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Forests and forestry

We would do well to heed the Buddhist saying "Cut down the forest of your greed before cutting real trees."

There has been extensive loss of forests since the early post-glacial period 10,000 years ago, when an estimated 80 to 90 percent of land in Europe was heavily wooded. Although partly due to changing climatic conditions, this deforestation is mainly the result of human activities such as land clearance for farming, and logging for fuel, construction, shipping and mining. Today, forests cover 33 percent of European territory, ranging from 6 percent in Ireland to up to 66 percent in Finland.

Forests serve many functions:

  • They protect and form natural resources.
  • Through photosynthesis, they renew the oxygen supply in the atmosphere by absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide and moderating the greenhouse effect.
  • They provide an environment for many species of plants and animals, thus protecting and sustaining the diversity of nature.
  • They clean the environment by muffling noises, buffering strong winds and trapping dust and gases.
  • They help to regulate surface water runoff, moderate high and low temperatures, and prevent soil erosion.

As they perform these functions, forests stabilise the climate and shape the landscape. Forests are also popular areas for relaxation and recreation.

Forests are a source of timber for construction, biomass for fuel, pulp for paper, and raw materials for medicines and many other products. Large areas of forestland are also used for livestock grazing. Worldwide, about half the timber cut each year is used as fuel for heating and cooking, especially in less-developed countries. Some timber is burned directly as firewood, and some is converted into charcoal, which is widely used in urban households and some industries. One-third of the world’s annual timber harvest consists of logs for conversion into building materials such as lumber, plywood, hardboard, particle board and chipboard. One-sixth is converted into pulp for use in a variety of paper products.

The importance of forests for recreation has gained increasing attention in Europe over the past decades. Forests provide many essential non-material benefits, especially for those living in the stressful environments of modern industrialised countries. Recreational activities have had both positive and negative impacts on forests. In general, using forests for recreational purposes tends to favour their preservation and the protection of wildlife, and helps to limit forest losses to urban sprawl and road construction. However, excessive numbers of visitors and tourists can lead to soil erosion along and adjacent to footpaths. Wildlife is disturbed, plants and saplings are trampled, and litter accumulates.

Huge areas of European forests regularly burn down (1 percent each year). Forest fires caused by lightning are a rare but natural phenomenon. Such natural fires represent only a small proportion of the total number of forest fires in Europe. The most common causes are poor management practices, arson, land-use conflicts and negligence.

Despite the fact that the bulk of forests worldwide are used for timber production, common awareness of their many important functions, including their role in biodiversity protection, is gradually increasing. Although earlier the main goal of forest management was to produce sustainable yields, the focus has now shifted to sustainable management. Greater attention is being given to the important environmental and social functions of forests, including their role in biodiversity protection and the conservation of water resources, as carbon sinks, and as resources for recreation and tourism.

Nearly 40 percent of the territory of Belarus is covered by forests, making it one of the 10 most forested countries in Europe.

According to 2010 data:

  • The forest fund in Belarus was 9.4 million hectares. The stock of standing timber was estimated at 1.6 billion m3, and more than 30.3 million m3 of timber are grown annually.
  • Not all areas of the country have equal forest cover. The Niasvizhsky district and Minsk region are the least forested (about 10 percent of the area), and the most forested (66 percent of the area) are the Rassonsky district, Vitebsk region, and the Lelchytsky district in Gomel region.
  • Historically, large areas of primeval forest were referred to as pushcha, meaning "empty" or "not settled by humans". In the middle of the 16th century, the keeper of the forests of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Grigorij Volovich recorded such areas of forest on the territory of today’s Belarus and Lithuania in his Inspection of Forests and Animal Trails in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which describes more than 35 royal pushchas, or large areas of virgin forest. These forests were named after the nobles, families or settlements responsible for their management: the village of Ruda Lipichanskaya (which belonged to the Chetvertinskih princes) gave its name to the Lipichanskaya Pushcha, for example, while Belovezhskaya Pushcha (that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus) was named after the village of Bialowieza (Poland), and Ruzhanskaya Pushcha after the town of Ruzhany.

