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How to bring down a Russian timber baron

Meet the eco spies uncovering Siberian scandals

Who’s standing up for the planet? Undercover ‘eco-spies’ Earthsight are on a mission to expose crimes against the Earth – it’s time to rethink your Billy bookcase

Undercover meetings, fieldwork in the stolen golden forests, and secret phone calls might sound like ecological espionage

– but what exactly goes into an Earthsight investigation?

Head of timber investigations Tara Ganesh doesn’t say, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” but she’s clear that there are secrets she can’t reveal. Over a Zoom call, she explains just why both she and Earthsight do what they do.

For Tara Ganesh, born and raised in Bombay (now Mumbai), the environment has always been at the forefront of her mind. She lived by the sea, and has seen the increasing problem of ocean pollution first-hand. After spending her childhood travelling all around India, wandering through villages, forests, rivers, and cities, she developed a fierce connection to the environment. Tara studied law, and quickly became interested in environmental law after a moot (mock) court case about the effect of wind turbines on migratory birds. 

One internship at the UN and one job with Greenpeace later, she’s now head of the Timber Investigation Centre at Earthsight, a startup NGO that’s leading environmental investigations and shining a light on planetary injustice and greenwashing. They’ve investigated issues like electronic waste smuggling, the illegal palm oil trade, and leather stolen from the land of an uncontacted tribe. And there’s been another big story – illegal logging in Siberia.

Trees are the greatest counterpoint to the climate crisis (no big deal). And to steal a quote, ‘a culture is no better than its woods’.

Tara Ganesh, Head of timber investigations, Earthsight

“A lot of our work has been focused on Ukraine and Russia, because that’s what we saw as a bit of an untold story,” Tara says.

There’s already a lot of focus on timber from places like Brazil and Indonesia, Tara explains, but no-one was telling the story of “vast quantities of Ukrainian and Russian wood coming into Western markets”.

This softwood and timber, she says, is all around us. Clothing. Paper. Construction. And, in one particularly popular brand of Swedish flat pack furniture. We’re looking at you, IKEA.

How to uncover a planetary scandal

“Most of our work is desk based. You’ll be amazed to find out how much you can find out about global supply chains just sitting at your computer,” Tara begins.

Company annual reports, websites and promotional materials give a good starting point when it comes to an investigation. From their offices, the Earthsight team will query company accounts and look at shipping databases to see which products are being traded between countries. They use satellite imagery to see what’s happening to forests.

Earthsight is on a mission to stop Siberia burning using satellite imagery

Once they know there’s a story that needs looking at in more detail, either their specialist staff, consultants, or journalists, will get themselves into the field to investigate further. They get visuals, see how much forest has been cleared, and talk to government officials. And when they need to, they go undercover.

“The idea is to get proof that’s of a high enough standard, that it’s really hard for the company to deny that that’s what happened, because you want to get them to make the changes you want to see,” Tara says.

In 2018, an Earthsight investigation uncovered deforestation of Ukrainian forests which was tied up with illegalities in timber exports into the EU. All these forests were Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified and owned by the state. Earthsight wanted to know what exactly was happening within a label that many consumers trust to represent sustainability.

One of the companies tied up in that report was IKEA. Tara Ganesh was standing in her local IKEA store when she started to think more deeply about this. She loves shopping there, but as a timber PI she couldn’t help wondering about IKEA’s reliance on FSC certified wood. It didn’t take long to realise that IKEA gets much of its “gold standard” wood from countries with high levels of corruption – countries like Russia and Ukraine.

Welcome to the House of Horrors

After a year-long investigation, Earthsight published their IKEA’s House of Horrors report. In it, they claim that trees illegally logged from protected Russian forests have ended up as IKEA children’s furniture. The companies responsible for the logging are owned by Evgeny Bakurov, one of Russia’s wealthiest politicians. His businesses have harvested 2.16 million cubic metres of wood from protected forests over the last decade, an area that would stack up to build a near full-scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Yet this wood was certified by the FSC.

For this latest investigation, Earthsight needed to verify a supply chain. They went undercover. A person connected with the project (we don’t know who, and we never will) picked up the phone and asked a few probing questions of someone working with a Russian supplier. Down the receiver came the answer – the company was indeed supplying IKEA.

