Russia’s forests under threat | DW Documentary
The Taiga - a massive ecosystem. Home to many species of animals and plants, it’s the largest coniferous forest on earth. This is a huge region, a huge forest. The first time you take a look at it, everything looks the same. Then you walk a few meters
and you think you’re seeing something new all over again.” The taiga is vital to the survival of the planet’s climate. This Siberian forest acts as a lung for the Earth. But the russian taiga is in danger. Oil spills, clear-cutting, strip mining and fires are taking their toll on this unique habitat.
One of the most important ecosystems on Earth is in peril. The destruction is real and there are already some sections of the taiga that have basically collapsed. A dense, impenetrable forest ? an almost mythical concept in Russian culture. From space, the vast expanses of forest give the Earth its green color.
But how long will this last? Eye on the Taiga ? Russia’s green lung in distress. The Angara ? a river of great beauty. Around 1,800 kilometers long, it cuts across the Russian taiga. Its banks are lined with pine and larch trees.
This is the home of Dimitry Slobodchikov. The hunter and filmmaker knows almost every bend in the river that begins its life in Lake Baikal. For Dimitry, the lake has something of a mystical quality to it.
I am originally a biologist and in biology there is a good term: Habitat. It’s everything ? the place where something lives, the place that provides sustencance and a place from which you draw energy. A place without which you have no home.
At Baikal, this human habitat has its own character that you can really feel. Everyone who lives here can confirm it. If you don’t take in its personality; its character, and submit to it, you are lost. Dimitry believes in the power of nature. He still drinks the water here. But his paradise is in danger.
Especially because of the many tourists who come to Lake Baikal and leave their garbage behind. Dimitry fears for the future. I am like a wild animal. When the city spreads outward, animals move further away from the streets, from the noise, the music, the racket. I’m the same way.
That means the more tourism there is around lake Baikal, the farther north I go to film my own projects. In the taiga, Dimitry lives both with from nature. As a blogger, he documents the changes in his habitat.
He wants to help protect this unique ecosystem. Lake Baikal is the blue heart of the taiga. It is so large that it can be easily seen from space. At 636 kilometers long, 80 kilometers wide and 1640 meters deep, by volume it is the largest freshwater lake on Earth.
We are in Listvyanka, 70 kilometers southeast of Irkutsk and directly on the Baikal, the holy lake of the Russians. Formed millions of years ago, the lake has long been isolated in faraway Siberia. It was not until railroads and aviation were developed that it became accessible to many ? from tourists to scientists.
Environmental problems feel like they’re far away here. Almost undisturbed, the biodiversity here is unmatched at this latitude. The fascination of Lake Baikal is, of course its beauty, but also how its always changing. Depending on the light or the seasons, it changes. It’s a spectacle of incredible beauty. Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal.
The rock formations are considered one of the top sights in the region. But this beauty comes at a price. Tourists constantly leave their garbage behind.
Activists from the foundation Give the Planet life help clean up the worst-affected spots. The trampled soil, the trash on the shores getting into the water, even the sewage ending up in the lake: These are the main factors. These things are changing the landscape. For decades, this factory was the most serious polluter of Lake Baikal.
The Baikalsk pulp and paper mill first opened in 1966. Because the cellulose was essential for Russian missile construction, the plant was allowed to ignore environmental regulations. For decades, hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of toxic wastewater flowed into the lake. On top of that, tons of toxic lignin sludge accumulated over the decades.
The plant closed in 2013, but the toxic sludge has remained. Several regions on Earth are in danger, and Lake Baikal is one of them. It's actually incomprehensible that these valuable natural assets, these lands that are worth protecting, aren’t really being protected. Lake Baikal is a paradise under threat. Russia promises to act. While Putin’s government continues to rely on coal, oil and gas extraction, it also wants to score ecological points and has drawn up a national program.
By the end of 2024, 190 illegal landfills are to be closed down and cleaned up. Hazardous waste is to be removed from 75 sites, and seven new waste processing and disposal centers are to be built. Putin knows environmental policy is popular, especially with Russia's youth.
On state television, he professes his support for international climate agreements. We are honoring all the commitments we made under international agreements, including the Paris Agreement. Before that, there was the Kyoto Protocol, which we took part in.
