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Romania struggles to turn the tide of illegal logging

  • Romania has Europe’s last tract of primary forest that’s large enough to retain its original levels of biodiversity.
  • An average of 62 reported cases of illegal logging are reported every day, with three hectares of woodland lost every hour.
  • The European Commission is investigating claims alleging Romania’s biggest timber exporters are sourcing illegally-felled wood.

If you were playing a game of “guess the forest,” a clue of thousands of hectares of old-growth forest home to large predators including bears and wolves, might not necessarily mean your first guess would be anywhere in Europe. A second clue of an average of 62 reported cases of illegal logging per day and an average of three hectares of woodland lost every hour would perhaps be more indicative of a tropical wood-producing nation.

But both actually refer to Romania.

Gabriel Paun, the founder and head of local NGO Agent Green, has spent years trying to protect his country’s vast expanses of forests and has been assaulted and intimidated in the process.

“We have thousands of hectares of virgin forests here like in no other country in Europe,” he told Mongabay. “They have never been touched, it is how Europe used to look after the last glacier age.”

Forests cover Domogled-Valea Cernei National Park in southwest Romania. Photo by Matthias Schickhofer / Agent Green.
Romania’s forests are strongholds for many species, like the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). Photo by Bernard Landgraf CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

That idyll is increasingly under threat, however. A recent report published by Greenpeace claimed that in the one year between 2013 and 2014 alone, 45,501 cases of illegal logging were reported in Romania.

Authorities found that a million cubic meters of wood were cut unlawfully in that period, costing 52 million euros ($55 million) in damages. Nearly 80 percent of the total volume of illegal timber harvested was from just three counties: Alba, Cluj and Marmamures.

“The number of cases being investigated by authorities has been on the increase in the last few years,” Crisanta Lungu, forest campaign coordinator with Greenpeace Romania, told Mongabay.

“From 30 cases a day between 2009 and 2011, it rose to 50 in 2012 and 62 during 2013 to 2014,” Lungu said. “Based on the forestry national inventory, there are 8.8 million cubic metres illegally logged yet only five percent of it was investigated by the Romanian authorities.”

The problem has gotten so bad that thousands of people took to the streets in protest in May, forcing the government to declare a national emergency. The Romanian National Security Council was tasked with investigating the matter.

Environmental groups claim that one key cause of the problem is that the state forestry administration manages both protected areas and production forests, in a country they say is crippled by corruption. The state controls approximately half of Romania’s 6.5 million hectares of land area, the rest being held in private ownership.

Earlier in the year, Adam Crăciunescu, the head of Romsilva, the state-owned forestry administration, was put under investigation by the national anti-corruption unit, as well as several politicians including the godfather of then-Prime Minister, Victor Ponta.

Ponta himself stepped down earlier this month, giving in to public anger over a nightclub fire that left 56 people dead and precipitated the popular campaign slogan “corruption kills.”

For their part, officials claim that the bulk of illegal logging is taking place in privately owned forests. Chief among foreign investors buying up Romania’s timber is Austria, a country where Gabriel Paun jokes “people have to crowd into a church to see virgin forest.”

Timber Industry in Romania: Kronospan sawmill. Kronospan manufactures a wide range of wood-based panel products. Photo by Thomas Einberger / Greenpeace.
Slopes left bare after logging in Romania. Photo courtesy of Agent Green.

Controlled by one of Austria’s richest families, Holzindustrie Schweighofer is Romania’s biggest softwood producer, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all production. They supply major DIY stores across Europe and are a key player in the increasingly controversial business of burning biomass for EU biofuel markets.

A new forest law passed in May of this year limits any single ownership of timber production to 30 percent. However, Holzindustrie Schweighofer plays such a significant role in Romania’s timber industry that the law could damage Romania-Austria trade relations if it is not amended, according to a leaked letter written by CEO Gerald Schweighofer to Ponta’s office in April this year.

A report last month by the Environmental Investigative Agency (EIA) alleged that the company’s operations and supply chains in Romania are plagued by illegally sourced wood. It documented a host of unlawful practices that always culminated with the illicit wood ending up in Schweighofer mills.

The investigation took place over two years and the release of its findings followed on the heels of a video by EIA earlier in the year that showed how the company allegedly knowingly accepted illegally harvested timber and incentivized additional cutting through a bonus system. Those revelations in turn came after a video by Agent Green late last year that showed guards pepper spraying and beating Paun as he tracked reportedly illegal timber to a Schweighofer mill.

