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Deforestation in Romania

Matthias Schickhofer

Murder In The Forest

In just over a month two forest rangers were killed in Romania as the battle over logging in virgin forests turns violent.

Von Chris Cummins

A forest ranger has been killed in north Romania. Liviu Pop, a father of three, was responding to a tip-off about illegal logging when he was shot dead with a hunting rifle this week. He was the second ranger to be killed in just over a month in Romania. Last month Raducu Gorcioaia, a 50-year-old ranger was found dead in the north-east of the country. He had reportedly been hit in the head with an axe.

Neither Forests Nor Humans Protected

Gabriel Paun, the head of environmental group Agent Green, says the spate of killings is “outrageous”. He is particularly angry and concerned the apparent impunity of the killers.

“This keeps happening,” he told me. “I haven’t seen much effort from the Romanian authorities neither to stop illegal logging nor to protect forest defenders.” He says state forest workers, journalists and NGOs all feel threatened.

But If the spate of killings is meant to intimidate people like Paun, the brutal policy has failed: When I reached him on the phone this morning, he was headed into a section of Romania’s virgin forest with a team of rangers, following a new tip-off about illegal logging. Solar-powered phones attached to branches had picked up the sound of motor vehicles headed into a supposedly protected area of virgin forests and these modified phones send Paun and his team alerts.

“When the loggers cut a single tree in a virgin forest the forest loses its status and is de-listed,” he explains. “We have to do everything in our power to protect it.”

Virgin forests are beautiful and, as a carbon sink, a vital component in the battle against climate change. But, more than that, they are also an example of how the complicated interrelations of a natural ecosystem create biological resilience.

“The forest knows how to protect itself,” explains conservationist Magor Csibi. ”No trees are too vulnerable to wind, no trees are too vulnerable to insects because if one tree species die, others will come and take their place. Nothing is lost, everything is used. It’s a constant circle.”

While plantation forests are vulnerable to beetle or fungus infestations, the diversity of natural virgin forests will ensure their survival. We should be learning from them, instead we are destroying them.

“We are not very optimistic,” says Gabriel Paun, “because the dimension of illegal logging in Romania has increased instead of decreasing in recent years.” For every legally cut tree, he says, a second is cut illegally. 19million cubic metres are being cut legally and 20.6m cubic metres are being illegally felled. This black-market timber ends up as furniture in western Europe, or just wooden pallets or woodchips. It’s an undignified fate for Europe’s life-sustaining lungs.

„I’ve always feared for my life“

This despite the two recent murders. Gabriel says he has been attacked several times and finally one case is going to court. “It took prosecutors four years and a half to prosecute the attackers, but everything was taped, there was video footage, there was plenty of proof, they knew the attackers. These guys were always free, and I always feared for my life over these past years that they will find me and finish what they started."

A Romania forest

Matthias Schickhofer

Gabriel Paun says he doesn’t have a message for the illegal loggers – the forest mafia as they are sometimes called. He says they will just continue to destroy the forests if they aren’t stopped. So he has a message to the designated head of government Ludovic Orban instead.

“I am not urging him but begging him to listen to Romanians who are demanding for illegal logging to be stopped. All the tools are in place, he just needs to make it operational. We have a special app called the Forest Inspector which is available to anyone. It enables every single truck which is carrying wood could be checked in a simple fashion.” Then he says Romania needs a concerted national police operation to tackle the forest mafia before Europe’s last great virgin forests are gone for ever.

Maybe then, we can at least say that Raducu Gorcioaia and Liviu Pop didn’t die in vain.

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