Romania's 'forest alarm' system to battle illegal logging crisis
Cristian Gherasim in Bucharest

Environmental activists in Romania are using smartphone technology to create a "forest alarm" system that will detect illegal loggers and poachers in the country's lush but endangered forests. 

Gabriel Paun, founder of Agent Green, a not-for-profit environmental campaign group fighting to stop illegal logging, found that the solution to stop wood theft might lie in the clouds. More precisely, high up in the forests' canopies, where he plans to install smartphones able to detect the sounds of illegal logging at work.

"The devices powered by solar panels look for any suspicious sounds such as that of a firearm or chainsaw that might allude to illegal activities happening. Each device covers a radius of one kilometer and will help authorities know exactly the location of the illegal logger," said Paun.

Illegal logging is blighting Romania. Twenty million cubic meters of wood are illegally cut every year in the country, according to data provided by the National Forest Inventory.  

Romania hosts an estimated 500,000 hectares of virgin forests, which are home to bears, wolves, lynx, and wildcats. Much of the picturesque woodland nestles in its mountainous areas, the largest such ecosystem in the European Union outside Scandinavia. 

Many fear illegal logging will destroy the fragile flora and fauna in the ancient woodland, as well as endanger people dependent on the forests for their very livelihood and survival. 

Wood theft is a multi-million-dollar crime. Last year, companies dealing in cutting and processing wood registered a total income of 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion). More than half of that stems from illegal wood, untraced and untaxed, according to numbers coming from the Romanian Ministry of Environment.

"Illegal logging is very profitable. A single illegal logger can easily make four to five shipments per day, that's about 250 cubic meters worth €12,500. But this also depends on how the illegal wood is being registered, with the possibility of smuggling very expensive oak wood as cheap firewood," said Paun.

Illegal logging costs money, but also the lives of those investigating and trying to prevent the crime. Six forest rangers have been killed and 650 have been attacked and threatened over the past years by illegal loggers upon being caught in the act, prompting thousands to protest, demanding the government take action.

A boy runs through a forest on a sunny afternoon near Bucharest, Romania.. /AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

A boy runs through a forest on a sunny afternoon near Bucharest, Romania.. /AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

In the 1990s, following the fall of the former leader Nicolae Ceausescu, the new Romanian government encouraged large-scale logging on its woodlands. Many activists believe that with the expanded logging industry came corruption. 

"This is a deeply rooted and country-wide phenomenon," Tiberiu Bosutar, a grassroots activist committed to stopping illegal logging told CGTN Europe.

"Illegal cuts are controlled by higher-ups in state institutions and everyone is involved. These thefts can be prevented if we have honest forest rangers. But now almost everything that's being stolen is with the consent of forest rangers and civil servants directly involved in selling and processing the wood," Bosutar added. 

"It's hard to believe that illegal logging will come to a halt. Illegal loggers make very decent money, around €2,000 for just one shipment as one cubic meter of wood gets sold for about €100."

CGTN Europe requested comment from the Romanian Environment Ministry but did not receive a response by the time of publication. 

Activists are hoping the introduction of the alarms will be a turning point in the fight against illegal logging, however pressure on those far from the forests, in Romania's halls of power, will need to match the dedication of Paun and others if the country's forests are to be saved. 

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