The physiography of Latvia and its neighboring areas was formed, to a large degree, during the Quartenary period and the Pleistocene ice age, when soil and debris were pushed by glaciers into mounds and hills. Undulating plains cover 75 percent of Latvia's territory and provide the main areas for farming; 25 percent of the territory lies in uplands of moderate-sized hills. About 27 percent of the total territory is cultivable, with the central Zemgale Plain south of Riga being the most fertile and profitable. The three main upland areas--in the provinces of Kurzeme (western Latvia), Vidzeme (central Latvia), and Latgale (eastern Latvia)--provide a picturesque pattern of fields interspersed with forests and numerous lakes and rivers. In this area, the extensive glacial moraines, eskers, and drumlins have limited the profitability of agriculture by fragmenting fields and presenting serious erosion problems.
About 10 percent of Latvian territory consists of peat bogs, swamps, and marshes, some of which are covered by stunted forest growth. Forests are the outstanding feature of Latvia, claiming 42 percent of the territory. Lumber and wood products are among the country's most important exports. Two-thirds of the forests consist of Scotch pine or Norway spruce. Latvian forests differ from those of North America primarily because of their relatively brush-free understory. The forest floor, however, is far from a biological desert, as is often the case in tree plantations. Indeed, one of the most widespread pastimes of the population is picking blueberries, mushrooms, cranberries, and other bounties of the natural environment.
Few of the forests are fully mature because of previous overcutting and also because of several violent storms during the 1960s, which snapped or uprooted millions of trees. As a consequence, most of the wood today is derived from thinning and improvement cuts, forming 50 percent of the annual total growth increment of 8 million cubic meters of wood.
For a long time, wood has been a basic source of energy. The utilization of wood as fuel has increased dramatically in the 1990s, even in cities, because of the numbing price hikes on other forms of energy. Local wood is also an important resource for the pulp and paper industry and for specialized plywood and furniture manufacturers. A great concern today is the unregulated cutting of timber for the foreign market. Prices paid by European wood buyers are phenomenally high by local standards, and there is much pressure to utilize this opportunity for cash accumulation, even without legal permits. By 1992 the problem had become so serious that Latvian forestry officials were given the right to carry firearms.
Not all forests are productive. Many areas, especially abandoned, formerly private farms, have become overgrown with low-value alders and other scrub trees. With the return of private farming, these areas are once again being reclaimed for agriculture. In the process, however, there is a danger that these areas, which are ideal for wildlife, will become threatened. The decades-long neglect of extensive areas of marginal farmland was a boon for the establishment of unique ecological conditions favorable for the survival of animal species rarely found in other parts of Europe. According to a World Wildlife Fund study in 1992, Latvia has unusual populations of black storks, small eagles, otters, beaver, lynx, and wolves. There are also great concentrations of deer (86,000), wild boar (32,000), elk (25,000), moose (13,000), and fox (13,000). Many Latvians today are planning to exploit this resource by catering to foreign hunters.
The variegated and rapidly changing physiography of glacial moraines and lowlands has also allowed temperate flora, such as oaks, to grow within a few hundred meters of northern flora, such as bog cotton and cloudberries. This variety and the rapid change in natural ecosystems are among the unique features of the republic.
The Soviet system left behind another windfall for naturalists. The Latvian western seacoast was a carefully guarded border region. Almost all houses near the sea were razed or evacuated. As a result, about 300 kilometers of undeveloped seashore are graced only by forests of pine and spruce and ecologically unique sand dunes. The temptation for fast profit, however, may foster violation of laws that clearly forbid any construction within one kilometer of the sea. Unless the government takes vigorous action, one of the last remaining wild shorelines in Europe may become just a memory.
The seashore adjoining the population centers around Riga was a major focus of tourism during the Soviet era. Jurmala, with its many sanatoriums and tourist accommodations, its tall pines, sandy beaches, and antique architecture, is now experiencing a wrenching readjustment. East European tourists can no longer afford to come here, and Western tourists have not yet discovered the area and its relatively low prices. West Europeans may be loath to come, however, because excessive pollution has closed Jurmala beaches to swimming since 1988. Moreover, facilities and accommodations adequate for Soviet tastes fall far short of minimal standards expected in the West.
Latvia has an abundant network of rivers, contributing to the visual beauty and the economy of the country. The largest river is the Daugava, which has been an important route for several thousand years. It has been used by local tribes as well as by Vikings, Russians, and other Europeans for trade, war, and conquest. With a total length of 1,020 kilometers, the Daugava (or Zapadnaya Dvina in its upper reaches) originates in the Valday Hills in Russia's Tver' Oblast, meanders through northern Belarus, and then winds through Latvia for 370 kilometers before emptying into the Gulf of Riga. It is about 200 meters wide when it enters Latvia, increasing to between 650 and 750 meters at Riga and to 1.5 kilometers at its mouth.
The river carries an average annual flow of twenty-one cubic kilometers. Its total descent within Latvia of ninety-eight meters has made it an attractive source of hydroelectric power production. The first hydroelectric station, at Kegums, was built during Latvia's independence period. The second dam, at Plavinas, aroused an unusual wave of protest in 1958. Most Latvians opposed the flooding of historical sites and a particularly scenic gorge with rare plants and natural features, such as the Staburags, a cliff comparable in cultural significance to the Lorelei in Germany. The construction of the dam was endorsed in 1959, however, after the purge of relatively liberal and nationally oriented leaders under Berklavs and their replacement by Moscow-oriented, ideologically conservative cadres led by Pelse. The third dam, just above Riga, did not provoke much protest because of the seeming hopelessness of the cause. The proposed fourth dam, at the town of Daugavpils on the Daugava River, became the rallying point for protest in 1986-87 by hundreds of thousands of Latvians. This dam was not constructed, in spite of the vast expenditures already poured into the project.
Smaller rivers include the Lielupe, in central Latvia, with an average annual flow of 3.6 cubic kilometers; the Venta, in the west, with 2.9 cubic kilometers; the Gauja, in the northeast, with 2.5 cubic kilometers; and the Aiviekste, in the east, with 2.1 cubic kilometers. Very little hydroelectric power is generated by their waters, although planners are now thinking of reactivating some of the abandoned older dams and turbines. The Gauja is one of Latvia's most attractive, relatively clean rivers and has an adjoining large national park along both of its banks as one of its notable features. Its cold waters attract trout and salmon, and its sandstone cliff and forest setting are increasingly a magnet for tourists interested in the environment.
More than 60 percent of the annual water volume of Latvia's six largest rivers comes from neighboring countries, mainly from Belarus and Lithuania. These adjoining resources create obvious needs for cooperation, especially in pollution control. The dangers from a lack of cooperation were brought home to Latvians in November 1990, when a polymer complex in Navapolatsk, Belarus, accidentally spilled 128 tons of cyanide derivatives into the Daugava River with no warning to downstream users in Latvia. Only the presence of numerous dead fish alerted Latvian inhabitants to the danger.
Data as of January 1995