Oak and Omerta in Romania: Saving the Lungs of Europe
The teeth on an average full-skip chain stand at three-quarter inch intervals and are about the length of a thumbnail. Moving these blades along at a speed of almost 88 feet per second, a gas-powered chainsaw turns even the hardest and oldest of trees to butter.
The piercing growl of these machines shatters the quiet that hangs over Romania’s Carpathian mountains, where one of the continent’s largest remaining virgin forests, dubbed the ‘Lungs of Europe,’ is disappearing at a devastating rate.
Illegal logging in the country is a US$1 billion industry, propped up by corrupt public officials and organized crime syndicates that would sooner kill than permit any threat to their operations.
“Organized crime is at the heart of the illegal logging crisis in Romania,” says David Gehl, manager for technology and traceability at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a transatlantic nonprofit dedicated to exposing the actors behind environmental crimes.
Gehl has been probing the country’s timber industry since 2013. Illegal logging accounts for as much as half of all timber harvested in Romania, where “often it is hard even to separate criminal and legitimate elements because of how common it is for courts and local power structures to be tied in with these different networks,” he told OCCRP.
So much so that in February of this year, the European Commission began legal proceedings against Romania over its chronic failure to tackle the problem. The body is currently in the process of analyzing the country’s response.
Research indicates that as much as 336,000 hectares was lost between 2001 and 2018, an area around the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island.
This has considerable consequences for Europe’s future efforts to redress the disastrous effects of climate change: just one hectare of mature woodland can absorb in one year the same amount of carbon produced by a car journey from Lisbon to Doha and back via Vladivostok — roughly three quarters of the way around the entire planet.
Shortly after the EC’s warning was issued, opposition party Save Romania Union proposed legislation to establish a unit within the National Anti-Corruption Directorate to combat the culture of graft and criminality that facilitates the destruction of the country’s natural resources.
Experts say the proposal represents an important step toward improving Romania’s record on illegal logging, but that there remains a long way to go in the fight to save what remains of the largest untouched forests on the continent.
If a Wall Falls in the Forest...
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, local mafias began to emerge throughout the post-communist world, buying up public assets and exploiting restitution schemes to gain control of private land seized by the former regimes.
During the communist era, Romania was one of the largest manufacturers of furniture in the USSR, and the return of its forests to private ownership amounted to nothing short of a gold rush.
“There was just an unbelievable amount of fraud going on,” Gehl says. “People were going round and claiming the rights to hundreds of different forest areas in the name of one businessman or high-profile local official, and then sending in logging companies to cut it all down.”
Ciprian Gal and Cristian Neagoe, researchers and activists with Greenpeace’s Romania branch, have seen first-hand the kind of impact these power structures have on the country’s forest communities.
“It’s like this feudal system, where the guy who owns the local forestry company also owns the local shop, the restaurant, the hotel, basically the rest of the businesses in the area,” Gal explains.
Oak, Murder and Omerta
With this economic control comes a regime of silence enforced by ostracisation and, in some cases, violence. Over the last decade, there have been more than 600 logging-related attacks against forest rangers and seven murders carried out by the wood mafias, two in just the last year, Gal says.
In October 2019, ranger Liviu Pop was shot dead with a hunting rifle while responding to a tip-off on illegal logging activity in the northern region of Maramures. A few weeks earlier, fellow forester Raducu Gorcioaiai had been found dead in his car near the Pascani district in the north-east of the country. He died of multiple axe wounds to the head.
“We have sources who tell us that there’s this culture of omerta. You don’t talk about it, and if you do, you’re isolated from the community,” Neagoe says. “Your relatives that work with the wood mafia are told not to speak with you anymore, and the priests don’t receive you for communion, or even try to persuade you that it’s better in front of God not to start scandals.”
Today, traceability is one of the greatest challenges to curbing Romania’s illegal timber trade.
Much of the logging industry in the country follows the model of the local depot — logyards where all of the wood harvested in a given area is collected and prepared for transport. Such sites are prime candidates for what is often referred to as wood laundering.
“The issue there is that the traceability for the logs is lost right away at that little forest village,” Gehl explains. “Whatever happens in that mountain valley, you’ll have some legal logging, some illegal logging, some illegal logging happening on legal authorised concession, and then all of those logs get mixed in together at that depot.”
There are systems in place to monitor timber harvesting at source, but they are often not implemented due to a lack of funding. In its 2015 report on Romania’s logging industry, the EIA found that local officials only performed sanctioned checks on timber harvests in around 4% of cases.
Criminal logging is further enabled by the complexity of industry regulation and related laws. Gehl says that, in terms of the total length of relevant documents, forestry legislation in Romania is five times longer than in Germany, where the industry is in fact almost four times larger.
“This complexity of laws, many contradictory to one another, creates a structure where people, judges and other authorities can make many different interpretations about which laws apply at any given time,” he explains.
Hand in Glove
Austrian forestry conglomerates are some of the largest drivers of Romania’s logging industry.