To get extra proof, a trusted investigator compared the situation on the ground in Russia with what was being said in the official documents.

“It was really shocking,” Tara says, remembering the photos and videos that came back. “We saw large areas of completely clean lands, areas of forest that just didn’t exist, just gaps in the forest, basically.”

In this protected area, a line of trees stood on the horizon, but nothing else. This was clear cutting, where everything is felled, rather than taking out a few trees and leaving the forest canopy intact, Tara explains. And it’s one of the most destructive logging practices. 

“And what made it worse was that all of this clear cutting was happening just on the banks of the reservoir, so it also has knock-on effects for the water and biodiversity in the area,” Tara says.

But for this report, most of the legwork was done by digging online and sifting through databases that show global trade flows. If Earthsight was able to find out all this information, Tara says, why did FSC auditors not know what was going on?

In an online statement, IKEA said: “IKEA has decided to temporarily ban the use of sanitary felled wood from Russia Far East and Siberia, effective immediately until the system is sufficiently strengthened. We take this action to raise further awareness on the need for strengthening the application of sanitary felling locally within the districts.”

They’ve also said that they won’t be using any wood from companies affiliated with Evgeny Bakurov, but they claim this process started before Earthsight contacted them.

The FSC released a statement following the Earthsight investigation, saying they are concerned about illegal logging in parts of Russia, and have issued a moratorium (authorised delay) on all sales of wood originating from sanitary logging in one area of the country.

The spark to start a big bang

Earthsight’s reports are beautifully-crafted pieces of storytelling, featuring bold illustrations and stirring photography. But, just as important as getting the message to consumers, Earthsight ends their reports with recommendations for policy makers and companies.

“We’re not telling stories just for the sake of telling a sexy story. We usually identify policy gaps or gaps in enforcement that maybe would be best closed, if a certain kind of story was told,” Tara says.

Collages by Tara Ganesh

Earthsight investigations have a purpose. They’re not telling consumers to boycott specific brands. They are designed to create real change, to begin an evolution in how companies and governments treat the planet.

“I really like the idea of telling stories that help make policy stronger, and also hold corporations to account, looking beneath the skin to see how their promises stack up,” Tara says.

In the case of the Russian timber story, they wanted to make the FSC better. When it comes down to it, Earthsight wants to fight climate change, and this is their contribution.

“In the US, EU, and UK, there are actually laws that are supposed to prevent illegal timber from entering these markets,” Tara says. “But what we found often is that the authorities tasked with enforcing these laws don’t really look much beyond an FSC certificate.”

It’s dangerous, she says, to assume that a product stamped with an FSC label is meeting all the sustainability criteria. In October 2021, Earthsight and other environmental groups wrote an open letter to FSC, asking for immediate structural reform.

Earthsight chose to focus on IKEA for their report, because the Swedish furniture brand relies so heavily on FSC wood. This was how they’d make a big bang.

“We thought, maybe the most powerful way to bring change at FSC, would be to tell a story about a supplier that we all know and love,” Tara says.

What’s particularly worrying for Tara, is the knowledge that IKEA is probably one of the best in the industry in terms of sustainability standards. “If the best can be this bad, then how much worse must it be for other companies that probably aren’t making those commitments?” she says.

By forcing IKEA to pull up its standards, Tara hopes there’ll be a knock-on effect around the world. 

Russia has the largest area of forest in the world, essential to the health of the whole planet.

Species like the white-tailed eagle, forest reindeer and endangered Amur tiger – the largest tiger in the world – can be found here, and the forest acts as a vast carbon store. But it is under threat. 

It’s clear why Earthsight would want to save this forest, and why they’re doing the same for vital ecosystems across the globe. The climate crisis might be nowhere near solved, but with Earthsight on the planet’s side, organisations might be forced to adopt better practices. If companies listen to them, if governments change policies, if seemingly small changes stack up, the future could be different. Could something like an Earthsight investigation lead to a new beginning for the planet? Could storytelling be a big bang moment?

What’s so good about this?

It’s hard to forget that we’re living in times of climate crisis, but there are people fighting on the side of the planet. Earthsight is one of those organisations, and their investigations have the potential to make a big impact. 

Katie Dancey-Downs writer profile

Meet the writer

When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. Follow @Katie_Dancey.

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