Fate of Ukraine’s forests hangs in the balance, as new reports confirm the scale of illegal logging and timber corruption


Two new independent studies have confirmed the sheer scale of corruption and illegality in Ukraine’s forest sector, first exposed in a report by the London-based NGO Earthsight in July, supporting the case for action by the country’s government.

Earthsight’s report, Complicit in Corruption, exposed rampant illegal logging in the beleaguered state, causing what one Parliamentarian described as an ‘earthquake’ in the country and generating much-needed impetus for reform. The report was welcomed by the Ukrainian Prime Minister, other top officials and local forest activists.

However, a key reform document has apparently stalled as it awaits sign-off from the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Forestry Agency (SAFR) has engaged in a systematic campaign of disinformation and intimidation, seeking to discredit Earthsight and quash growing calls from civil society for meaningful action. 

Now new, independent studies from the European Union and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have been published which confirm Earthsight’s findings and support its recommendations. “These reports provide further, considerable evidence of what we have been saying – that there is an urgent need to act,” said Sam Lawson, Earthsight’s Director. “It’s time to stand up to those who remain in denial and accept the evidence that is in plain sight.”

Earthsight has learned that in response to the EU’s findings, a reform strategy has already been drawn up and approved by Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers. The strategy includes many of the same reforms Earthsight and Ukrainian NGOs have been calling for. These include the separation of the powers of the SAFR (which harvests most of the country’s timber), new and independent forestry enforcement, and a radical increase in transparency of forestry-related information. But the document is being held up, pending one final signature from the Prime Minister.

Earthsight’s report was the result of a two-year investigation that found evidence of pervasive corruption in the Ukrainian timber sector. It documented how high-risk wood was flooding across the border into the EU and ending up in the stores of major retailers, including IKEA. It found that an EU law requiring wood imports to be of ‘negligible risk’ of illegality was not being properly enforced. Earthsight was subsequently invited to present its recommendations for reform of forest governance to the Ukrainian Parliament at a major roundtable on 5th November 2018.

On 15th November, the EU published the results of its own independent expert mission, the publication of which has been approved by Ukraine’s Ministry of Agrarian Policy, which is nominally in charge of the SAFR. The report’s authors concluded that: 

  • the SAFR is “extensively prone to corruption”;
  • the system of forest control in Ukraine is “not functioning”;
  • SAFR’s official figures massively understate the scale of illegal logging, since they do not include “illegal logging ‘with papers’ that involves corruption”;
  • such corruption is a “far larger problem” than illicit felling.

The new data from WWF, meanwhile, suggest that illicit felling is also far worse than anyone had previously thought. Based on inspections of 149 sites over 18 months, WWF estimate that as much as 1.4 million cubic metres of timber is being illegally felled in the Ukrainian Carpathians alone each year, compared with 4 million cubic metres of official harvesting. This compares with the SAFR’s repeated claims that less than 50,000 cubic metres is illegally felled across the entire country.

Since Earthsight’s report was published, the forestry agency and its allies and proxies have engaged in a systematic smear campaign. “We have been called liars and criminals, and accused by the SAFR top brass of being in the pay of mysterious “oligarchs” with hidden agendas” said Mr Lawson. “In reality, our staff are world-renowned experts on illegal logging and the trade in stolen wood. We accept no funding from businesses, and a list of the Charitable Foundations and NGOs which have supported us is available on our website. Our report’s findings are backed up with a wealth of evidence, and our conclusions are supported by a wide variety of respected organisations, including the World Bank, Interpol and now also the EU.” 

“Frankly, we have been horrified at the power that the SAFR wields in Ukraine”, Mr Lawson continued. “There is little it will not do to protect its interests, including spreading falsehoods and intimidating Ukrainian citizens. Senior Ukrainian government officials have told Earthsight that they believe that the problems of corruption exposed in our report are ‘the tip of the iceberg’, yet too many people remain fearful of saying so publicly.”

SAFR has opposed actions necessary to address corruption by falsely claiming that they will lead to the privatisation of Ukraine’s forests. In fact, any such action is specifically ruled out in the reforms currently on the table.

Soon after Earthsight’s report was published, Prime Minister Groysman ordered a raft of fresh inspections of logging and wood exports. The findings have yet to be published, but since – as the EU study confirms - most illegality is “with papers”, it is unlikely that these will get to the bottom of the problem. He needs to do more. 

“Ukraine’s forests are at a crossroads” said Mr Lawson. “Over the last decade, efforts at forest reform to address the roots of timber corruption in Ukraine have repeatedly failed, in the face of opposition from powerful vested interests. If the Prime Minister is serious about tackling this problem, then he must sign off on this strategy, and throw his full political support behind implementing it. The future of Ukraine’s forests and its timber industry depend upon it.” 

Notes for Editors: 

  • Earthsight’s report ‘Complicit in Corruption’ – including a newly published full Ukrainian translation - is available here
  • The EU’s TAIEX mission report was published on 14 November 2018. Some quotes from that report are as follows:

“One of the problems that Ukraine's forest sector faces is illegal logging and ineffective system of law enforcement to tackle forest crime”

The structure of the SAFR “contains an inherent conflict of interests and is extensively prone to corruption”

“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”

“often State Forest Guards themselves are involved in illegal logging”

 “The official figures on volumes of illegally logged timber held by the SFRAU correspond to 0.1% of total timber harvest. Taking into account the state of governance and corruption in Ukraine as well as the estimates on illegal logging by NGOs (between 5% and 30%) this percentage is very low. While SFRAU does not recognise other illegal logging apart from theft by individuals and organised groupings outside of official authorities, the SEIU, National Police, and SFSU admit that a far larger problem is illegal logging ‘with papers’ that involves corruption of public sector employees and forgery”

“The forest control system in Ukraine is not functioning properly."

“There are fundamental problems with how felling licences are being issued in Ukraine, in particular as regards approvals for sanitary felling. It should be unthinkable that an enterprise is in charge of issuing a felling licence for its own operations, which is currently the case for all sanitary felling”

  • The reform strategy recommending splitting of functions of SAFR and awaiting the Prime Minister's approval can be downloaded here.
  • The Ukrainian version of the EU Taiex report can be found on the website of the Ministry of Agrarian Policy.
  • WWF’s newly published findings are available on the organisation’s website, which includes a link to the presentation given at the Ukrainian Parliament on 5th November.

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