Karelia, Russia - These forests of pine, spruce and birch trees on Russia's north-west frontier with Finland stretch in every direction to the horizon. When the sun shines, the dazzling green is fragmented by lakes of sky-blue water.
Yet the impact of humankind is everywhere. Tracks criss-cross the woodland, accommodating logging vehicles - diggers with robotic chainsaws and trailer trucks. At road intersections, ribbons tied around trees signpost areas earmarked for clearing.
Swedwood Karelia LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Swedish furniture giant IKEA, owns a logging concession of around 300,000 hectares here. Its factory on the edge of the town of Kostomuksha processes logs into planks. Eventually, they will end up as flat-packs in hundreds of IKEA's stores worldwide.
|Swedwood is active in the Karelia Forest, one of the
last old-growth forests in Europe [Yulia Shcherbina/Al Jazeera]
For IKEA, Russia is a prime territory for expansion. Not only are two of its top three globally performing stores located in Moscow, but the country's vast boreal or taiga forest belt is a source of high-quality timber.
Yet IKEA's logging in Karelia has raised uncomfortable questions about its reputation for sourcing sustainable wood. And attention has also brought into focus wider problems associated with commercial forestry in northern Europe and Russia.
In April, environmental NGOs held protests outside eight IKEA stores in Sweden to raise awareness of a study conducted into IKEA's activities in Karelia by Protect the Forest and Friends of the Earth Sweden.
The NGOs claim that IKEA, through Swedwood, is helping to destroy ecosystems that are home to endangered species by clear-cutting already depleted old-growth forests. In Karelia, only isolated tracts and pockets remain, surrounded by so-called secondary forests that have regrown after logging.
Karelia has been exploited for its abundant timber reserves since Soviet times. In fact, 90 per cent of the original forest is estimated to have been logged. But in old-growth forests, trees die and decay naturally.
The Karelia Regional Nature Conservancy (SPOK) backs the NGOs' findings. Clutching a cross-section of silver pine cut by Swedwood and dated to around 400 years of age, Alexander Markovsky explains that the delicate and humid conditions provided by trees that are allowed to die and decay naturally are difficult to replicate.
"Rare species of lichens, mosses and other plants and animals live in this forest. They have no chance to survive in secondary forests. I can say that in taiga old-growth forests around 25,000 types of species survive. In secondary forests there are far fewer. Old-growth forests also play a climatic role. Carbon is stored in the soil. When logging comes, the soil is disturbed and the carbon escapes."
Using a GPS locator to pinpoint some of the sites identified by ecologists, Al Jazeera was able to verify some of the claims that the IKEA subsidiary was logging in ancient forests. Through ring analysis of timber piles, some of the trees were between 250 to 300 years old.
IKEA's Moscow-based sustainability manager, Mattias Lövgren, says the problem of identifying areas that deserve protection comes down to differences in interpretation.
"IKEA has responsibilities. They are responsible for what happens now in our forest. This conflict shows that they do not follow this high standard which they talk about everywhere."
- Alexander Markovsky
"There are a lot of definitions here, and that's the problem with this debate - words and definitions, such as 'old trees' and so on, are flying around. What we can promise our customers and stakeholders is that we are operating under the strictest standards. And we have our licence. I should also mention our certificate is renewed every year."
IKEA's Swedwood is a certified member of the international Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), which sets standards for responsible forest management. In October, NEPCon, an independent environmental auditor, was instructed by FSC certifiers to investigate the complaints filed by the Swedish NGOs.
NEPCon found no grounds to suspend Swedwood's FSC certification. But it did rule that Swedwood had failed to provide publicly available maps depicting high conservation value forest.
It also acknowledged that Swedwood had carried out logging in "remnants of intact forest" but noted that "clear-cutting in primeval forest is not excluded in all cases under Russia's FSC standards".
That is where IKEA's defence lies. As long as the areas where they log have been certified as responsibly managed according to local FSC standards, they can continue to clear-cut.
Lövgren says there is also justification for cutting older trees, because the average age of forests are much higher in Russia than in Scandinavia.
"It's not only the age of individual trees alone, it's a rather complicated system. The FSC takes care of this since it invites all the stakeholders to evaluate what is high value and what is not. We fully trust this system".
Some trees being logged are 200-300 years old
[Yulia Shcherbina/Al Jazeera]
NEPCon notes that Swedwood has strictly protected and excluded from logging more than 32,000 hectares of its concession area. That is around ten per cent of the total. But if ecologists such as Alexander Markovsky are right, an additional 60,000 hectares are at risk.
"The main problem is why they lie. They say they're not cutting in high conservation areas but they operate there. Twenty to thirty per cent of the concessions area is old-growth. They must finish this work."
On its website, IKEA has set a goal of 50 per cent of its wood coming from recycled or responsibly managed forests by 2017. Put another way, fewer than half of the products stocking IKEA's shelves today come from forests that have not been logged under international standards for sustainability.
For campaigners such as Markovsky, FSC certification is not enough. He believes IKEA should expect the deepest scrutiny as a globally recognised brand whose actions can influence rivals.
"IKEA has responsibilities," he said. "They are responsible for what happens now in our forest. This conflict shows that they do not follow this high standard, which they talk about everywhere".
Russia's ancient forests are also under threat elsewhere. Other logging companies, including Swedish-owned RusForest, are operating in regions such as Arkhangelsk, where vast tracts of old-growth forest still exist.
With Russian markets increasingly opening to the global market, and WTO membership likely, environmentalists fear the worst damage is still to come. Today, just a fraction of Russia's estimated 800 million hectares of forest has FSC certification.
Markovsky says the challenge is to find a way to take advantage of Russia's extensive secondary forest potential. But there is no simple solution.
"If we have strongly managed forests, there is practically no biodiversity," he said. "We don't want the Swedish and Finnish system, where practically 95 per cent of their forest ecosystems have completely changed. Yet we should take into account the situation and think how we will manage our forests in the future.
"We still have a chance to protect our biodiversity and create a sustainable situation. We do have a chance."
Follow Robin Forestier-Walker on Twitter: @robinfwalker
Source: Al Jazeera