Winter Timber Sale

Ukrainian Forests During Conflict

Linking humanitarian demining and the environment

Pine forest near Klavdievo, Bucha Raion, Kyiv Oblast. Photo from Wikipedia

In the aftermath of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the country's agricultural and food sectors have experienced the brunt of the economic fallout, but with nearly 17% of the nation covered in forest, Ukraine’s forest industry has also taken a hit. Dr. Anna McKean, a speaker at a recent Penn State Extension webinar, detailed what has happened to Ukraine’s forests and forest workers in the two years since the invasion began.

Three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of Ukrainian forests have been affected by war and conflict. Explosives can cause fires and cratering while shrapnel damages trees and military waste pollutes soil and water. Long after the threat of direct conflict passes, landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) can make forests hazardous for local communities, who rely on them for both timber and non-timber products.

“The environment is seen as a silent victim of war. We do everything we can to challenge this idea,” said Dr. McKean, who is a researcher at Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), a UK-based charity. COEBS is currently partnering with Ukrainian relief efforts to identify opportunities to integrate environmental safeguarding into their mine action work. Humanitarian demining is the process of removing ERW to allow civilians to return to using the land safely.

The process of demining can be done either manually or mechanically. Manual demining is slow work, with people moving through designated areas to locate and safely remove ERW. With mechanical demining, large machinery is used to remove vegetation and excavate the ERW. It is a popular method because of its speed but has negative impacts on the environment, explained Dr. McKean. The machines rip up vegetation and the heavy equipment compacts the soil.

Both methods are currently in use in Ukraine, which is considered one of the most contaminated countries with landmines and ERW in the world. With ERW from the First and Second World Wars, the 2014 War in Donbas, and Russia’s ongoing invasion, nearly 29% of the country needs to be surveyed for contamination. The government estimates this could take 70 years. Interviewing community members about an area’s history of conflict and collecting data with satellite surveys could reduce the area in need of demining, but natural disasters and the unknown future of the ongoing conflict also have the potential to increase it.

Roads, government buildings, urban communities, and agricultural land are all ahead of forestland in priority for demining. In the meantime, forest management and fire protection activities are continuing, but not without disruption. Forestry vehicles and equipment were donated to the armed forces, and many foresters enlisted to fight, causing forestry employee numbers to drop by over 7,000 between 2021 and 2022.

“They are getting shelled and missile attacks every day so you can imagine the conditions where people are working…but people are continuing to work there and doing what they can to protect the forest,” said Dr. McKean.

Visit the PennState Extension website to register for future webinars in this series.

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