Due to full-scale Russian aggression, forests were burning in Ukraine. The north, east and south of the country were affected. But war is not the only reason forests are deteriorating. And, perhaps, not all the ensuing consequences of fires should be actively fought. We asked the experts what it costs us to destroy forests and what solutions can be.
Since February 24, more than 40,000 hectares of forest fund territories have been engulfed in fires in Ukraine. Half of this area falls on the Chernobyl Biosphere Reserve. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, as a result of the military aggression of the Russian Federation in the Ukrainian forests in the spring, three times more fires have already occurred than last year.
A huge number of fires were recorded in particular in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. This problem is particularly acute there, and not because radionuclides supposedly get into the air. The fact is that there was almost no fire equipment left in the area: out of fifty vehicles, five to seven remained. In addition, the forests in the Chernobyl zone are mined, each mine explosion is a potential new fire. And more dead animals. So far, there have been no super-scale fires in the zone, but we all remember the fires in 2020, when more than 100,000 hectares were on fire – this could happen again.
In general, many forests are mined in the north of the country. Cases are already known when employees of the forest industry were blown up by mines; therefore, certain territories are simply withdrawn from economic circulation. And since the clearance of forests for the State Emergency Service is far from a priority (since the Service focuses primarily on settlements), hands may not reach work with these forests soon. On the other hand, there is also a short-term positive impact in this – forests will have time to recover without human intervention.
A terrible situation was also observed in the Kherson region, where fires covered about 260 hectares of man-made forests. There is a theory that it was the invaders who set fire to the forests in order to fight the Ukrainian partisan movement. It is a fact, at least, that for five days the Russians prevented the extinguishing, did not allow the forest guards to approach the fires. Local residents were suffocating from the smoke and were afraid for their homes, asking for permission to extinguish fires – for several days in a row the city was shrouded in smoke. And despite the fact that already now the air condition in the city, according to the LUN, is satisfactory and in some places even good, and heavy smoke is a temporary problem, the consequences of the fires do not end there. Among them there may be much more serious ones.
“Who is the state at war with: forest birds or Russia?”
Protecting forests in times of war
In the conditions of hostilities, the focus on preserving trees is blurred, and the issue of protecting forests, which was not a priority in Ukraine even before the war, becomes even less significant.
“In addition to the direct impact of the war on the environment, there is also an indirect one, and if we talk about which one is worse, I think it’s the second one,” says biologist and member of the Ukrainian Environmental Group NGO Yegor Grinnik. In this case, many new problems appear.
The first problem is the increase in deforestation. The fifth package of EU sanctions against Russia provides for a ban on the import of timber from the aggressor country. To this, the Minister of Environmental Protection of Ukraine said that Ukraine would increase the volume of cuttings in order to partially replace Russia and Belarus in the European timber markets. And given that the volume of logging has not yet increased over the three months of a full-scale war, there are forecasts that the situation will change, because the budget needs new revenues, they will come from the sale of resources, and this will eventually lead to more active deforestation.
The second problem is the lack of funds to finance forestry. The protection of forests also needs money, and given that the leshozes are mainly self-financing through cutting, which is impossible due to mines in the forests, then there may not be any money left for protection from fires and clogging of forests. In conditions of war, this trend, unfortunately, is already being observed. At the same time, work on the creation of new protected areas in the forests is being stopped.
The third problem is the temporary impossibility of forest checks. In recent months, due to the war, visiting the forests was prohibited, and therefore the control services could not check the forests for illegal logging. Difficulties are also associated with a temporarily “closed” procedure called “environmental impact assessment” – the public did not have any access to information about deforestation.
The fourth institutional problem is the abolition of the “season of silence” for the period of martial law, that is, the ban on deforestation from April to June, during the breeding season of animals.
“The motivation for this project is to increase the state’s defense capability, but personally I have a question: with whom is the state fighting? With forest birds or with Russia? There is no logic in this,” Yegor Grinnik criticizes the decision of the authorities, “because no one complies with this legislation. And now, when activists send reports about illegal logging to the State Environmental Inspectorate, there were cases when the service answered: “Now there is a war, and no one will check anything.”
Forest burning and ecocide
The mass destruction of flora and fauna, the poisoning of the atmosphere and water resources, or the commission of other actions that may lead to an ecological catastrophe is a particularly serious crime defined by the Criminal Code of Ukraine, also covered by the provisions of the Rome Statute. This crime is also called ecocide. However, this concept has not yet been used in jurisprudence. The problem is that the corpus delicti of such a crime covers too many evaluative concepts that are not reflected either in the current Criminal Code of Ukraine or in the legal positions of the Supreme Court of Ukraine. This applies to the concepts of “mass destruction of flora or fauna”, because the Criminal Code of Ukraine does not define at what stage of causing harm the flora or fauna can be considered destroyed. The Criminal Code also does not establish quantitative criteria that determine the mass destruction.
“The Ministry of Environmental Protection had a crazy idea to propose a law that would increase fines for fires. Including introducing criminal liability if a fire leads to mass death of animals. But that’s not all. The Deputy Minister said in all seriousness that for every dead “fee” will be created for each animal: for each frog, say, 10 hryvnias, for each owl – 50. But how to calculate this? Who will walk through the forests and look for scorched owls, and why do this at all?”
However, if you are meticulous about the issue, you can still calculate how many birds or plants of a certain species there are on one hectare of forest. However, this will be inaccurate data.
“We already understand that the harm is colossal. It is not clear what to do with this information,” the biologist adds.