Forest diversity

Thirty species of wild trees grow in the forests of Belarus, the main ones being pine, spruce, warty birch, pubescent birch, black and gray alder, common oak and aspen. These species comprise almost 99 percent of the country's forests.

  • Pine is one of the most common tree species in Belarus. It is a hardy species that can grow on sand dunes or in bogs. Forest plantations are also dominated by pines, which account for more than 50 percent of all forests in Belarus.
  • Spruce is the second most prevalent species among the country's coniferous forests and makes up about 10 percent of the country's total forested area. Spruce forests have a well-defined vertical structure, usually comprising two to three layers. In the early 20th century, spruce trees occupied about 18 percent of the total forested area. However, due to global climate change, intensive agricultural practices and groundwater recession, many trees have become diseased and masses are dying.
  • Many rare and endangered animal species live in the country's old coniferous forests, including the flying squirrel, brown bear, badger and European lynx. They are also home to rare birds such as the osprey, short-toed eagle, hobby, merlin, three-toed woodpecker, Ural owl and Tengmalm’s owl. All these species thrive in coniferous stands interspersed with peatlands and marshes. Coniferous forests also provide a habitat for reptiles and amphibians such as the smooth snake and Natterjack toad.
  • The ancient Slavs worshipped the oak and attributed miraculous properties to it, and the tree is often invoked in myths and legends. Despite this, oak forests have suffered more than any others from human activities, both in Belarus and throughout Europe. According to scientists, oaks are now disappearing as quickly as the rainforests, although recovery efforts are being made in the form of environmental programmes such as Oaks of Eurasia Just two species of oak occur naturally in Belarus: the English oak (Quercus robur) and the Durmast oak (Quercus petraea). The latter, which is also known as the sessile oak, grows only in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha and is listed in the Red Data Book. Oak forests now occupy only 3.5 percent of the total forest area, with more growing in the Palessie area of southern Belarus (about 7 percent of all forests) than in the north (only 1.4 percent). Oak timber has long been used in Europe as a reliable and relatively inexpensive building material. Deciduous forests are more sophisticated than coniferous forests, and the number of layers in oak forests can reach four or five. Deciduous forests also contain a greater number of plant species than pine and spruce forests. Up to 300 plant species can be found in the undergrowth and other layers, making oak forests the most valuable and most productive forest ecosystems in Belarus.
  • Small-leaved tree species, such as alder, birch and aspen, cover a significant area (2.9 million hectares, or 36.2 percent of forested land). These species grow mainly in the humid lowlands, where the land has not been drained.
  • Linden, hornbeam, ash and maple forests are relatively rare. Around 50 alien tree species have been introduced in forest plantations. The most common is the Siberian larch, along with American tree species such as the red oak (Quercus rubra) and Weymouth pine (Pinus strobus). The red oak, which is an aggressive, actively spreading species, is displacing local ancient species and causing heavy damage.
  • Rare and endangered species of animals living in the deciduous forests of Belarus include the European bison, great grey owl, lesser and greater spotted eagle, black kite, eagle owl, black stork, booted eagle, Eurasian roller, and green and middle spotted woodpeckers.

Forest plantations

Areas of natural forest that have been cleared of trees take a long time to regenerate and often become different types of forests. Every time an artificial forest is planted, there is an impact on the species composition. Each year, about 40,000 hectares of young forest are planted. Pine trees predominate (70 percent), spruce accounts for about 20 percent, and English oaks make up about 6 percent of these planted areas. Artificial forests occupy more space than natural forests in most European countries, but make up just one-fifth of the forests in Belarus.

Dead wood

Dead wood is an important component of normal life in the forest.

