Illegal Loggers Are Decimating Romania’s Virgin Forests, Say Green Groups
Even protected areas aren't safe as some of Europe's largest primeval woodlands come under threat
Even after decades of rampant deforestation, Romania is still home to more than half of Europe's primeval woodlands, some 6.5 million hectares of old-growth temperate climate forests. As a result, some of the Old Continent's largest populations of brown bears, wolves, lynxes, and wildcats live in the country. Still, the Eastern European country is losing 62,000 hectares of this forest annually, or roughly 3 hectares per hour, much of it due illegal logging. Either as raw logs or as processed timber, nearly all of this wood somehow finds its way out of the country, to places like Northern Africa and Western Europe.
Photo by Carpathianland / Flickr
Romania has long faced illegal logging issues. Back in the 1800s, the country had 8.5 million hectares of woodland — 36 percent of its territory was forested. Between 1990 and 2011, however, Romania lost an estimated 366,000 hectares — some 2.8 billion cubic feet of timber — as a result of illegal logging. In recent years, illegal logging has ramped up, and today an estimated 26 percent of the country is forested.
Environmentalists blame the situation in large part on the corrupt sale of government-owned wooded areas to private citizens, politicians, and various corporate entities. Advocates say the extent of destruction of primeval forests in Romania far exceeds that in Poland, which has received significantly more international attention. Nowhere is safe from illegal logging, including the country’s protected forests and national parks. Only last year, in 2017, 124 acres of woodland were lost from the Semenic National Park, which lies in the southwestern part of Romania, bordering Serbia. The region has the largest virgin beech forests in Europe, with over 4,200 hectares, and was protected as a UNESCO world heritage site in, August 2017. Logging in the park is illegal.
Romania’s Ministry of Environment has pledged to investigate the illegal logging in Semenic National Park. However, many citizens and environmentalists aren't convinced that any real headway will be made.
"The Semenic Mountains shelter Europe's largest remaining virgin forests of beech in a single area," Gabriel Paun, founder of the environmental nonprofit Agent Green, said in a statement about illegal logging in the region. “This landscape is the last genuine example of how Europe used to look after the last glacial era.”
Paun specifically called-out the government for giving "free reign" to Romsilva, the state-owned enterprise responsible for protecting, preserving, and developing Romania's publicly owned forests. Romsilva is actively involved in logging activities, and has been accused of contributing to illegal logging in the country.
“Making a profit out of logging in national parks is definitely the wrong motivation to manage a natural protected area,” Paun said. “Romsilva exists to make a profit. The management of Romania’s parks needs an independent leadership with a pro-conservation profile… It is embarrassing that ancient trees from a national park are made into primary products for export. Romania earns almost nothing and exports jobs, not finished wood products.”
Semenic National Park is in no way a singular case of deforestation in Romania’s protected areas. In fact, in February 2018, the Senate passed a legislative proposal stating that public works can be carried out in protected or virgin forest areas. The legislation paves the way for highway and other infrastructure projects within these areas.
“The project will allow deforestation to be made in the heart of virgin and quasi-virgin forests, as well as in the potential ones, which means that they will no longer meet the criteria for inclusion in the National Catalog of Virgin of Quasi-Virgin Forests and will lose their status of areas with full protection,” Greenpeace Romania said in a press release about the legislation, noting that no impact or feasibility studies had been carried out with respect to the proposal, and referencing an ongoing effort to catalog — and in the process, protect — primeval forests.
Anti-logging activists have pointed to a link between Holzindustrie Schweighofer, an Austrian company that dominates Romania’s timber processing sector, and deforestation. With a total of five sawmills across Romania, Schweighofer holds a 29 percent share of all the country’s resinous wood available on the international market. In recent years, the company has faced numerous accusations of complicity in illegal logging.
Photo courtesy of Agent Green
It has denied all allegations. "We totally refuse wood from national parks — even though it is legal from certain regions according to the Forestry Law,” the company said. “Every supplier who does not adhere to our rules or who breaks the law loses his contract with us."
Nevertheless, Agent Green's Gabriel Paun monitored truckloads of logs arriving at a Schweighofer mill in 2014. Police confirmed that the logs were illegally harvested, but Paun was violently prevented from filming while at the gates of one of Schweighofer's sawmills. Likewise, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a Washington-based group, used undercover video to expose the Austrian company purchasing illegal timber and incentivizing additional illegal logging by offering bonuses to loggers.
These revelations were followed by protests in Romania, as well as an international petition signed by more than 250,000 people. The Forest Stewardship Council revoked its chain-of-custody certification for Schweighofer-processed wood in 2016.
Since 2009, Romania has been implementing various monitoring, information, and tracking systems in conformity with the European Union Timber Regulation. And over the last several years, the Romanian government has been working on ways to further mitigate deforestation and increase transparency within the logging sector.
One of these was a digital timber tracking system, which the government put in place in 2014. Under the system, all trucks carrying wood were required to register. Known as The Forest Radar (Radarul Padurilor), this system allowed every citizen to verify the legitimacy of any logging operations by making use of license plate numbers, GPS data, and location. In 2016, the system was further improved with constantly-updated satellite imaging of the country’s forested areas. A mobile application, as well as the online platform The Forest Inspector (Inspectorul Padurii), were also born. The app was downloaded by more than 60,000 users in the months following the launch.
In a March 2017 statement, then Ministry of Environment, Waters, and Forests Adriana Petcu said: “The Forest Inspector package — both the mobile application and the web platform — are essential instruments in fighting illegal deforestation. The systems are still in testing periods, but they already proved their usefulness. This is a unique transparency exercise both in Europe and in the world, and it must be continued and upgraded.”
In late 2016, Romania held its Parliamentary elections and a new coalition came to power the following year. According to The Group of States Against Corruption, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) alongside the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) were quick to reverse attempts by previous governments to fight national corruption. On Jan 31, 2017, the ruling coalition issued an executive order that decriminalized the abuse of office by officials. This move sparked huge nationwide protests, the likes of which had not been seen in Romania since the 1989 anti-communist revolution.
When it came to the Forest Inspector, the new PSD Ministry of Environment, Waters, and Forests, Doina Pana, declared: "The portal has been populated only with the information coming from Romsilva, but Romsilva is administering less than half of the Romanian forests, and the platform has started a national hysteria. Since its launch, there were more than six thousand alerts, of which only 17 were illegal."
Instead of expanding the platform's information database to include forests beyond those managed by Romsilva, Pana decided to discontinue and defund the app until further notice, on the premise that it put too much strain on local authorities. What she failed to mention in her statement, however, was the fact that the total number of illegal logging activities dropped by an estimated 47 percent for the duration of the app's existence.
What the ministry decided to do, instead of tackling widespread deforestation, was to kill or relocate 140 bears and 97 wolves last year following several attacks on humans. Advocates say the increasing incidence of attacks was likely related to loss habitat due to deforestation.
More recently, the government seemed to send a signal that it was taking illegal logging more seriously. Officer’s with Romania’s Directorate for Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism raided 23 locations believed to be involved with a €25 million illegal logging ring in the Carpathian mountains.
David Gehl, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)’s Eurasia programs coordinator, told The Guardian: “This is the first time that a company has really been held to account for illegal logging on this scale in Europe. It sends a huge signal to the timber industry that illegal logging in Europe’s last great ancient forests will have consequences.”