Investigation reveals imports profit oligarchs and the Russian government and are linked to illegal logging
Forest and log rafts in Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia.
March 20, 2023 – Despite its government’s strong public condemnation of Russian aggression against Ukraine, Japan has continued to import Russian timber to the tune of $414 million since the invasion began, helping to bankroll Putin’s bloody war.
A new investigation by London-based NGO Earthsight has revealed that some of this timber has links to a sanctioned Russian oligarch billionaire and Russian government-owned firms, while the ongoing trade also contributes to forest destruction and illegal logging.
In public statements, Japan has referred to Russia’s actions in Ukraine as ‘war crimes’ for which Russia must be held accountable and on the recent first anniversary of the invasion, Japan joined other G7 nations in announcing increased sanctions against Russia.
However, while the EU and UK have sanctioned Russian wood, and the US has ramped up tariffs on it, Japan still fails to address its ongoing trade in Russian timber. While most of Japan’s trade sanctions on Russia mirror those of other G7 countries including the EU and UK, Japan makes a notable exception for sawn timber imports which remain untouched by sanctions.
According to data obtained and analysed by Earthsight, Japanese companies are importing $10m worth of lumber a month, produced from slow-growing Scots pine, Yezo spruce and Siberian larch from Siberia and the Russian Far East.
The second largest supplier of this wood, Earthsight’s analysis shows, is RFP Group - a leading timber firm in the Russian Far East with a long-standing connection to sanctioned oligarch billionaire and former Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich. He sold most of his RFP stake in January 2022, but reportedly retains a nine per cent holding, and so personally benefits from continued Japanese imports. The Russian government also retains a stake in the firm.
Abramovich’s relationship with the Russian government via his stake in RFP has been highlighted in recent months as proof of his close relations with the Kremlin which the oligarch, who is under UK and EU sanctions, has denied still having.
Japanese housebuilder Lida Group, which boasts of being the largest provider of houses in the country, purchased a majority stake in RFP Group in January 2022, just a month before the invasion of Ukraine.
Records obtained by Earthsight reveal the biggest Japanese importer of RFP’s Yezo spruce lumber is Itochu Kenzai Corporation. In 2017 a coalition of NGOs complained about plywood linked to tropical forest destruction and human rights abuses being used in construction of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium. Itochu Kenzai was named as a company seeking to source as much certified plywood as possible from a Sarawak, Borneo-based firm of which Shin Yang - one of the ‘big six’ logging companies in Malaysian Borneo cited for clearing huge tracts of rainforest - was a major shareholder.
Earthsight Director Sam Lawson said: “After international timber certification bodies scaled back or ended operations in the country following Putin’s aggression, EU officials declared it impossible for overseas buyers to reliably trace Russian wood to the point of harvest.
“So it is impossible for these Japanese investors and buyers to be sure their purchases are not helping fund the murder of innocent Ukrainians, in addition to destroying precious forests.”
All forests in Russia are owned by the state, with a significant portion even directly owned by the Russian military.
Earthsight analysis shows two-thirds of Japan’s imported Russian lumber originates in Irkutsk, Siberia. Irkutsk is notorious as a hub of illegal ‘sanitary’ logging, with protected forests cleared on the grounds of ‘ill health’ – often fraudulently. TK Baikal, a 100% Japanese-owned company, continues to export lumber from Irkutsk to Japan. Russian records examined by Earthsight show TK Baikal continues to buy logs from firms connected to Irkutsk politician and logging baron Evgeny Bakurov, a Putin ally vocal in his support of the invasion, with a significant purchase as recently as December 2022.
An Earthsight investigation revealed in 2021 how Bakurov’s firms had illegally felled over four million trees in protected forests, for which they were subsequently fined $26 million.
Ukrainian anti-war and environmental activists have described the profits still being made from Russian wood as ‘blood money’ and have reiterated their call, first made in March 2022, for immediate sanctions on all Russian timber and wood products.
Notes to editors:
- Earthsight is a UK-based non-profit organisation that uses in-depth investigations to expose environmental and social crime, injustice and the links to global consumption.
- In April 2022, after the EU and UK banned all wood from Russia, Japan banned the import of Russian logs, wood chips and veneer. But the action was meaningless, because Russia had already banned exports of these same products to Japan the month before, when it added it to its list of ‘unfriendly countries’. Earthsight analysis also shows that these products represented less than 10 per cent of the total pre-war trade in Russian wood. The vast majority of Japan’s imports of wood from Russia are sawn lumber.
- Ethical label PEFC considers wood emanating from Russia and occupied Ukrainian territory to be ‘conflict timber’.
- Earthsight research into Russian timber trade revealed last month that despite US tariffs, continued US tradein Russian ‘conflict timber’ – valued at more than a billion dollars - is aiding terror in Ukraine and further enriching ultrawealthy Russians close to Putin.
For more information please contact: Clare Sterling at email@example.com, Mob/Signal/WhatsApp +44 7808 725096.