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The Wagner Group’s timber trail: Fueling conflict and environmental destruction

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In recent years, the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has come under increasing scrutiny for its involvement in various activities around the world. Among its many questionable endeavors, the group has been implicated in funding itself through dealings with unsavory regimes, exploiting natural resources in Central Africa, engaging in criminal activities such as illegal timber trade, and even participating in conflicts. This article delves into the disturbing connection between the Wagner Group’s activities, timber exploitation, and its consequences for both international conflict and environmental destruction.

The Wagner Group’s exploitation of Africa
The Wagner Group’s operations in Central Africa have raised concerns on multiple fronts. Not only has the group been accused of supporting African regimes and rebels in their respective conflicts, but it has also ventured into the lucrative timber trade within the region. Central Africa, home to some of the world’s most biodiverse and ancient forests, has become a focal point for resource exploitation, further destabilizing the region.

Illegal timber trade and looting
One of the most troubling aspects of the Wagner Group’s activities in Central Africa is its involvement in the illegal timber trade. Exploiting the region’s vast forests, including the rare and ancient Taiga forest, the group has engaged in large-scale logging operations. These operations have led to the destruction of pristine wilderness areas and threatened rare and endangered species that call these forests home. Some of these trees are over 300 years old, making their loss irreversible.

Russian birch plywood flooding the US Market
The impact of the Wagner Group’s activities extends beyond Central Africa. Earthsight, an NGO dedicated to exposing environmental and social harm, has revealed how Russian birch plywood, a material commonly used in construction and furniture, continues to flood into the United States. Shockingly, this wood, often used for kitchen cabinets and construction, is contributing to the funding of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Despite calls for sanctions on high-risk goods, Earthsight’s investigations uncovered that the importation of Russian conflict timber into the US continues to rise. Birch plywood with an estimated retail value of $340.6 million has entered US ports since the initial report, averaging a staggering $2 million per day.

Russian suppliers with ties to the Kremlin
One of the major suppliers of Russian plywood in recent months has been the company Segezha, one of Russia’s largest logging firms. A significant shareholder in Segezha is Evgeny Yevtushenkov, a billionaire with close ties to the Kremlin. Yevtushenkov’s links to Putin and his role in Segezha have raised concerns about the wood’s sourcing and its potential to fund Russian military activities.

Segezha had previously agreed to halt logging in precious Russian forests, but it reneged on this commitment in 2022, opening up vast areas of ancient Taiga forest for logging. Environmentalists have documented the destruction, with more than 680 hectares cleared within the first three months of 2023. These actions not only breach previous agreements but also raise legal and environmental concerns.

Calls for action and accountability
The revelations about the Wagner Group’s timber trade have sparked calls for action and accountability. Activists and non-governmental organizations are demanding that the US halt its consumption of Russian conflict timber. Ukrainian legislators have also joined this call, passing a resolution urging foreign governments to ban imports of Russian wood. Existing executive orders empower the US Secretary of the Treasury to add new products to US trade sanctions on Russia, bypassing the need for new legislation.

Furthermore, attention is turning to the companies involved in moving these controversial goods. Small shipping companies like Atlantic Ro-Ro Carriers (ARRC) have become the primary transporters of Russian plywood to the US, handling a significant portion of these imports. The companies managing the ports in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Houston, where ARRC’s ships offload their cargo, are also under scrutiny.

Conclusion
The Wagner Group’s involvement in the illegal timber trade, coupled with its ties to Putin and Russian aggression in Ukraine, is a stark reminder of the ongoing issue of foreign powers exploiting Africa’s resources and instability. This unsettling trade not only fuels conflict but also contributes to the destruction of precious forests, exacerbating environmental crises. Calls for action are growing louder, urging the US and other nations to take decisive measures to halt the flow of Russian conflict timber and hold those involved accountable. The global community must prioritize the preservation of vital ecosystems and the prevention of conflict financing through such nefarious means.

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