Can Europe Make It?

Reclaiming the forest: a Romanian story

Since the fall of communism, Romania's ancestral, cultural link to its forests is being undermined by corrupt political and economic interests.

Raluca Besliu
19 August 2015

Turda nature reserve in Western Romania. Wikipedia/Cristian Bortes. Public domain.According to an old Romanian aphorism, 'the forest is the Romanian’s brother.'

This familial bond to the forest can partly be explained as stemming from the fact that the Romanian people often sought refuge in the woods during the numerous battles that took place throughout the country’s tumultuous history. The forest became a symbol of protection and life, helping perpetuate their nation. The woods served their shielding role not only in ancient and medieval times, but also during Romania’s most recent history, ensuring a safe haven for anti-communist fighters, who resisted and opposed the communist regime from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. 

Since the fall of communism, the ancient bond has been tampered with by political and economic interests, as approximately 200,000 hectares of forest have been sold by the Romanian government during the past few years. According to an audit report created by the Romanian Court of Auditors, between 1990 and 2011, over 80 million cubic meters of forests were illegally cut and sold, producing damages of over five billion dollars for the Romanian state. In 2014 alone, the National Forest Inventory indicated that around 9 million cubic meters of forest were illegally exploited. 

After decades of silence, on May 9 and 16 as well as June 5 and 7, hundreds of thousands of Romanians reaffirmed their ancestral connection with the forest, by taking to the streets of cities across Romania to protest against the country’s astonishing illegal logging and demand the adoption of better legislation than the proposed new Romanian Forestry Code. Despite the protests, the suggested law was adopted without changes on May 21, 2015. 

In Romania, the cost of forests is ten times cheaper than in other European states. If in Austria, a hectare of forest is sold for 10,000 euros, in Romania the same surface costs between 1,000 and 3,000 euros. This attracts investors from many foreign countries, including Germany, Austria, and the United States.

According to Romanian law, foreign investors cannot purchase fields or forests directly, but through Romanian firms. The most telling example would be Harvard University, which owned 35,000 hectares of forest in Romania, making it the second largest owner of forests in Romania after the Romanian government. However, Harvard decided to sell its forests in Romania, after the representative of Scolopax, the Romanian firm through which it made its purchases, was accused of taking more than $1 million in bribes to induce the university to buy them at an inflated price.

Many of the foreigner investors are only interested in exploiting the forests and exporting the wood and obtaining profit. One of the key companies that the protesters have been demonstrating against is Austria’s Holzindustrie Schweighofer, the biggest wood processing company in Romania.

In April 2015, the company became involved in a media scandal after the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released a video of one of leaders of the company willingly and knowingly accepting illegally exploited timber and encouraged additional illegal cutting through a reward system. The company denied the allegations.

In turn, in July 2015, the company sued a nonprofit, Neur Weg Association, one of the most active NGOs monitoring the Schweighofer’s activities, for publishing defamatory articles on its blog and sending emails with untruthful information to journalists in Austria and Germany. Neur Weg has denied these allegations, by emphasizing that the statements contained on the blog are true and based on documentary evidence as well as discussions with credible witnesses, the veracity of which can be easily proven in court. 

These incidents come after, in 2014, one of the Austrian company’s suppliers, Susai Servcom, received a fine from the Forestry Inspectorate for cutting unmarked trees in Romania’s Retezat National Park and for inconsistent transportation notices. In response, the Schweighofer, responsible for the wood processing, promised to improve its system seeking to attest the wood’s provenance and refuse trees from national parks. 

Protesters had other reasons to be revolted by Schweighofer. In the autumn of 2014, the company sent an open letter to Prime Minister Victor Ponta threatening to conduct mass firings among its over 2,500 employees, if the new Forestry Law was to include a clause that companies could only process 30 percent of a type of wood. The company currently processes 27 percent, but intends to open a new production center.

In May 2015, the company threatened to withdraw from Romania if the new law was to be adopted. According to Romania Curata, that threat was sheer artifice, since Romania is losing around 100,000 jobs, given that Schweighofer is exporting semi-manufactured products, while also externalizing most of the profit, since it is a foreign company.

Apart from voicing their disapproval of abuses and questionable activities of wood processing companies such as Schweighofer, the protesters also opposed the draft legislation of the new Forest Law. While acknowledging that it brings some improvements over the previous one, mainly because of the aforementioned 30 percent limit for the maximum quantity of lumber that a company can exploit, its opponents are overall displeased with its content. 

One of their key problems with the new Forestry Law is that it is no longer necessary to prepare forest management plans or studies for pieces of forest smaller than 10 hectares, which means losing control over cuttings occurring on such surfaces.

Another problematic modification to the Code is that Romania has decreased its reforestation commitments from two million hectares to one million by 2030. The protesters also demand that the new Forestry Code punish illegal logging more stringently, delineate the implementation of sanctions and demand the circulation of the investigation files from the Anti-Corruption Agency. Ultimately, the protesters want to ensure that Romania’s forest wealth is safeguarded and used responsibly, keeping the interest of future generations in mind as well.

There is a European dimension to the matter at hand. The EU Timber Law prohibits trading on the EU market of illegally harvested timber, regardless of its origin. However, the situation in Romania suggests that the application of the legislation remains a problem that the European Union should be more amply involved in tackling. 

The Romanian protesters seem resolute in their fight to demonstrate their ancestral bond to forests and continue challenging the content of the Forestry Law. Their movement has just begun. This will be the third time in three years that Romanians initiate a substantial long-term non-violent protest against one of their government’s policies or initiatives.

The first two were a protest movement against a Canadian-led cyanide-based gold mining project and fracking. Therefore, all were environmental initiatives intended to prevent or end a practice seen as harmful, indicating a majority of the Romanian public’s commitment to their country’s sustainable development, built around preserving and responsibly utilizing their country’s natural riches.

At the same time, the three protest movements were not only able to influence political decisions, but also to further an on-going debate within the society regarding the rapport between politicians and the Romanian citizens and the latter’s ability to demand and exert change in their country. By doing this, they are rapidly transforming Romania from a communist and post-communist society to one of the most viable democracies in Eastern Europe and the European Union in general.

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