In its 2016 Clear Cut Crimes documentary, OCCRP exposed how one company in particular feeds off of local corruption and organised criminal activity in order to turn a profit.
Schweighofer, a Vienna-based group with interests in real estate, bioenergy and forestry, began operations in Romania soon after the turn of the millenium, and within a decade had become the largest timber processor in the country.
Included in OCCRP’s documentary is an undercover interview, conducted by the EIA, which appeared to show Karl Schmid, then head of Schweighofer’s sourcing operations in the country, making it clear to investigators that the company would not have a problem buying illicitly-obtained wood.
Schmid has since left the company, while Schweighofer continues to insist it does not knowingly accept illegally harvested timber. A spokesperson told OCCRP that the company has tightened its due-diligence procedures since the documentary aired, and that it is making “substantial efforts… in the field of sustainable and secure supply in Romania.”
However, Gehl says that this amounts to little more than virtue signalling.
“They’ve put lots of new procedures in place, and have cut down the number of local companies they deal with from around 1,200 to 800,” he explains. “But ultimately it all boils down to the same thing as before - their contracts make it the supplying company’s responsibility to ensure that the wood that is being sold has been legally sourced.”
An investigation by DiiCOT, Romania’s anti-mafia agency, into the activity of two of Schweighofer’s employees in the country is still ongoing. For three weeks, the agency declined to respond to OCCRP’s request for comment on the case, which Gal and Neagoe say that after almost five years has already taken too long.
Because of how difficult it is to trace a given timber shipment through the various stages of the logging process, it is hard to establish where exactly the goods eventually wind up.
“Timber shipments can go through five or six steps, easily, before they enter the market, and so it’s almost impossible to establish whether suppliers are, either knowingly or unknowingly, purchasing illegal goods,” Gehl says. “This lack of traceability means that Western consumers are unwittingly buying tables, beds and panels that are tainted with illegal timber stolen from Europe’s most biodiverse forests.”
Saving the Lungs of Europe
Domestic research into the impact of illegal logging on Romania’s forests has been mired in controversy. Gal and Neagoe explain that the National Forestry Inventory was commissioned in 2013 to establish the scale of the problem, but these statistics were censored by the government when the initial report was published in 2019.
When the numbers were eventually released last November, following public demonstrations and pressure from a coalition of NGOs, they revealed that of the 38 million cubic meters lost each year, only 18 million were licensed and accounted for.
Gal explains that Greenpeace is currently lobbying for the government to bring at least 30% of the country’s forests under protected status by 2030, so as to preserve biodiversity and bring Romania into closer step with the global conversation on reducing carbon emissions.
At present, that number hovers around just 3%. The organization maintains they would push for more, but that their current goal is already optimistic given the resistance they have met with from the government.
“They don’t want to do it. They see only the cost of it, they do not see the benefit,” Gal says.
Costel Alexe, Romania’s Minister for the Environment, repeatedly declined to respond to OCCRP’s request for an interview.
A spokesperson for the department told OCCRP that the government is aware of the importance of the European Commission action, and that its objectives are to stop illegal logging and protect the environment.
“It is important to understand why we are in this situation, which didn’t happen overnight. Since 2016, European officials have been requesting that the government take action. After several years of empty promises, unachieved deadlines and a lack of action, the EC finally decided to open an infringement procedure,” they said.
“But we already have a plan of action and have prepared the way for some of the measures we want to implement,” they added. “The Ministry of Environment, Waters and Forest has a very good collaboration with all NGOs and we have recently introduced more than 1,000 hectares of virgin forests to the National Catalogue. We have also obtained funding for carrying out a fundamental study to protect another 30,000 hectares of virgin forests.”
DNA for the Forests
The recent proposal by Save Romania Union, USR, to establish an environmental unit within the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, DNA, would bring together police officers and specialists in technology, waste management, industrial emissions and, crucially, forestry.
Mihai Goțiu is a USR senator for Cluj county in the northwest of the country and a member of the party’s executive board. A former investigative journalist and environmental activist, he sits on the Senate’s Commission for Waters and Forests.
“Romania is well delayed in understanding environmental issues, as well as those relating to climate change,” he says. “It is sad even now, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, when there are already studies showing the links between pollution and worsening disease effects, that we still don’t understand that we should not see the forest as a source of profit, but as a source of health and as an essential condition for quality of life.”
The recent bill, which Goțiu helped draft, is due for debate in the Chamber of Deputies sometime in May. He suspects the government will not criticise the proposals head on, but rather wait for a moment when public attention is focused elsewhere to either vote against the bill or postpone it indefinitely.
“That’s about the whole picture of Romania’s environmental and climate change situation: a political class that for the most part is still in the denial phase, and an active civil society in the awareness phase,” he adds. “We will have to see how quickly we take the leap toward the problem solving phase. And I hope that it doesn’t happen too late.”
It remains to be seen whether the opposition’s proposals will gain any traction, given that it holds a vanishingly small minority in parliament. For now, the country’s forests and valleys continue to sound with the buzz of chainsaws, and the never-ending trundle of trucks carrying timber toward the local depot.