Exploring the Ties between People and Forests on KamchatkaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Like many visitors to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, I began my sojourn in Petropavlovsk- Kamchatsky, the peninsula's capital city. I arrived here in fall 2003 to conduct research on alternatives to traditional forestry practices in the central Kamchatka River valley that is the sole coniferous forest habitat on the peninsula. Specifically, I wanted to explore how the small-scale gathering and processing of non-timber forest products—berries, edible fungi, and medicinal plants—could provide an alternative economic activity to the rural dwellers in this depressed region. At the same time, I was interested in how this activity could help promote more effective stewardship of the forests upon which these people depend.
Before delving into my investigation, I began to lay the groundwork at my host institute, the Pacific Ocean Institute of Geography (Kamchatka Branch) in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Situated on the breathtaking Avacha Bay that abuts the Pacific Ocean on Kamchatka's southeastern coast, this city was far from my study site in the heart of the peninsula, but nonetheless the center of scientific research and academic resources. Spending time in the city was fascinating in its own right, especially considering Kamchatka's former status as a military zone whose borders have only relatively recently become permeable to the outside world.
Thanks to strictly controlled access in the past, the peninsula has retained large tracts of untrammeled wilderness. Even the area immediately surrounding the city did not disappoint: two large active volcanoes rise suddenly and majestically above it. Often during morning treks to the institute, I paused to catch the first rays of the sun dance on the steep, icy slopes of these volcanoes, transforming them into a warm and rosy glow.
The city, however, stood in stark contrast to this natural grandeur. Lacking any sort of unifying design, entire sections of concrete apartment buildings were hastily thrown up to accommodate the large wave of settlers from the 1950s to the 1970s. Arriving from the "mainland," or other areas throughout the former Soviet Union, many of these people were lured here by the prospect of earning a high salary in exchange for three years of hard work; they never intended to put down roots in this untamed land. This area quickly lost its luster in the post-Soviet period when former generous governmental subsidies were slashed and the cost of living went well above the national average. Today signs of a decaying and neglected infrastructure are ubiquitous.
This same story of post-Soviet abandonment is repeated in the towns and villages throughout Kamchatka, including those in my central Kamchatka study site. During my yearlong research stint, I had the invaluable opportunity to spend fairly long periods of time living and working in four villages. I divided my research on non-timber forest products into two distinct stages that corresponded with Kamchatka's seasons. The first stage focused on the human use aspect of non-timber forest products and commenced with ethnographic work during the winter and spring months.
With critical input from colleagues at my host institution, I developed appropriate interview questions to help clarify which non-timber forest products people gather; where they gather them and in which quantities; and how they use these products. For example, do people sell non-timber forest products, process, or use them as medicine? In addition, I posed questions to gauge how people's gathering patterns had shifted during the post-Soviet period, and how they perceived changes in the ecology (i.e., spatial distribution) and biology (i.e., harvest levels) of the non-timber forest products they collect annually.
These interviews were very revealing. First, they confirmed that non-timber forest products today are used extensively in rural households to fulfill many needs, including those for protein and vitamin supplements, and for effective medicines. Second, I learned that many people gather and sell non-timber forest products (berries and mushrooms, in particular) to earn sorely needed additional income. Third, I found that products are primarily sold in their raw form. If processing, such as the preservation of mushrooms, is done, it is almost always done in the home; however, I did encounter one small-scale processing operation that temporarily set up shop in a village during the peak of the mushroom-gathering season.
The interviews were also central in understanding gathering patterns in the Soviet period when state-run structures, namely the gospromkhoz or the local forest service (leskhoz), oversaw the gathering and processing of non-timber forest products. People's recollections from this period helped substantiate and enliven data that I painstakingly collected in Kamchatka's main archive to understand these structures more thoroughly. For instance, people described lines outside local collection points where villagers waited to turn in the fruits of their labor in the forest. They were compensated with money, or coupons (talony) that could help them procure goods, such as rugs, that were in sharp deficit at the time.
Today the state no longer regulates the large-scale gathering, processing, and distribution of non-timber forest products. Following the collapse of the gospromkhoz in the early 1990s, a loose network of enterprising middlemen has emerged to sell the resources originating in central Kamchatka to buyers in larger towns and cities. Villagers themselves have entered into this network thanks to increasing rates of car ownership and the corresponding opportunities they have to transport products to key markets. The influx of cars has also made gathering areas in central Kamchatka accessible to people living far outside of this region.
Although it is not yet clear whether a greater quantity of non-timber forest products is being harvested today in comparison with that in the Soviet period, it seems plausible that a larger proportion of land is now being exploited for these products than was in the past. In my research, I uncovered a piece of forest legislation that stipulates the precise quantities of various non-timber forest products that may be gathered by each person in a household. Through conversations with local people and staff at forest service branch offices, however, it became obvious that these promising regulations are generally laxly enforced.
Even in the case of tighter resource control, there is a dearth of research on the ecology and biology of non-timber forest products in this region, leaving local forestry managers with virtually no information on the current harvest levels of certain species and, subsequently, on what might constitute a sustainable harvest. In fact, they don't appear to be overly concerned with over-exploitation of an important species. It is very likely that other problems, such as the rise in forest fires throughout this region, have taken the lion's share of the district offices' attention and resources.
This current situation underpins the relevance of my second research stage in which I initiated an ecological study of non-timber forest products that lasted from late spring (mid-June) to the first days of autumn (end of August). The completed interviews were pivotal in designing a research plan and choosing suitable methodology. Specifically, they provided me with the information essential to identify key species for examination. Also, during the interviews, I sketched maps of people's gathering areas that later helped me to pinpoint potential study sites.
My first preliminary study was on wild garlic (Allium ochtense), one of the early spring herbs in the forest. Later my focus shifted to three different berry-producing shrubs: honeyberry (Lonicera edulis), bog whortleberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), and lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). Depending on the harvest conditions in a given year, each berry is extensively gathered and used as a household staple, or is sold, or both. The lingonberry is the most lucrative to collect and sell.
I learned and perfected the field methods for the berry study through participation in a geobotanical expedition organized by scientists at my host institution. Following this expedition, my field assistant and I set up 400m2 forest plots in which we made detailed descriptions of all plant growth, including measurements of a species' approximate height and density. We also did berry counts to extrapolate harvest levels for this particular year. This work is still in its preliminary state: much data remains to be collected in future seasons for sound analysis of harvest levels and changes in spatial distribution. In addition, archival data that I gathered on past harvest levels and climatic conditions will facilitate the modeling of long-term trends.
Sound ecological knowledge is critical to wise resource management, yet it is incomplete without careful consideration of how people understand and use these resources in their everyday lives. Thus, the integration of local knowledge with scientific data has become one of my primary research goals. Besides the interview process, I worked toward this goal by spending many hours with people in the forest to observe firsthand how they gathered, and to glean their knowledge of local ecology and biology, which was often very extensive.
Even after spending nearly a year on Kamchatka, I departed with the profound sense that my work there had just begun. Currently, I'm beginning to sort through and analyze the data that I collected over the past year and am already looking forward to next summer's field season on Kamchatka. This research will serve as the centerpiece of the Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment that I will begin in January. I ultimately hope that my efforts will generate the critical knowledge and ideas necessary to benefit the communities in central Kamchatka that have been so warm and generous to me, and the forest ecosystems upon which they depend.
In August 2003, Stephanie Hitztaler completed an M.A. in Russian and East European Studies and an M.S. in Natural Resources and Environment at U-M. She was a Fulbright Student in Russia during 2003-04.