Carpathian mountain forest near the Romanian village of Capatinenii Ungureni.
Photo by Thomas Einberger / Greenpeace.

The company denies the allegations in the EIA report and says they do not accept illegally-sourced wood. Indeed, they maintain that much of their production is voluntarily certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international NGO whose aim is to improve management of the world’s forests.

In response to Mongabay’s queries, Media Manager Ioana Cojocaru from Holzindustrie Schweighofer’s PR agency sent a detailed response to the major allegations. The company says that contrary to the findings of Greenpeace and EIA reports, it is very much part of the solution to illegal logging in Romania.

“Schweighofer is the only company in the Romanian woodworking industry that does not accept any wood coming from national parks,” the statement reads. “We would like to clarify that harvesting in national parks is permitted by the law in certain areas (buffer zones) and under special guidelines. However, as we share the opinion that these areas represent a key habitat for the preservation of thousands of species, Holzindustrie Schweighofer has voluntarily committed, at the beginning of 2015, to refuse any delivery of wood coming from national parks.”

However, the allegations are serious enough that the European Commission last week called for action, and the investigations’ findings were presented in Brussels on December 2.

Mihai Dragan, director of communications with the Romanian Environment Ministry, told Mongabay that they had presented their findings to the commission and would publicize the results at a later date. The Commission for their part confirmed that the country’s authorities had presented findings to the EU/FLEGT committee this week and that “criminal investigations were ongoing.”

The Schweighofer case and the general issues of the Romanian forestry sector highlight the problems surrounding effective implementation of the EU’s Timber Regulation (EUTR). The regulation came into force in March 2013, and prohibits all illegal timber and timber-based products from being placed on the EU market.

“Unfortunately the implementation of the EUTR in Romania was delayed by the authorities and the methodology was just adopted a few months ago,” said Crisanta Lungu. “This had a negative impact on the forest sector as the controls stipulated by the European legislation were not implemented.”

Logging in the Romanian forest near the village of Maguri. Photo by Thomas Einberger / Greenpeace.

According to Paun, the European Commission meeting this week is the “strongest and sharpest statement yet about illegal logging. They talk about next steps and even deadlines.” But he also concedes that there is still a long way to go before he will have any confidence in Romanian authorities. For instance, he says that with three different environment ministers in office last year and three this year, continuity is lacking and rarely is a properly documented handover conducted.

Speaking to Mongabay from the region of Garda, where he is monitoring forestry activities, Paun believes attention must now be paid to preserving Romania’s old growth or “virgin” forests. He says that, in a way, this is already a losing battle given that the only Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) in temperate Europe, covering more than 90,000 hectares in Transylvania, has “already been lost” due to extensive illegal logging in Retezat National Park.

“It no longer meets the criteria [of IFL designation]. We need an environmental impact assessment conducted to find out the damage and the impact this is having on wildlife,” he said.

Romania’s forests provide vital habitat for many species. Vast tracts of forest in the Carpathian mountain range that sweeps through the central and western portions of the country are home to Europe’s largest populations of brown bears, wolves and lynx – all long absent from large parts of the continent – as well as other large mammals like bison (Bison bonasus).

In 2005, there was an estimated 218,000 hectares of virgin forest in the country. Satellite data from the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch indicate that a total of 244,000 hectares of tree cover were lost in the last ten years, but there is no official data on how much of that was primary.

Global Forest Watch shows Romania lost around 258,500 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2014. The country contains the only Intact Forest Landscape (IFL) in all of Europe, but it has been degraded. Since 2000, the IFL has lost around 800 hectares of forest. Of that, 150 hectares were lost from Retezat National Park.

Estimates peg some of the country’s old growth beech forests have a minimum age of 450 years. More than 23,000 hectares in total have been proposed for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, which will be determined next year. Nearly 5,000 of those hectares are in the Nerei Springs Natural Reserve. Those campaigning for this designation say its inclusion would be a great step forward in protecting some of Europe’s most ancient forests.

But to some, these protection initiatives are too little, too late.

“[Eighty-one] percent of virgin forest is still under heavy threat and it is being cut in front of my eyes,” Paun said. “Literally.”

Romanian forest in the Carpathian Mountains. Photo taken in May 2014 by Matthias Schickhofer / Agent Green.

Disclosure: In late December 2015, it came to light that the author was a public relations contractor for Greenpeace at the time of this story’s publication. The author says this affiliation did not influence his reporting. The story was independently edited and fact-checked by a Mongabay editor.