We Dig Our Own Graves

I am writing the following as a citizen, as a parent, as a nature lover and, last but not least, as a member of the management committee of the most important volunteering and environmental association in Romania. And I don’t mean it in that order, but all at once. I am not and neither am I trying to seem as if I was a specialist, an ecologist, a forester, a forestry engineer or a forest owner, but I would be interested in reading real and documented studies on the implications of deforestation in Romania. All these different aspects of my life have been urging me for many years not to pass carelessly on a phenomenon well known by most of us: the massive deforestation that occurs every day in Romania. According to some authorised individuals, we lose 3 acres of forest every hour. If we do the maths, we annually lose 26,280 acres of forest.

The issue of deforestation in Romania is a complex one and has two dimensions: illegal and legal logging. Let’s take it one at a time, systematically. Illegal logging mainly comes from the “illegalists” who need to put bread on the table; these illegalists are mainly locals from forested areas. In most cases, wood theft is their only source of income. Okay, but where does this stolen wood come from!? It is either state-owned or privately owned. Let’s think about the following equation: starving people plus forests plus owners equals wood, therefore money. What is missing from this equation!? There is no demand for “black market” wood and there are no guards. The chain of causality, after all, is very simple: if there was no demand, there would be no goods on the market, if there were guards who would do their job, the phenomenon of stealing wood from the forest would be much more predictable. First of all, there should be alternative sources of income for these people who risk their health and freedom for a cart of wood that they would then sell at dirt cheap. There are two more aspects involved: how people are educated against stealing, in order for them to find an honest source of income, and how this has become a habit for most of them. However, let’s be serious, how could we demand an educational background or honourable behaviour from these people that no one cares about and to whom no one offers any chance or alternative? It’s far beyond me, however, to find mitigating circumstances for their criminal acts – in the eyes of the law a theft remains a theft, whether committed by me or by someone who lives at the top of a mountain.

I remember an episode worth mentioning. I was in Apuseni on one of my trips to the mountains with some friends. In the evening, we camped on a cleared crest, a few meters away from a forest road. All good until about two in the morning when we heard traffic, it sounded just like a crowded boulevard: tractors with trailers, off-road vehicles, carts, all fully loaded with wood. Everything was over before dawn, as if nothing had happened. I find it very difficult to believe that the authorities were unfamiliar with this phenomenon, since the volume of “goods” carried that night was considerable. Well, here we have an acute problem which we are dealing with; but, in the absence of concrete evidence, everyone avoids putting their finger on the alleged complicity of the authorities.
Let’s do another rational and logical exercise. The volume of wood stolen daily from the Romanian forests cannot logically and rationally be stolen without the one who guards the forest being aware of this. It seems impossible to me. I repeat, I’m only stating what seems logical and rational to me, I am neither a policeman, nor a forester, nor a prosecutor to have concrete evidence. It is not easy for me to believe that sawmills, piles of sawdust that result from log processing, vehicles transporting raw or semi-processed wood and some more than well-off households of people who apparently have “no-income” pass unnoticed through whole villages. Or, even so, I can’t believe that so many people who live in the mountains and do not have a stable income can drink until they fall under the table in the village pub; because this is what happens with the few hundred RON earned from a well-loaded cart of wood most of the time. Nonetheless, I don’t think that no one knows about the “boulevards of the night”, where tons of cubic meters of wood are going missing night after night.

I have other representative examples. The first one: a forester I met in the wilderness, unarmed. I asked him why he didn’t have an arm on him and he replied that all their weapons had been confiscated. I do not understand how you can enforce the law in the forest or how you can defend yourself from wild animals (with either two or four legs) without a weapon. The second one: another forester who humbly asked us to change our camping place. Of course, we listened to him and later talked to him. He showed us his small and humble house in the middle of nowhere, where he lived with his family, their cows, chickens and pigs, because he cannot live decently on his meagre salary. The man lived exactly like a poor local – which he really was, only that he had the prerogatives of a forester. Again, rationally and logically speaking, I ask why doesn’t he have a salary that will allow him to live humanely and not be corruptible, where is his off-road vehicle, his teammate with whom he would work together with, his uniform, his equipment, his radio station, his mobile phone, his laptop, his weapon and all the legal attributes that would make him no longer be humble in front of anyone – but ready to enforce the law strictly and punctually. To be aware of his own value and the power he has, to know precisely that he has the law and the authority on his side. If he had all this included in his package, if he had another education and learning background, if he had the support of the authorities and if he would understand that he belongs to a law enforcement body, the situation would change radically in a very short time.

The following dialogue between a reporter and someone who lives in the Apuseni Mountains who was present at a protest seems pretty evocative to me. Question: “Do you think that a new forest code, the one that is already being discussed, would be a solution?”. Answer: “Even the current forest code could be effective, but it is not at all taken into account and it doesn’t take any of the propriety owners into account, which is what we want after all”. If there would be frequent, extensive, just and permanent inspections, if the application of the Forest Code would be the only concern of the foresters – or, as the case may be, of the mountain gendarmes or rangers – if the prosecutors had their hands full with criminal record files for timber theft, destruction or environmental pollution, then maybe something would start to change. Don’t let the weather fool you, all these coercive and forceful measures would create social and perhaps violent disturbances, but I think the price paid would be worth it. But this social unrest would be alleviated in a relatively short time if the source of income – stolen wood – was replaced by pragmatic programs that teach wood thieves how to live and where to get their money from then on, through the direct support of the authorities and maybe of some NGOs.

