10 January 2024

Forests in Ukraine are collateral victims of Russian invasion


In Ukraine, territories under partial Russian control since 2014, the area of forests has shrunk by 25 percent. This is shown by an American research involving two institutes in Kiev

by Matteo Cavallito


In addition to the inestimable human costs, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine also produces significant environmental damage by clearly impacting forests. This is reported in a recent study involving researchers from the University of Maryland, the Space Research Institute in Kiev, and the Polytechnic Institute in the Ukrainian capital.

The study looks at territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under partial Russian control that belong to the so-called Emerald Network. The network brings together a number of natural areas protected under the 1979 Bern Convention.

The study

This research, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, covers a 25-year period between 1996, when Kiev adopted the Bern Convention, and 2020. The period under observation, therefore, does not include the latest conflict triggered by the Russian invasion in 2022. But it does include Moscow’s disputed annexation of Crimea in early 2014.

The researchers used Landsat and Copernicus Sentinel 1 and 2 satellite images to analyze changes in forest cover in Emerald Network protected areas located in the Luhansk region. Which has been under partial Russian control for the past decade.

In the invaded territories, 25 percent of the forests were lost

The results, the study says, “reveal that the implementation of Bern Convention conservation policies led to a shift from deforestation (−4% each) to reforestation (+8% and +10%) on both sides of the Emerald Network divided by the demarcation line in 2014.”

The survey, moreover, “shows that despite the war, territories under Ukraine control after 2014 continued reforestation (+9%), while sites under Russian control experienced dramatic forest loss (−25%).”

Danni e perdite del settore agricolo e del comparto allevamento in Ucraina. Fonte: FAO, 2022 file:///D:/cc3311en.pdf Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO licence (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Damage and losses of the agricultural and livestock sector in Ukraine. Source: FAO, 2022 file:///D:/cc3311en.pdf Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO licence (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Billions of dollars worth of environmental damage in Ukraine

“Our results indicate that the separation of ecosystems from environmental-protection institutions and policies through the occupation of Ukrainian territory led to dramatic degradation of the environment and loss of ecosystem sustainability,” said Nataliia Kussul, director of the Department of Mathematics at Kiev Polytechnic Institute in a statement released by the researchers. The Russian military offensive in early 2022, the authors also point out, has since taken even more territories out of legal protection.

This study, therefore, adds a new chapter to the issue of collateral environmental damage from the conflict, which has long been the focus of attention of various observers.

Just over a year ago, an FAO report had revealed how in the first six months of the war alone the total damage and losses to Ukrainian farmers and ranchers already amounted to nearly $2.25 billion. Meanwhile, experts from the Sokolovsky Institute for Soil Science of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, quoted by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, have focused on the problem of soil contamination. Which, as a result of the war, would show increasing concentrations of cadmium and lead. According to their estimates, the total damage to Ukrainian soil would amount to $15 billion. Which is, of course, a preliminary estimate.