  • The average annual growth of wood in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha is about 3.3 m3 per hectare, and since this forest remains in a state of equilibrium, about the same amount of wood dies. This volume is equivalent to a spruce wood trunk between 45 and 50 cm thick and 40 m tall, or a hornbeam trunk between 55 and 60 cm thick and 23 m tall. This means that, in an area of 1 km2 of normal forest, an average of 100 trees die each year. It is quite normal in a forest ecosystem that older and younger species of all types die.
  • The average amount of decaying dead wood is 130 to 140 m3 per hectare, which means that, in a natural forest, dead wood makes up more than one-fifth of the total wood mass and supports the existence of several hundred living species.
  • Unfortunately, the authorities in charge of national parks and forests of all types tend to remove dead wood. It is a huge mistake that the directors of forestry enterprises are fined, or even dismissed, for allowing "clutter".

Positive and negative aspects of forest use

Forests in Belarus provide building materials, edible mushrooms, fruits and medicinal plants, and are popular areas for recreation.

Logging — In 2012, the Ministry of Forestry was responsible for the harvesting of over 10.1 million m3 of commercial timber, which was 88.1 percent of the planned production for that year. The uncut areas were in swampy, inaccessible locations. The goal of demonstrating good results and fulfilling quotas is one reason why the number of trees felled often exceeds the quantity necessary to meet real needs. Forest enterprises are using more effective and powerful technology to reap greater harvests. At the beginning of 2013, the organisations of the Ministry of Forestry had at their disposal a large number of timber harvesters and other high-performance logging equipment (139 harvesters, 170 forwarders and more than 1,500 cargo-handling machines), which were used to harvest more than 1.9 million m3 of timber. Such large pieces of machinery require the construction of more roads, exacerbating the already considerable negative impact on the forests. Road construction in turn attracts greater numbers of tourists and poachers, and increases the risk of forest fires. Compared with legal logging activities, illegal logging is far less of a problem in Belarus.

Non-timber resources — Up to 52,900 tonnes of edible mushrooms, 51,800 tonnes of fruits and berries, and about 90,000 tonnes of medicinal herbs grow each year in the forests of Belarus. Fruits are more prevalent in the regions of Minsk (28 percent) and Gomel (26 percent). The most abundant fruits are blueberries (33,000 tonnes) and cranberries (11,200 tonnes), while harvests of rowan berries (1,100 tonnes) and bog whortleberries (1,300 tonnes) are smaller. Of the 200 species of edible mushrooms growing in the forests of Belarus around 20 species are harvested, including the king bolete, chanterelle, orange-cap boletus, rough-stemmed boletus, yellow-footed bolete, bovine boletus and conical morel. More than 360 species of marsh and forest plants are widely used in science and traditional medicine, and about 30 percent of official medical drugs are still manufactured from medicinal plant materials. Birch sap resources are estimated at 480,000 tonnes, around 25,000 tonnes of which are harvested each year. The annual extracted amount of galipot, an impure resin of turpentine obtained from pine trees, is around 30 tonnes. Galipot extraction has a negative impact on the condition of pine forests and the plants and animals that live there. Up to 50 tonnes of honey are collected from forest apiaries each year. Other forest products include household brooms (400,000 per year) and bath besoms (45,000). Hunting grounds in Belarus occupy 16,766 hectares. There are 255 hunting enterprises, 78 of which are under the Ministry of Forestry.

Forest recreation and tourism — Recreational facilities managed by the Ministry of Forestry include 78 hunting lodges (for hunting and fishing), family and business holiday accommodation, and infrastructure for eco-tourism, horse riding and river rafting. In some areas, the recreational footprint is too large and heavy. Human activities are damaging soil and forest vegetation (e.g. at the Svityaz Lake resort). The impacts of transportation and the use of cooking equipment also increase the risk of fires, especially during the summer months, thus entry to certain forests is prohibited in high temperatures. The unrestricted harvesting of berries and mushrooms is also causing damage to some forest plant communities. Careless methods of collection can damage plants to such an extent that they take a long time to recover. The recreational use of forests can also lead to pollution from domestic waste and petroleum products.

