New Forest Code in Russia :
Needs of indigenous peoples are being ignored

Yvonne Bangert and Sarah Reinke, July 2005
Society of Threatened Peoples, Göttingen/Geneva,


A new forest code is set to reform forest utilisation in Russia . At the centre of this comprehensive package of laws is the privatisation of the forest areas for private use. Up until now the state has been the sole owner of the forest. The forest code continues what the land code of 2001 began: abolishing the established right of the population already settled there to use the land, pastures and now, the forest free of charge for there own use. These areas are being sold or leased. This also applies to anything built in the forest by the indigenous population. This ruthless privatisation is threatening to deprive particularly the indigenous peoples of their livelihood. Often they have no alternative to living in and off the forest. The collapse of the Soviet collective economy cost most of them their jobs. They usually do not have the means to lease land or forest, let alone to buy it. The group of investors, who can afford to bid in a merciless battle for land resources, is small. The majority of those dependent on hunting, gathering wild plants and fishing in order not to starve, are at risk of losing their livelihood. However, instead of addressing the particular needs of Russia ’s indigenous peoples and ensuring their survival as well as that of their ancient traditions and economy, Putin’s government’s new law is depriving them of the few rights that Perestroika had granted them.

Indigenous Peoples in Russia – importance of the forest for traditional way of life

All laws which were passed in recent years concerning indigenous peoples had one thing in common: regulations on the protection of indigenous peoples are expressed in the subjunctive and have not been implemented so far because they do not include any implementation regulations. The law on “territories for traditional land use”, which is extremely important for the indigenous peoples, is a good example of this: after these types of territories had been formed in some regions, the law was suddenly put on the back burner and the areas were dissolved.

Another example is the 400 page law on the amendment of federal legislation of the Russian Federation , which repeals several articles of the protection of indigenous rights. The following articles were repealed from The Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Federation (Guarantees of Rights) Act: article 4 on socioeconomic and cultural development, articles 6 and 7 on protection of original habitat, traditional way of life, economy and handicraft of indigenous minorities, as well as article 13 on the right of co-determination of indigenous peoples in the legislative bodies. The law was signed by President Putin on 22 August 2004 .

In Siberia , there are around 40 different indigenous peoples – in total 200,000 inhabitants. Only about 10% of them live according to their traditional nomadic way of life, compared to 70% 30 years ago. Many of them are reindeer breeders. Others live from hunting or gathering mushrooms, berries, roots or herbs. Clean rivers and an intact environment are necessary for fishing. Wood is the most important building material and the only heating fuel available. For most indigenous peoples, the forest is also a spiritual place. Without the forest they would not be able to survive as an independent people with their own history, culture and economy. For centuries, they have cared for and protected the forest’s delicate ecosystem. Their knowledge of preserving the forest is of incalculable value.

In the last decades, their habitat has been constantly under threat: oil production, the depletion of uranium, diamonds and oil and now the new forest code. The disastrous consequences can be seen today in an average life expectancy which is 20-25 years below that of the rest of the Russian population, as well as problems such as alcohol abuse, crime and being culturally uprooted.

The New Forest Code

The aim of the new Forest Code is to put the seemingly endless Russian forests to commercial use and to generate profit from wood as a raw material. 25% of the world’s forest reserves and 70% of all boreal (in other words, Euro-Siberian and North American) forests are in Russia . The boreal forest consists mainly of conifers. Forests cover an area of 882 million hectares, which represents two thirds of Russian territory. Almost 85% of these forest areas lie East of the Ural Mountains . Only two percent of the forest is under conservation.

The Ministry for Natural Resources is responsible for forest administration in Russia , as there is no Ministry for the Environment. Russian government politicians want to use the forest commercially to a much larger extent than up until now. Privatisation is seen as the key to success. Wood logging is set to increase drastically. Up until now only 21% of the allowed amount of 550 million cubic metres of wood per year has been cut down, the head of the Federal Agency for Forestry of the Ministry for Natural Resources of the Russian Federation complains. 51.5% of all Russian exports come from this sector. In other words, wood is one of the most important economic factors in Russia . The political decision-makers are aiming to keep the processing of wood within their country. In addition, a large amount of wood is illegally logged. Particularly China’s severe lack of raw materials has in recent years led to wide scale smuggling of wood into China across the 4000 km long Chinese-Russian border.

The indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation are concerned that the new law will deny them access to the forest, and consequently deprive them of their livelihood. Most of them are living below the poverty line and are dependent on the forest. Article 27 of the new law addresses the particular situation of Russia ’s indigenous peoples. It states that their traditional use of the forest should be ensured. However, this is not a guarantee, as like the previously mentioned law on traditonal land use, this law does not include implementation regulations, thus depriving the indigenous peoples of any means of effectively enforcing their rights.

The new forest code was passed by the Duma after the first reading in April 2005, despite the fact that many of its articles contradict current Russian legislation. The final vote will take place on 19 September 2005 .

The planned usage rights of the forest areas are set to have a term of 10 to 99 years. These rights will be auctioned. The starting price will be according to the state price per cubic metre of wood. The rights will go to the highest bidder. The draft text fails to mention ecological and social responsibility of the new owners of the forest. This means that there is a high risk of nature reserves being exploited commercially.

The forest owner or leaseholder has the right to allow or deny access to his part of the forest. The new law significantly extends the right to forest clearing. This makes it possible for oil companies to buy large portions of the forest, to avoid environmental regulations and build pipelines.

The new law does not differentiate between different qualities of the forest.

Environmentally protected areas; forest areas, the lungs of the large cities which they are in the direct vicinity of; water protection areas etc. do not receive a particular mention or protection.


1. The UN special rapporteur for indigenous peoples should become involved in the discussion on the forest code and present the Russian parliament and government with examples of “best practice”, which demonstrate the indigenous people’s use of the forest.

2. The current legislation process should be put on hold, in order to allow an independent commission of international experts to analyse the social, economic and cultural consequences of the forest code on the indigenous people’s way of life in the Russian Federation .

3. A mechanism must be enshrined in the forest code, which takes into consideration the vulnerability of the indigenous peoples’ way of life, and transfers without sale the ownership of forest areas traditionally inhabited by indigenous peoples to the respective indigenous communities.

Editor’s comment:

The present situation concerning the Forest Code

(Based on information from the bulletin “Право-Природа: российское экологическое законодательство” [Legal Nature: Russian Environmental Legislation], May-August 2005)

According to the bulletin “Legal Nature: Russian Environmental Legislation”, an All-Russian legal campaign was launched under the slogan “Forests of Russia - property of the people!”. Thousands of protests from citizens against the Forest Code were directed to the President of the Russian Federation and other high officials, requiring the reworking of the bill under nation-wide participation of the public. In addition to civil actions, there were also negative reactions from some regional authorities in Russia, research institutes, and a memorandum from 103 deputies of the State Duma of the Russian Federation in which they claim the bill would be an infringement of the Constitution of the Federation. Further, they predict that the proposed law would lead to national economic losses, an increase of social tensions, and negative environmental consequences.