem completely logical. 


  • Wood Central

    Wood Central is Australia’s first and only dedicated platform covering wood-based media across all digital platforms. Our vision is to develop an integrated platform for media, events, education, and products that connect, inform, and inspire the people and organisations who work in and promote forestry, timber, and fibre.

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