We have made serious commitments that do not only match, but even surpass the European Union in terms of emission reductions. Experts are skeptical that such words will be acted upon. Putin makes no mention of the endangered taiga. The world's third largest coal exporter, Russia, sources over half of its coal from the Kuzbass region. Nature has had to make way for coal mines here for decades. Iron and aluminium are also produced in the Kuzbass.
For decades, the emission of pollutants wasn’t even measured. We meet Alexey Chispyakov, who belongs to the Shors. These indigenous people have traditionally had a special relationship with nature. Together with Anton Lementuev from the environmental protection group Ecodefense, Alexey will show us just how far the destruction of the environment has already progressed. Alexey leads us to a river. The shors have been hunting here for centuries, he explains.
But since coal mining began in the area, there has been less and less to hunt. The water quality has also changed dramatically. Alexey shows us a canal that directly dumps wastewater into the river. For his people, this is a sin against creation.
My whole life, I've hunted and fished in the very places where the mining is now taking place. Since the mining started, this isn’t possible anymore. The animals have disappeared. The fish in the river are dead. The forests are being cleared. All in all, strip mining means the destruction of absolutely everything alive in the area.
Alexey shows us how the coal mining has affected things. After just a few centimeters, his hand is no longer visible. The water here used to be crystal clear.
When the mining started, the water turned black from the coal. In the old days you could see every stone, every grain of sand. Now, when you dip your hand into the river, 10-15 cm in, you can't see it anymore. This is what strip mining does.
Why is it like this? Because, in my opinion, absolutely no environmental protection measures are being observed. The Taiga, the world’s largest coniferous forest This area, about 40 times larger than Germany, supplies the planet with oxygen. Stretching from Scandinavia all the way across Canada, a large part of it lies in Russia. Inidiginous peoples like the Shors have lived for centuries in the Russian taiga as hunters ? together with nature. Today, their homeland is in danger. Alexey shows us how close the coal mining has come to the Shors’ forest.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the taiga turns into a lunar landscape. The forest has turned into a messy patchwork, the machines tearing into the landscape. More and more is being mined in Russia: From around 260 million tons in 2000, to 400 million tons in 2021. The figure is expected to continue climbing higher and higher. This is in direct conflict with Putin’s ecological promises.
For the corporations and oligarchs involved, this is huge business. But for the indigenous population, it spells disaster. Their interests are hardly heard in faraway Moscow.
For the Shors, this is our homeland. It is a part of our being. When people are torn away from their ancestral land and thrown somewhere else, it’s like their roots are being torn away. How long Alexey and his people will be able to live in the region is uncertain. Entire villages have already fallen victim to coal extraction. A Shor village once stood right here, on this slag heap.
We continue to Kiselyovsk, a small town in the Kuzbass region. Here, the pollution can not be ignored. A truck is spreading coal dust all over the landscape. Kiselyovsk is a coal town, with mines and factories. A new large coal facility is in the works. More than 90,000 people live here.
Environmentalists say the coal industry has taken the city hostage. Even the elementary school spreads the message: Happiness and the future lie in coal mining. The dangers of course, aren’t discussed. Anton, on the other hand, talks about the consequences ? something that’s quite risky in a place where environmental activists sometimes end up in prison. This is absolutely illegal. According to Russian regulations, the distance between strip mines and residential buildings should be at least 1,000 meters.
However, this regulation is not followed anywhere in the Kuzbass and especially not here in Kiselevsk. There are 90,000 people living here. Either they all have to be relocated, or the coal mining has to stop. Strip mining in the Kuzbass ? a billion-dollar business for the state and the operating company. It’s the area’s largest employer, but it comes at a great cost to the health of those living there . On average, no less than three billion tons of waste material accumulate on such dumps in the Kemerovo region year after year, which is a big problem, because these dumps create toxic dust that damages the body. Anyone who inhales this dust can become seriously ill.
Damage to the lungs is typical. As well as a reduction in immunity which leads to tuberculosis and even cancer. Together with other environmental organizations, Anton’s group, Ecodefense, published a study in 2021 on the health impact of coal mining on the region called Race to the bottom.
Life expectancy in the Kuzbass, marked here in blue, has been well below the Russian average for years. Respiratory illnesses are becoming more and more common. The study shows that people in the Kuzbass get sick more often and die younger than in the rest of Russia.
No official figures on this were made available to us. Nina Grigorievna lives with her husband on the edge of a coal mine. The family has spent almost their entire lives on the farm here.
The coal dust in particular has made things difficult. On the roof, dark gray deposits are evidence of the nearby stripmine. The air has changed. We’re constantly breathing in the dust...
In the past, when there wasn’t enough water for our livestock in winter, we thawed the snow and gave it to them to drink. Today that’s no longer possible. That water is just coal and dirt now. The snow is dirty and black. These are photos showing the toxic black snow of the Kuzbass region. Even in summer, everything is covered in soot.
It clings to the locals’ hair, clothes and hands. You see, I’ve been picking grass for the rabbits. If the grass were clean, would my hands look like this? And this is relatively clean.
It’s not the only change the mining has brought about, Nina explains. She used to be able to catch fish with her apron in the small stream next to the house. That was a long time ago. Today, the water is black.
Brown coal mining actually destroys the layers of the surface. Irreversible damage has been done; it cannot be repaired. Not even over many centuries, because the vegetation takes thousands of years to devlop. The extractable resources underneath the soil of the taiga are Russia's most important source of income. Besides coal, there are also oil deposits in the taiga.
In 2020, Russia was the world's second largest oil exporter with just over 11% market share. Oil production is a particular threat to the taiga. Many factories are old and outdated.
According to environmentalists, there are around 20,000 oil spills a year, like this one in May 2021. An accident in the Komi Republic in northwestern Russia caused around 100 tonnes of oil to be spilled. This was the Greenpeace expedition, we came to the site of the latest leak in Komi. This here is the Kolva river... And this is the location of the oil spill. It happened right here and the workers are just standing there, what are they doing? Oil is flowing out of the pipeline. They just wash it into the river with the pressure washer.
We have accompanied journalists from Norway and Germany several times to oil fields in Siberia, in the taiga, and it was a horrifying experience. It was very shocking for them. When we tell them that Russia spills 1 million tonnes of oil every year, they can't believe it. Greenpeace regularly publishes alarming pictures of pollution in the taiga. Russia has some of the largest oil reserves in the world.
Near the Siberian city of Norilsk, another serious disaster occurred in June 2020. 20,000 tonnes of diesel fuel spilled into the Ambarnaya river. The power plant operator failed to report the incident.
Once the government learned of it online, Russia's president was furious: Only after two days did we hear about the emergency through social media. Are you out of your mind? These incidents endanger a unique biotope, home to special animals like bears, and some parts are refuge to the endangered Siberian tiger. It is also the habitat of eurasian lynx and moose.
The taiga is doomed by its wealth of mineral resources. In the ranking of the most natural resource-rich countries, Russia comes first in for diamonds, natural gas and brown coal, with 59%, 24% and 30% respectively of the world's deposits. Russia’s timber industry is also booming. Here in Lesosibirsk, large quantities of timber are headed for the world market. Surrounded by dense taiga forests, Lesosibirsk is considered the capital of Russia’s timber industry. Dozens of sawmills produce up to 3 million cubic meters of timber here every year. That’s around 75 million pallets.
The demand for wood in particular has grown enormously in recent years. It’s a billion-dollar business. Many previously untouched forest areas are now being targeted by big timber companies. For example, those in the north-west of Russia, in the Arkhangelsk Oblast ? long protected by its distance from large cities and ports.
Greenpeace video footage shows disasterous developments in many places in the taiga. Large empty swathes of land are eaten away from the landscape, being irretrievably destroyed. In Russia, clear-cutting is allowed. That's dozens of hectares here.
Imagine this was Berlin, and areas the size of whole neighborhoods were being deforested. If you see this area from space, it’s just one big clearcut. In fact, there are many of them. Some locals however are fighting back ? the village of Apanas. We see signs of protest. The Kuzbass: Our homeland, not a feeding trough for oligarchs.
Putin: Stop the coal chaos in the Kuzbass. Environmental activist Anton puts up a poster warning against further deforestation. In Apanas, locals actively fight against nearby mining operations. Through Anton we meet Nikolai Metalnikov. He is an environmental inspector for the municipality of Apanas.
Nikolai takes us to a slag heap. It looks as if the trees are being burnt here from underground. Nikolai measures the pollutants and documents the results. You see the trees? They start growing, then the ground beneath them starts burning and they start to die. See? Last year, these trees were still alive. In this part, you can see, gradually, how the fire spreads underground and the trees burn and fall down.
This is not an above ground fire, it’s all happening underground. It is impossible to register all the emissions caused by fires here on the dump. There are probably very, very large amounts of gas ? harmful compounds from the coal burns. The measurements show 40 different types of gas. Among the gasses emitted are carbon monoxide, hydrogen, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide.
That’s on top of the soot and other particles that spread over large areas of the taiga. The environmental inspector warns of the consequences. This is what happens when the slag heap weathers, the dust blows off the surface and spreads to the surrounding area, settling on villages. The dust is so fine that pneumoconiosis,
or black lung has become the miners’ occupational hazard. All this gets into the bodies of people and animals, with harmful consequences on health and on the environment. Underground coal fires are a worldwide phenomenon. They can occur in coal stores or in natural deposits. Often via spontaneous combustion.
The ground here in Kuzbass can heat up to more than 170 degrees Celsius in places. Extinguishing the fire over these large areas would be time-consuming and expensive. Companies therefore often decide to do nothing. Nikolai does a little experiment to show us how hot the ground can get. He cracks an egg into a pan and sets it down on the rocky ground of the slag heap. After seconds, the egg is sizzling. But what may look helpful to campers is actually a great danger to humans and nature.
Why is nobody doing anything about it? I cannot answer that question for one simple reason, because that’s a question for the government. I myself am also interested in why the government isn’t protecting residents and thinking so short-sightedly about the future and what it could bring. So I can't tell you. For the locals, slag heaps are the worst part of coal mining.
It is estimated that in the Kemerovo region alone, around three billion tonnes of waste material are produced annually. For every tonne of coal, 10 tonnes of waste are produced. The destruction of whole swathes of land ? and of course the devastating release of CO2 ? contribute to the acceleration of climate change.
Russia’s government and energy companies prefer not to talk about this, and critical enquiries are unwelcome. The local authorities are alarmed by our research. A whole convoy of observers follows us whererever we go. The message: We have you in our sights. At dinner, a large contingent of officials approach us at the restaurant. They forbid us from filming further.
Commitment to the environmental cause can be dangerous in Russia. Several environmentalists have had to leave the country. Alexandra Koroleva from Kaliningrad has applied for asylum in Germany, and now lives in Dresden. In 2019, five criminal charges were brought against the environmental activist, who faces two years in prison. The reason: Koroleva’s involvement in the environmental organization, Ecodefense.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more dangerous for activists in Russia. The state, which apparently feels threatened by such people, is doing everything it can to prevent it. New laws are being passed, punishments are being toughened, that means you risk several years in prison just for taking part in a rally.
Ecodefense is one of the oldest environmental NGOs in Russia. In Kaliningrad, it was able to prevent the construction of a new nuclear power plant. In the Kuzbass, that of a new coal mine.
The result: Criminal litigation. Members of Ecodefense are now considered enemy agents. From time to time, Ecodefense manages to get state decisions overturned, and I think that makes governments pretty angry. It's clear that the authorities want to punish us, close us down, dissolve the organization and sweep us away — so we no longer exist.
The law on foreign agencies was passed in Russia in 2014. It's a repressive law designed to shut the mouths of the most well-known and successful organizations. Our research continues in the north of the Kuzbass region. Here lies the homeland of another indigenous people. We meet Vasily Todyshev, one of the approximately 3000 Teleuts, who have lived in the taiga for centuries. Vasily is a farmer and horse breeder ? following the tradition of his people.
We are nomads, cattle breeders. Horses are our main helpers. And horse meat is the national dish for us Teleuts. The small nomadic people were displaced ? also by mining. Teleut settlements are surrounded or separated from each other by the pits of the strip mines. Vasily wants to show us another part of his pastureland, which can only be accessed through the site of the energy company which bought up this land. For Vasily, this is difficult to bear. Back there are our lands, there is our land, my private property.
And you can't just go to these fields, look around, or tend them ? you have to get a pass, get permission before guards open up the barrier. That's a violation of human rights. On the horizon, we see the dust cloud from a detonation in the strip mine. Shortly after, security guards in uniforms from the coal company block our journey onward, wanting to prevent us from documenting the destruction of the pastureland.
There are long negotiations, phone calls to higher authorities. We are forbidden from filming further. Showing the ruthless exploitation of Vasily's grazing land is therefore not possible. These conflict situations happen all the time. I don't blame these guards, they are just doing their job.
The problem is that we didn’t violate anything. We didn’t drive in behind the guards. We drove where everybody drives... People need to know where the coal is mined, how it is mined, on what land and who lives in these areas. This is where the indigenous people of Russia live. Vasiliy takes us to his farm.
At first glance, it’s idyllic. But just a stone’s throw away lies a large slag heap. In many places, the mining leaves nothing behind but a devastated landscape.
The prospects aren’t good for the Teleuts. The ancient people of southern Siberia risk losing their homeland and culture forever. After the founding of the Soviet Union in 1922, nomadic peoples like the Teleuts were seen by the new rulers as an obstacle to the progress of communism.
They were forced to settle down and work in collective farms or factories. Their ancient, shamanistic religion was officially banned. Today the Teleuts are no longer threatened by socialist coercion, but instead by the force of capitalist-driven environmental destruction. What effect does the taiga biome have on the planet and its inhabitants? Since 2006, an international climate research station operated by the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany has been trying to find out. The main question is: To what extent can large forest areas slow down the rise of CO2? According to Prof. Martin Heimann's team,
the Siberian forests are particularly good at this. They function as highly effective carbon sinks. From our measurements, we determined that the Earth’s taiga regions, especially in Canada and in Siberia, are the most important atmospheric carbon sinks in the world.
In this sense, they play an important role in climate change. If they didn't exist, the rise in temparature would be even more dramatic. Even so, global warming is already having serious consequences. Forest fires are more and more frequent, such as this one from May 2021 in the Tyumen region of western Siberia.
60,000 hectares are burning. NASA satellites document the scale of the fires. This is an image from August 8, 2021. Enormous areas of land are in flames. In Siberia, the fires thaw the permafrost soil, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere.
Often all it takes is a lightning strike to start a wildfire. At the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany, experts like Ulrike Herzschuh analyze climate change and its consequences. Herzschuh focuses in particular on the taiga and its annual summer fires. Typically, especially in these larch forests, you would have these ground fires and the trees actually survived, they sprouted again the following year.
But now you see a lot of areas that have burned so hot, at such high temperatures, that the trees have died. In Siberia, conifer trees dominate the landscape. There are 2.6 million square kilometers of larch forest alone. Experts have found out, for 20,000 years, there has been an interaction here between the permafrost soil, which traps greenhouse gasses, and the larch — this is significant for the climate.
The larch is the only tree that can grow on permafrost soils. Permafrost soil thaws 10, sometimes 20 or 30 centimeters in the summer. That is not very much.
And such a huge tree, 30 to 40 meters high has to establish its roots, and the larch can do that. Which creates an interesting interaction: When it grows out its canopy, it insulates the soil, so that heat doesn’t penetrate into it. When this natural shielding is missing, the consequences can be felt, like at the Batagaika crater in the northeastern Siberian taiga. It is the largest known depression caused by climate change.
The crater is about one kilometer long and 100 meters deep. After clearing the forest as a result of road construction, the shielding effect is lost ? and the permafrost thaws. Where are the steppes at the moment? In Mongolia, where, historically, there were larch forests. The steppe was filled with larch forests on permafrost and today they’re gone, they’re just typical steppe landscapes, and... that could well be what happens in eastern Siberia
Whole areas of land are already irreversibly lost. One example is Lake Karachay in the Chelyabinsk region. For decades, it was a lethal radioactive dump, fed with waste by a nearby nuclear weapons factory.
To give some form of protection to humans and nature, the lake was filled with concrete and covered. Yet another example of the destruction of the taiga ecosystem. The destruction is real and there are already some sections of the taiga that have basically collapsed. They have hardly any biodiversity left and now are generators CO2.
The taiga, fascinating and seemingly infinite. But that’s a deception. Humans are on the brink of destroying the balance in this vast ecosystem forever. Through greed for resources, toxic waste ? and via human caused climate change. For the huge forest in the north, the countdown has started.