Natural vs Artificial forests
First, we must finally understand that logging and the money we receive from the sale of wood is minuscule compared to the benefits that forests provide if they are managed correctly and not considered solely as a resource source. For example, only the Goloseevsky forest in Kyiv annually produces clean air equivalent to 400 million hryvnias – such calculations were made by specialists from the organization “Ecology. Law. Human”. The UN also predicts: the annual loss of the world economy from biodiversity degradation is about 500 billion US dollars every year. However, we still often consider the forest only as a source of timber. Without adequate funding and oversight, the human-created ecosystem will be almost useless: artificial forests clean the air and water less, and the fauna in them is much poorer than in natural forests.
The second solution to the problem is to conserve the remaining natural forest rather than grow new forests, and here’s why: man-made ecosystems are less resilient and have significantly higher risks of extinction due to diseases and pests. This is what happened to man-made forests in Polissya:
“In past years, there was a problem with the bark beetle, which massively destroyed pine trees. Imagine a bark beetle that comes into the forest and instead of many different types of trees of different quality and age sees only the same pine tree in a row – for him it’s just a smorgasbord”, – Egor Grinnik, a biologist and member of the NGO “Ukrainian Environmental Group”, gives an example.
The stability of an ecosystem with a monoculture (as happens in artificial forests), according to Yegor Grinnik, is much lower compared to a natural ecosystem. The more components in any system, the more likely it is that if one of these components falls out, others will take its place and the ecosystem will continue to exist. This does not happen in a monoculture.
“So, if the bark beetle “attacked” a natural mixed forest, other trees would replace the pines destroyed by the beetle, and the forest would continue to be a forest,” says Yegor Grinnik.
Additional funding from Europe could also be a solution to the problem. The EU is now preparing a tool “Rebuild Ukraine” – the accumulation of money to support Ukraine. So far, according to the plan, these funds will also be spent in accordance with the green principles of the European Union.
“It would be great if these funds were accompanied by some more specific requirements regarding environmental reforms,” the biologist adds.
And will it really work?
What will happen if man-made forests disappear?
In the Kherson region, which was significantly affected by fires this year, forests are man-made: they were planted to stop the advance of the desert. The creation of forests, which have become the largest artificial forests in Europe, began in the 50s of the last century. The villagers literally won territories for life and agriculture from the sands, but there was something to fight with: during a sandstorm, the hut could be brought like snow in a strong snowstorm. The same, quite possibly, threatens the Kherson region even now. How strong is the threat, we asked Yegor Grinnik.
The specialist explains: there is an identical problem with the forests around the Seversky Donets that are still burning – so far it is very difficult to assess the scale of the damage. Many of these forests, as well as in the Kherson region, are man-made, they were planted in the steppes. And here the biologist asks the question: how bad is it that these forests burned down?
“After all, they existed as an artificial ecosystem created on the site of a natural one. There are two options: either the burnt forests will recover naturally, or the steppes will recover. There is the same problem for the man-made forests of the Kherson region,” he explains.
“Now we constantly hear that artificial plantings are burning on the Kinburn Peninsula,” the biologist continues, “and the problem is that they were artificially created on the site of natural ecosystems. The fact that they are burning may not be very good, but if they will not be restored anew, steppes will be restored in their place, and these are ecosystems that are under much greater threat than forests. And speaking of the steppe, it is important to understand that this is a balanced natural ecosystem that protects soils from erosion, and rivers from siltation.” The biologist explains:
“Take any artificial ecosystem like a field. There is constant erosion: the soil is bare, not covered by anything. When the wind blows, the surface layer of the soil scatters, and when it rains, it is washed away and enters the rivers. As a result, the soil is depleted, the rivers are silted up, dust storms … This is not the case in the steppe, because everything is thought out there: the grassy cover is great at protecting the soil, accumulating fertile layers of soil.The problem is that there are almost no steppes left in Ukraine, but imagine that more than half of agricultural crops in the world depend on pollination by insects. Mostly these insects live in steppes and meadows.
Yegor Grinnik says that the notion that “a place where trees grow is better than a place where nothing grows” has been inherited from Soviet times. This follows President Zelensky’s decision last year to plant a billion trees in Ukraine. It turns out that they are still very actively planted in the steppes in southern Ukraine, but instead of forests they get a destroyed steppe ecosystem and almost zero results, since the planted trees do not take root in atypical areas. That is why it is worth considering whether the burning of artificial forests on the Kinburn Peninsula is really a problem, because it should be a steppe, not a plantation:
“Perhaps this will lead to the restoration of the steppes, and this will be good,” the biologist concludes, unexpected for us.
However, not all environmentalists agree with this opinion. A professional ecologist, an expert in the field of environmental safety and environmental management, Maxim Soroka, noted that the above statement about the restoration of the steppes is a classic environmentalist statement.
“From the point of view of classical biology, the return of these territories to their previous state is possible, but on condition that there were no people, if these lands were not used, and we returned, as Putin tells us about it, to the eighteenth century,” says ecologist.
According to Maxim Soroka, artificial forests create an appropriate structure that allows the use of certain territories, and also perform a lot of functions, in particular, restoration and balancing of water flow, creation of ecosystem services in the region. Artificial forests are a zone of local recreation, a zone of microclimate regulation, a zone of water regime regulation.
“In some areas of the Luhansk region, back in the 70s, as an experiment, artificial forests were planted as windproof elements, and they proved their effectiveness. This territory has already been changed, and these forests are already being used,” Maxim Soroka concluded.
So we see that every phenomenon has two sides of the coin, and it is difficult to predict what the consequences of forest fires will be. Finally, it is worth adding that any ecosystem is capable of reproduction, and even that immense damage caused by the war can be restored over the years. All we need to do is not to degrade the state of forests, take care of the environment and try to get closer to the green principles of coexistence with nature.