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Soapbox: Why we must protect Romania’s primeval forests



The race is on to protect Romania’s primeval forests - deemed by the World Heritage Committee as being of ‘outstanding universal value’ from further destruction by logging. But behind scenes, regulators are stalling and with corruption in the mix, the issue is a complex one, writes investigator Katy Jenkyns


Romania contains over half of all remaining tracts of pristine forest in the EU - home to wolf, brown bear, lynx and countless bird and plant species. Full of ancient energy surrounded by the rustle and twitch of life, birdsong in spring, animal tracks over winter snows, the trees are mainly European beech alongside other species such as oak, fir, elm, and maple.

Some of these trees are over 400-years-old, standing amongst younger saplings in a cycle of decay and renewal that takes place without any human intervention.  Yet these untouched forests have become a fierce battleground.

It's not just about biodiversity.  Primeval forest locks down far more carbon than managed forest and is therefore significant in terms of climate change mitigation, but shockingly Romania has no up-to-date and inclusive inventory of where these unique areas of wilderness actually are, nor adequate regulatory systems in place to protect them.

Romania wolf

In 2005, a team of scientists from Holland conducted mapping of these primary forest tracts for the Pin Matra study.  However, there were limitations to the inventory, recognised by its authors, including extensive omissions and some errors. Environmentalists stressed the urgent need to conduct further identification and mapping and in 2016, the Government initiated a new Catalogue of Virgin Forests, setting out criteria for the identification of virgin and quasi-virgin forests.  

According to environmental NGO Agent Green, “the race is now on” to populate this new Catalogue. However, despite numerous studies being submitted by experts and NGOs such as Agent Green, Greenpeace and WWF, only a handful of new areas have been accepted and campaigning groups complain that not all forest authorities appear to be supportive, with some failing to provide access to relevant forest management plans and maps, stalling the entire process.  

“My team has mapped thousands of hectares of virgin and quasi-virgin forests, but we are still waiting for most of these forests to be included in the Catalogue.  There is great pressure from the logging industry not to protect these forests. It's very depressing,” said one expert.


A Culture of Corruption

Of course, forestry in Romania is big business, complicated by an opaque system of rights and ownership structures. Traditionally, local communities exploited forests for firewood, local crafts, and home-building, but over recent decades several foreign companies moved in on Romania, backed by the State and capitalising on lax regulations and a culture of corruption. There followed a wave of illegal logging which threatened to decimate the country's forests, as factory processing capacities outstripped legal cutting quotas.

Impoverished local communities holding precious stakes in ancestral forested land sold wood to these big buyers, even as many referred to them as vampiric, sucking up timber and profits on the back of Romania's resources. Other insults were reserved for environmental activists, also oftentimes seen as a threat.  

“Where are you from?” demanded an angry forester after we accessed an area of old-growth beech forest forming part of a corridor connecting the Western and Southern Carpathians.

“I'm from England.”

“Do you have any forests?”

“No. They've all been cut down.”

An angry nod of the head.  He has a point, but the activists I'm with are at pains to point out that this is precisely why Romania's ancient forests are so special, and that the Government has promised to pay compensation for loss of revenue from any area of forest entered into the Catalogue. But local foresters and landowners don't trust the Government. Requests for compensation have been lost in bureaucracy.

“We're gentlemen,” he said.  “If we weren't this could get violent.  This is our land.”

Environmentalists have worked hard to engage with local communities, exposing tactics used by the timber mafia to launder massive amounts of illegal wood into the supply chain feeding mainly export markets, and operating unsustainably. What will local people and foresters be left with once the forests are gone?  

Campaigners gained ground as the State introduced measures such as the Forest Inspector website which makes transportation data available to the public, along with a hotline for community members to call if they suspect a truck to be carrying illegal timber. But corruption remains a huge problem and logging continues even in protected areas with many people afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.  


The Race Is On

Of course, in the case of virgin forests, the logging may be perfectly legal on paper, with experts suggesting that over 50% of relevant forests are not included in either Pin Matra or the new Catalogue.  The point here is that once an intervention has happened, even a few trees being cut down or an access road opened up, the area no longer qualifies as virgin forest and can, therefore, be discounted from inclusion in the Catalogue and thus remain viable for commercial exploitation.  

If there's a race to populate the Catalogue, there's certainly a race to log virgin forests before they become protected by law and the incentive to stall the process is obvious, although whether profits are trickling into local communities is not. In this quagmire of ignored maps, ignored requests for compensation and a government that, bizarrely, lately even denied the existence of the published Pin Matra survey, trucks continue to roll out.

In 2017, activists stopped a truck leaving an area of forest in the Fagaras mountains. A subsequent investigation by the authorities found over-cutting of 4100%.  These ancient forests were included in the Pin Matra inventory and fulfill the criteria for protection under Romanian law, but were being logged regardless.

“The new ministry states that neither private forest authorities nor the State forestry body Romsilva have the Pin Matra inventory anymore,” said Agent Green.  “It's a strange and worrying statement, even a criminal one.”

The World Heritage Committee recently recognised 24,000 hectares of Romanian beech forests as of “outstanding universal value”, however, activists have identified logging in buffer zones of numerous World Heritage areas, such as the Domogled National Park and Sinca Woods where Agent Green documented extensive cutting in areas of high ecological value.     

Direct action and investigative work appear to be the only effective mechanisms to drive real change, garnering media attention to put pressure on the Government to act more proactively to map and safeguard Romania's ancient forests. This was highlighted recently in the Sarmisegetuza Regia case, which has cultural and historical and well as environmental resonance.  

The Sarmisegetuza Regia site is the ancient Dacian capital, a ruined citadel over 2000-years-old.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is surrounded by majestic old-growth forest that is also included in the Pin Matra study.

“It's Romania's Machu Pichu,” said one local activist, “and the trees are part of it.”

At the site, nature and culture are bound together as the trees protect the archaeology, the roots stabilising the soil and forming an integral part of the historic site and its ambiance. However, the Government approved initial logging of over a 100 trees, with plans for much wider deforestation.  

“They took large machines up to the fortress’s acropolis and the sacred area. They left deep traces in the soil although they knew the archaeological layer was just a few inches deep,” said Dr. Aurora Peţan, a historian, and president of the Dacica Foundation.

“They took trees down right on the walls of the fortress and dragged them through the site with large forestry tractors under water-soaked soil conditions, leaving irreversible wounds in the site,” added Agent Green.  

The Authorities argue that this felling is only taking place to protect the site and visitors from falling trees, but during its investigation Agent Green found mainly high-value timber in the local depot, rather than sick trees, and drone footage showed that most trees were extracted far from any tourist trails.  

The shocking drone footage released by Agent Green caused a stir in Romania, in particular as the logging company supplies one of the big exporting players. The NGO hopes to use the headlines to build further momentum to protect other tracts of ancient forest - biodiversity treasure-troves - from being lost in remote places far from the public eye. As per the damage to these Dacian ruins, the loss of Romania's primeval forests would be not only a European tragedy but a global one too.


Katy Jenkyns is an investigator with Wildlight, a non-profit co-operative of freelance investigators, journalists, and film-makers.


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