The fight over Romania's forests is a matter of life and death
Thomas Wintle

A multi-million-dollar crime industry in which armed gangs are unafraid to attack and kill law enforcement personnel in broad daylight in a bid to steal and trade a lucrative substance.

The location: inside the European Union. The target: trees.

Romania is home to more than half of Europe's old growth and virgin forests – about 525,000 hectares of woodland that hosts important ecosystems for wildcats, lynx, and bears.

The picturesque woods of Transylvania (CREDIT: Alexandru Coman / EyeEm / Getty Creative)

The picturesque woods of Transylvania (CREDIT: Alexandru Coman / EyeEm / Getty Creative)

But the country's ancient forests have come under increased threat as levels of deforestation and reports of illegal logging have surged in the decades following the collapse of communism, with violence and intimidation against forestry personnel now a regular occurrence.

Last week, forest ranger Liviu Pop was shot dead while responding to reports of illegal logging in northern Romania.

The 30-year old, who leaves behind a wife and three children, had been an employee at the Silamice Maramures Department for seven years, and was designated to protect the area.

But after an apparent altercation with so-called "wood thieves," the ranger's body was discovered abandoned in a ravine on October 16 in the heavily forested northern Romanian region of Maramureș. Romania's Ministry of Environment, Water and Forests has blamed illegal loggers for the death.

Pop is just one of five forest rangers who are thought to have been killed by illegal loggers in the past six years. The last victim, 50-year-old Răducu Gorcioaia, was killed by a deadly blow to the head in mid-September after confronting three men who were allegedly cutting down trees in the north-eastern Romanian county of Iasi.

While the suspects accused were subsequently arrested and one charged this week with theft and murder, there is widespread worry among Romanian forest workers and environmentalists that little is being done to combat either the violence or the threat of illegal logging.  

In a statement following the death of Pop, the forestry ministry acknowledged criticism that it was failing to address the issue of illegal logging. However, the department's minister Ioan Deneș said it was "unfair to continue to make such accusations without foundation, which casts public opprobrium over the activity and sacrifice of foresters."

A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment when reached by phone and referred inquiries to the state-run forestry company, which had not responded to questions from CGTN by the time of publication.

Romania's forests have become some of the country's biggest tourist attractions. (Credit: Viktor Racz)

Romania's forests have become some of the country's biggest tourist attractions. (Credit: Viktor Racz)

EuroNatur is one of the three non-government organizations (NGOs), along with Agent Green and ClientEarth, to file a complaint with the European Commission against Romania's government for allegedly breaking EU legislation on forestry protection.

"There is something going completely wrong in the forestry sector in Romania," states the charity's executive director Gabriel Schwaderer.

"We believe that the illegal logging is controlled by mafia-like networks and if you take this into consideration, it's not such a big surprise that there is a lot of violence out there against those working in the forestry sector, as well as violence against those trying to report on the situation."

Schwaderer references his colleague Gabriel Paun from Agent Green, who has been intimidated several times by illegal loggers.

"There was one case where [Paun] and some colleagues were basically ambushed in a forest road and blocked and they couldn't leave. It was a very tense situation. They managed to call the police who came in time, but it can happen basically every day if you're out in the forest documenting illegal cuts," he says.

The state-owned forestry company Romsilva, which owns 48 percent of Romania's forests, has reported 16 cases of aggression against its staff since the beginning of the year, with a further 168 cases of violence against its rangers between 2014 and 2018. 

According to Silva Trade Union Federation, Romania's forestry union, there have been a further 650 instances of violence and intimidation against forestry personnel, including physical assaults, death threats and destruction of their property.

But, despite the aggression towards the government employees in the field, there is little trust in the government's response to ongoing deforestation.

"We believe that there is now more illegal logging taking place than legal logging in the Romanian forests," says Schwaderer.

"A recent forestry review stated that there was an annual wood harvest of more than 18 million cubic meters in the country," he adds.

"But when the report came out, there was leaked information from employees working on the National Forestry Inventory saying that, in fact, 38 million cubic meters had been harvested. The numbers don't add up. To my knowledge, the Romanian authorities never challenged this."

Romanian MEP Carmen Avram in July claimed in the European Parliament that illegally logging was costing the Romanian economy a billion euros a year and had cost lives by contributing to "catastrophic flooding".

In response the European Commission said that it was "concerned" about the reports and would seek more information from Romania and satellite monitoring to determine the scale of the problem.

There are hopes that Romania's government will take the issue more seriously in the future, particularly in light of the recent spike in violence. But for EuroNatur's Schwaderer, the issue goes beyond the country's borders.

"On a global level, I would compare the Carpathian forests on a European scale with the Amazon on a global scale, so if it's a global responsibility to protect the Amazon to save its ecosystems and reduce climate change, then it's a European responsibility to stop what's happening in Romania."