Much can be said about illegal deforestation, but I find it much more interesting to analyse the phenomenon of legal deforestation. Judging from appearances, everything here is clear because these cuts are made with contracts signed by the Romanian state; the only thing is that the volume of wood exploited is huge and the price at which it is sold is very low. We can look at the example of a legal “cutter”, a large Austrian organisation that owns processing plants in Romania, the largest of which has a capacity of one million logs annually. One million. The annual turnover of that organisation in Romania is over 500 million euros, and the target set for the coming years is 1 billion. I quote the words of a young man from the Apuseni Mountains, who was participating in a public demonstration against logging: “We wanted to buy wood and it was offered to us for 1,700 RON, while they sell it to the Austrians for 20-30 RON per cubic meter on foot”. On foot, that means directly from the forest. Personally, I think this type of business bears a strong resemblance to that of the mining in Roșia Montană.

I am curious if someone even posed the problem this way: why is it profitable for an organisation to build wood processing plants in Romania with capacities of over one million logs per year? And, if we were to consider what the guy from the Apuseni Mountains said: why do organisations profit from contracts with the state where the price of on foot timber is minuscule compared to the price at which the common individual buys it at? Or, how is it possible to achieve an annual turnover of over 500 million euros? Or, how many of these 500 million are made from those 3 acres of forest that are cut every hour in Romania? Would these extensive and preferential contracts with the Romanian state be possible without lobbying and “other forms of incentives”? And if so, who is to blame? Who signs the contracts and on what basis? Is the wolf guarding the sheep!?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against companies or against the exploitation of natural resources, including wood. The trees have a certain age of maturity at which they must be cut down for the wood to be used, otherwise the wood mass depreciates in the forest. The resources must be intelligently exploited, with a clear vision for the future; however, we are now witnessing a large-scale robbery which, if it will continue at this pace, will lead to the quasi-total deforestation of Romanian forests in 15 years. The implications are not only economic ones, we are talking about the quality of our lives and of the lives of future generations.

It seems that another element has been completely ignored in terms of logging and law enforcement. The law states that trees cannot be cut down on slopes with an inclination of more than 35 degrees. The reasons are obvious. On these slopes, the natural accumulation of soil necessary for trees to grow happens extremely slowly, and cutting trees removes the natural protection of the soil and its fixation and induces the rapid destruction of this extremely thin layer as a result of weathering, thus degrading the land or, as the case may be. leaving the rocks “bare”. Once left bare, the retention of humus or water no longer occurs; the phenomenon that results from this most of the time is landslides. Simply put, the law prohibits cutting on slopes with a slope greater than 35 degrees, period. We can already see examples of places where this rule no longer applies. Why? I do not know.

If we think about what implications this has on the environment, anyone can go on a forest trip in an area where timber is legally harvested and in most cases they will notice the following: the forest is simply vandalised by machinery, the pile of wood resulting from cutting the trees is carelessly thrown everywhere, the sawdust that results from cutting the trees is thrown in the forest or in the watercourses, the watercourses are crossed without any consideration by various pieces of equipment, thus destroying ecosystems, flora and fauna, oil stains and diesel are ever-present, and garbage and used tires are thrown everywhere. Few people know how harmful sawdust really is when it is thrown in nature or in streams. Or take the case of Germany, where all off-road machinery and vehicles – including those used for logging – are required by law to use biodegradable lubricating oils. It was found that the burnt engine oil that comes from the chainsaws used by the tree cutters is extremely harmful to the environment, a drop of it polluting a million litters of water. In Romania there is no stipulation for the use of biodegradable oils. To make matters worse, the tablet that must be placed at the place of a logging operation according to the law – as it is done when a building is constructed – is completely missing in most cases. From my personal experience, wherever I went hiking, I saw absolutely no such tablet.

One time I planted 2 acres of forest together with 200 volunteers. The foresters helped us with this project, many thanks to them, and I had the opportunity to talk to the “boss”. He told me that in that area the age of exploitation of wood is around 110 years. That is, the seedlings of less than 25 centimetres will be good for cutting in another one or two generations (maybe even more), until then ensuring clean air, water retention in the soil, the water cycle, etc.

The figures are cold and dry: “The surface of the forest fund in Romania increased almost imperceptibly last year, by 0.1% compared to that of 2011, to 6.52 million acres, and the volume of timber that can be legally harvested, of over 19.2 million cubic meters, increased by 3.1%, announced the National Institute of Statistics (NIS) on Friday”. Further: “About 650 acres of forest were simply wiped out between 2003 and 2006, although the Forestry Code stipulates that no more than three acres can be completely cut down in a single area. The discovery was made by a team from the Institute of Forestry Research and Management (ICAS), which is developing this new satellite surveillance system for forested regions… The ICAS researcher told us that he presented these data to the state authorities, but no one has been interested in this yet… We cannot say whether these cuts were legal or illegal, we are not police officers. But we know that in such an operation you cannot cut down more than 3 acres, according to the Forestry Code. Or, here we are talking about 600 acres in three years, which is very strange. In addition, there is a low chance that we are looking at a natural catastrophe, because this could not have gone unnoticed”.

I simply ask myself how is all of this possible, and the answer can only be this: the authorities are not doing their job. All they have to do is enforce the law. That’s it.

Article published in Sinteza magazine.