All forests in Belarus are state owned.

  • The main law governing forestry in Belarus is the Forest Code, which was enacted in 2000.
  • The Ministry of Forestry of the Republic of Belarus is the main body governing sustainable forest management. The ministry is responsible for the vast majority (85 percent) of forests in the country. It also coordinates the activities of organisations carrying out forestry-related activities, regardless of ownership. These include the forestry and forest enterprises of the Ministry of Defence; the experimental forest base of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus; the training and experimental forests of the Ministry of Education; institutions under the Office of Presidential Affairs (Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve, national parks and forestry enterprises), and the forests and parks enterprise of the city of Minsk.
  • The State Forest Guard is responsible for protecting forests from fires; illegal logging; pollution and damage from sewage, chemicals and radioactive substances; contamination by industrial, construction and municipal waste; and litter. Departmental forest guards have the same rights and duties.
  • Since the 1990s, there has been an increase in the number of forests due to the establishment of new forests on land no longer suitable for agriculture. The forested area has increased by 1.35 million hectares, and the area occupied by mature stands has more than doubled during the same period.
  • Sustainable forest management certification has been awarded to 65 forestry enterprises in Belarus in accordance with the requirements of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). In the framework of the Forest Certification System of the country's National Conformity Approval System, which is recognised by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC, an international NGO formerly known as the Pan-European Forest Certification Council), 94 forestry enterprises have been granted certification.
  • International forest certification systems (FSC, PEFC) have been developed on the assumption that the majority of forest ecosystems will be preserved and multiplied. In 1999, the FSC formulated the concept of high-conservation-value forests (HCVFs) to refer to forests that contain unique or very important natural and social values. A project to map forests with important natural values was implemented in Belarus between 2005 and 2007 by the NGO APB-BirdLife Belarus, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme/Global Environment Facility (UNDP/GEF) project "Renaturalisation and Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Belarus". The forest mapping initiative was also supported by the Institute of Experimental Botany of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, and most of the data were provided by the state forest inventory organisation of Belarus, Belgosles. The project included forests that are of high biological significance, and sites were selected according to several uniqueness criteria The results of the mapping show that at least one HCVF criterion applies to one-tenth of all Belarusian forests. Most of these forests are in nature protection areas or the strictly protected zones of national parks and reserves. Forest enterprises are now fully able to protect these forest areas on their territory.

Disputes related to forest management

Belarus has established a network of nature protected areas, which includes nature reserves, national parks, wildlife reserves (zakazniks) and natural monuments.

  • The Ministry of Forestry strongly opposes increasing the number of reserves and imposing logging restrictions on its territory. Unfortunately, there are no restrictions on logging in a large number of reserves, including Nalibokskaya Pushcha Reserve, Vydritsa Nature Reserve, Kazyansky Wildlife Reserve, the Boloto Mokh wetlands, the Zaazerye Reserve, the Korytsensky Mokh Reserve, Glubokoye and Vialikaje Astravita. In 2008, the owner of the Polesie area handed the site over to the Ministry of Forestry. This former military area has been preserved as the Polesie State Radiological-Ecological Reserve and has become home to populations of rare species, including the greater spotted eagle, that are unique in Europe. However, where the Ministry of Forestry opposes taking biodiversity conservation measures, there is an increase in unrestricted economic activity. In Olmanskie bolota, the country's largest wetland area, for example, road construction work involves the cutting of trees, resulting in the degradation of the wildlife reserve.
  • Even in national parks, forests are subject to intensive exploitation. Pripyatsky National Park, for example, is home to one of the country’s largest wood-processing enterprises. On the other hand, the strictly protected zone in Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park was expanded significantly in 2012, before which up to 250,000 m3 had been cut annually, equivalent to clear-cutting 800 hectares of old forest. Because hunting had been developed intensively in this national park, the forest had been almost completely degraded, with both undergrowth and populations of young mammals destroyed.

The following resources provide information about forestry in Belarus: