‘These guys are approving logging without any idea whether that logging would damage a key habitat or a species!’
This is the reason environmental activists quote when asked why they’re winning court cases against public authorities permitting logging in Natura 2000 sites in Romania. Yet, despite EU infringements and complaints, saws are louder than birds in protected forests. In a pre-European Parliamentary election year, are current facts sufficient for the EU to take Romania to the European Court of Justice?
Just days ago, a European Parliament Petition (PETI) delegation visited Romania following an illegal logging complaint, as well as a list of other habitat destruction complaints that have forest destruction as common denominator. Delegates chose a press-proofed route to witness that “everything was well and under control” in Romania’s forests, as Environment Minister Barna Tánczos would tell them in his welcoming speech.
Stopped from witnessing what PETI does, we accompanied rebel MEPs and environmental activists to allegedly protected sites to observe “unfolding crime” and reveal a catalogue of forest management irregularities.
LORDS OF TIMBER is a project supported by an IJ4EU grant for independent reporting, managed by the European Journalism Centre and the International Press Institute. This is one article in a series exposing aspects tied to EU’s “famous” “environmental” infringement.
“Romania faces several challenges with respect to the implementation of the nature protection Directives”, an EU Environment Commission (DG ENVI) official said just a few weeks ago, “but this is the famous one!”. She means the illegal logging matter raised by the Commission.
EU’s infringements database is, in fact, chokablok with environmental charges against Romania, like pus leaking from a wound that won’t heal.
Try as you might, it’s close to impossible to get ENVI representatives to disclose the procedure details against Romania on the record. That’s because “infringement proceedings are confidential, and therefore it should not be expected that the Commission shares information on the proceedings and their different steps via media”, a DG ENVI official said.
The same source stressed: “The Commission is concerned with the scale of illegal logging in Romania, including in old-growth forests, especially at a time when the EU is increasing efforts to step up global action against biodiversity loss.
The infringement is currently at a “reasoned opinion” stage. Meaning, if Romania doesn’t fulfil its duties as expected, the next step could see the EU member state held accountable at the European Court of Justice (CJEU).
The “famous” infringement started in 2020, when Romania was instructed to swifty address reckless logging practices in Natura 2000 sites. The unruly member state is also expected to transpose the necessary environmental protection directives that it signed up to on the day it became an EU member state – in 2007!
When we asked if we could join ENVI ‘s delegation visiting Romania in May, as they were expected to partner up with an EU Parliament (EP) Petition (PETI) delegation in a fact-finding mission, we were informed that “no such meeting is planned from the Commission’s side”. Wait, what?
Not in the public interest
On May 15, PETI’s delegation landed in Bucharest to start its 4-day research mission, with illegal logging, treatment of bears and misaligned EU-Romanian legislation on their agenda. A meeting with Environment Minister Barna Tánczos took place that very same evening at the ministry’s HQ.
The press was banned from witnessing the exchange.
“The only reason why the press did not have access to the meeting is that this was the request of the representatives of the PETI Commission,” spokesperson of the Ministry of Environment, Waters and Forests Mihai Dragan informs us. “The nature of this meeting is not public.”
A PETI spokesperson added that “where journalists showed interest in attending certain meetings, they were given the opportunity to do so, as long as all participants agreed to this.”
At least six journalists from three media organisations were rejected, Freedom House including, despite the notoriety of the complaint topics and overwhelming public interest.
Moments into the “technical meeting”, reporters were waved in for a five-minute photo opp. Minister Tánczos opened with ‘everything is well and under control in Romania’s forests’.
“Tánczos’s kidding, right?” is all I had the chance to think before being swiftly escorted out and informed that there will be an official statement after the meeting.
As tens of minutes tick away, PRESShub is the only press left standing (or sitting). There’s a couple of PETI delegates that spent their time outside the meeting room.
“These areas represent potentially lost habitat”, the document read. Oh, so Tánczos was kidding when he said “everything was well”…
It’s unclear how the verification of the quoted area was done.
“Approximately 5,125 ha were recognised as degraded – that is roughly 6,400 football pitches!”, a forestry specialist told us.
“If we assume an average volume per ha of 350 m³ from these surfaces, an estimated amount of wood resulted at 1.8 million m³. Better said, 36,000 trucks loaded with wood that could have stretched in a continuous column of 570 km (for example the distance Bucharest – Arad)”, the expert added.
“I think that the goal pursued was to minimise the true extent of the phenomenon”, the specialist added. There is evidence that the current foresters only plant fictitiously when necessary, and report accordingly.
The document revealed a presentation crafted to show how amazing the country’s forest management and oversight is going to become though satellites, green prosecutors and tens of millions of euros invested in afforestation. It did not mention how these would be funded.
Where is ENVI?
Watching PETI delegates leaving the Environment Ministry’s building, Romanian MEP Nicolae Stefanuțǎ stood out – because he’s not PETI!
He was supposed to be part of EU’s Environment Commission (DG ENVI) delegation – the one department that actually logged (sic!) a logging infringement against Romania – that should also have been present – but bailed. And so was MEP Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg, also present.
Why were they here?
According to both, and in contradiction to what we were told by an ENVI official, a month prior to the meeting, ENVI’s delegates were packing for the same trip as PETI’s, when the delegation was dissolved. Other European Parliament sources alleged that some Romanian political parties pulled long strings to see it come undone. But a small but determined minority of the ENVI would-be delegates decided to come, anyway.
“The EPP [European People’s Party], and the S&D [Social and Democrats] tried to cover it up! They blocked the ENVI trip here!”, Stefanuțǎ says. “The Environment Committee was supposed to be here, today, and they blocked it by withdrawing their members!”, he went on.
“And it’s not ok because this way, they’re covering for their brethren in Romania, sister parties here in Romania: for PNL [National Liberal Party] and PSD [Social-Democratic Party].”
EU’s infringement legislation, however, does not require a field visit – that is at the Commission’s discretion.
Moreover, in his opinion, there was “an unexplainable delay” in the Commission’s infringement progression.
MEP Stefanuțǎ is unsettled – and for a good reason: he and colleague Deparnay-Grunenberg were “accepted” at this high-level meeting, instead of being empowered to roast Tánczos over environmental and legal failures, like in a genuine investigation. Instead, the two rebel EU parliamentarians witnessed Minister Tánczos pulling a Pollyanna-syndrome veil over a scandal that has brought Romania’s illegal logging international notoriety, quoting facts that don’t always hold water in the field.
So what was said behind closed doors? Listen here to what Romanian MEP Nicolae Stefanuțǎ had to say, “in [his] own name”
70,000 trucks packed with lumber
Romania’s Secretary of State for Environment, Mr. Ionuț Sorin Banciu, emerges for a press statement. True to his earlier word, he gives us an interview:
Among other things, we are talking about SUMAL – a database partially interfaced at inspectorulpadurii.ro, where one should see a live flow of up-to-date information on tree felling permits, actions and transports. The system is supposed to facilitate, in real time, monitoring and accountability of forest exploitation through key open data and pictures.
The qvasi-open database is, indeed, unique in the world, and this is something even staunch critics of Romania’s forest management admit, amid fears that if they criticise its blind spots, the Romanian government might shut it down.
SUMAL is not a fully law-abiding surveillance mechanism, however. For example, the routes of a truck carrying freshly felled trees are not available as the car drives – although gendarmes who may wish to intercept suspicious transports could use a feature like that.
On this point, Banciu said we shouldn’t expect to see, live on SUMAL, all 70,000 drivers (who may own more than one truck) from roughly 20,000 firms, handed a logging permit – it would be too much for the system’s digital data pipe, he alleges.
The logging permits specify the number of trees, species quantities allowed for felling, for specific purposes. The same one operator does more than just transport logs: it also monetizes a public commodity, whose exploitation, in theory, should be open for accountability.
And that’s not just environmental critics talking. Difficult access to environmental data leaking from Romania’s publicly-owned archives is a point on the logging infringement that the European Commission has opened against Romania. Yet, vital public interest details are under seal and lock at the Environment Ministry and Special Telecommunication Services.
70.000 trucks… Thankfully, spokesperson Dragan sat us down before the start of the conversation, else I would have asked for a chair. Line them up or stack them up – it’s still a knee-jerking thought – 70.000 trucks carrying freshly harvested wood from Romania’s forests…
I recompose and remind Banciu that Uber has more operators in live view – although I didn’t quote the “780,000+ total active merchants on the platform in more than 9,000 cities across 6 continents”, according to UBER. The point it, it can be done – and everyone knows it.
Reviewing Banciu’s statements, environmental NGO Agent Green’s president and biologist Gabriel Păun, and forestry specialist Dan-Cătălin Turiga took a stab at the high official underselling SUMAL’s capacities, accusing him of disinformation. Watch the full Agent Green running commentary here.
Hounded for speaking truth to power
While Mr. Banciu was advocating in favour of not tracking wood transports in real time, Păun was talking to PETI delegates about green crimes.
The NGO’s name is just as famous in the realm of green crimes exposeés as the Romania’s EU logging infringement is worldwide. Drawing from the NGO’s vast field investigations experience, Agent Green came up with a SUMAL database literal cheat sheet: Ten theft methods and ten motives to update SUMAL.
The NGO’s know-how is partially written in blood, as its relentless and phenomenally well-connected leader has been beaten up by thugs, pepper-sprayed by guards, left to gasp for air by gendarmes who were supposed to help him, and threatened in the field by timber trade stakeholders.
“There is a price on my head,” he tells us. “There was a whatsapp group where they called to see it removed!”.
By “they” he means those he caught illegally logging on camera or on paper.
Spend a few hours watching Agent Green’s hard-hitting work on YouTube – and dozen others with similar courage – and one may even agree DG Envi has enough evidence to justify cancelling its fact-finding field trip to Romania. It’s all there.
During the PETI Q&A at EU’s HQ in Strada Lascăr 31, also attended by Aurelian Mihăilă, prosecutor responsible for environmental crimes, Păun described how he felt no longer safe in his native country. The impact of his work led to him narrowly escaping a murder attempt eight years ago.
Yet, he continues his field work in Romania’s forests, for which he has to employ mission impossible subterfuges to carry these out. His team’s work often leads to court cases – which Agent Green wins.
„Our organisation is carrying 350 trials [against] the government for lack of transparency and approving logging which is against EU Nature laws, both the habitat and species directives”, Păun says. “And we win those trials! Which means the government is in the wrong and they don’t take responsibility, therefore the problem is ongoing.”
Agent Green partnered up with NGOs ClientEarth and Econatur for a complaint which they submitted to the European Environment Commission in 2019. This led to the current logging infringement.
But it wasn’t as easy as filling in a form. “In order to make a systemic complaint, as the Commission required, we had to carry [out] a couple of hundred of trials before submitting the complaint”, he tells PETI delegates.” Yet another staggering number I’m happy to hear while sitting.
“It was not a simple complaint, like it was the Białowieża case in Poland, which was a single protected area. We had to cover half a million hectares of forests before the complaint, so that the infringements that are ongoing are covering 8% of the Romanian forests in different part of the country: from Maramures up north, to the south Fǎgǎraș here in Carpathians! These trials are ongoing because the situation is not changing.”
According to Agent Green’s president, in the two years following the start of the logging infringement, a staggering 13 millions cubic metres were extracted from all Natura 2000 protected areas.
Imagine “a queue of trucks fully loaded with wood from Romania to China, in the middle of the infringement!”.
For a moment, it felt like everyone was holding their breath. The we packed and drove to see a couple of such sites.
Clear as Clear-cuts
“Natura 2000 is a network of core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species, and some rare natural habitat types which are protected in their own right”, according to the EU. “The aim of the network is to ensure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats”.
Some countries allow logging in these areas, but under strict rules. One such rule says that there needs to be a genuine environmental impact assessment for every tree cut down.
Walking along the spring basin turned log-dragging ramp, no path available, slope after slope revealed a graveyard of clear-cut stumps, bearing witness to a former forest that once surrounded the valley, removed without an environmental impact assessment – i.e. illegally.
According to official logging records, the operating firm’s approval expired last year, but they were still harvesting. Logs were being pulled through the spring basin, destroying it. This, too, is illegal. Were PETI delegates shown anything similar?
Watch this VIDEO showing logging destruction of spring basin in Natura 2000 site by harvester.
On a soundscape of saws and engines, I glued a camera against my face and started taking pictures of the maimed valley, searching for a physical barrier between human and the forest carnage on the slopes.
Exploring upwards the unwalkable valley, made so by harvesters, mountains of tree stomps revealed themselves like multiplying tomb stones.
A man arrived just minutes after we did to confront us over our presence on the site. Did he care about the two minors in a trailer, the youngest only two months old, his father harvesting towering trees next to them, baby toys scattered on a table? Did he care about breaching environment protection legislation?
Green MEP Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg was clearly moved: “It’s difficult to see it in real life. It’s one thing to learn about it from an abstract perspective, but being here… it gets to you. This should not happen!”
Watch the two MEPs and Gabriel Păun’s damaging statements from an equally damaged area in a Natura 2000 site, in east Fǎgǎraș mountains.
“They are applying clear cuts and progressive logging on entire slopes!”, describes Pǎun
As we drove further away from the sound of saws and harvesters, bird songs pierced through the line of trees.
The next day, Wednesday May 17, we’re off to the south region of Făgăraș mountains, where a UNESCO group had visited a primary forest just days ago, the humming-bird equivalent of lumberland.
Romania’s legislation doesn’t exactly define old growth forests, nor the obligation to protect them.
“Only if, by chance, they are functionally located in an area that gives them a silvicultural non-intervention or minimal intervention status, then for these reasons, they can benefit from a higher degree of protection, but which is not necessarily a definitive one”, forestry specialist Dan-Cătălin Turiga explained.
No sooner did we step foot in a public forest managed by Ocolul Domnești, that its administrators arrived to legitimise us. We were filmed, questioned and advised not to go where we wanted, as we had to cross junior river. The overall tone was not a welcoming one.
Deparnay-Grunenberg must be the first MEP to cross Paraul Doamnei – and on foot. Barefoot. The waters were cold and swollen from the rain. None of the ocol staff helped her.
She’s heading towards an old growth forest, it, too, part of the Natura 2000 network, in spite of the rain, the wet, muddy terrain and being told there’s nothing to be seen there.
According to Deparnay, “they seem proud to have some primary forest, and when you’re looking at the ground, you see that, with machines, they are destroying a lot of soil. It’s pretty different from how I think you need to go in that area.”
She picked on the fact that Ocol chief Gheorghe Ivaşcu insisted that the area was FSC certified. Just like in the clear-cut Natura 2000 site we say a day before. “That’s really problematic, because FSC should not certify such destruction”, she adds.
Listen to Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg’s reaction in full here
The Forest Sustainability Council’s (FSC) label is, theoretically, the world’s most trusted label for certified ethically-sourced wood. Zero deforestation is supposed to have occurred in sourcing it.
Both operators harvesting in the two Nature 2000 sites we visited claimed to have the FSC certification.
Meanwhile, in the growing waters of Pârâul Doamnei, in the rain, tensions were rising. Forestry staff serving the Ocol were accusing Păun for “causing great harm” to their profession.
Ocol chief Gheorghe Ivaşcu and Păun debated for over an hour about the legal aspects of forest management aspects, and the existence of primary forests in the ocol.
In Ivascu’s opinion, as long as he followed Romania’s legislation, he could not be in the wrong, even if the national law is at odds with the European law and the reason why Romania was slapped with a plethora of infringements.
“There will always be illegal logging in forests!”, Ivaşcu admitted. “But it doesn’t happen here!”
Ivaşcu is angry: with Păun, who he says paints an unfairly negative image of the foresters in all over the press; with the press – when partly erroneous information is being released; with the system – which he serves and which has also hurt him at times.
Ivaşcu has confidently offered to take us anywhere we wanted in his ocol to witness his forest management.
A war of facts
Deparnay-Grunenberg and Stefanuțǎ defied DG ENVI and came to find their own facts.
“It’s funny, all this spectacle. We have just had a meeting with DG ENVI recently and they told us they will not take Romania to the European Court of Justice!”, a source from an international green crimes investigative organisation tells us under the agreement of anonymity.
“It’s the war in Ukraine. As a border country, they want Romania compliant and this is small enough to let it go.”
“It’s not the first time I hear this” a EP official told us. ”Whether there’s any truth to it, I don’t know, but I certainly have heard it before in the [European ] Parliament circle.”
Others believe the 2024 European Parliament elections have a role to play and the Romanian MEPs from the country’s major political parties who want to be renominated are allegedly refraining from making waves.
“Actually, ENVI wanted to close the infringement earlier this year!”, another source told us.
The illegal logging and bear treatment complaint that landed on PETI’s desk is separate from DG ENVI’s infringement, however. The delegates would have to to come up with a report soon, and most likely to negotiate its findings and vote on it before presenting ENVI with their agreed conclusions.
According to a Commission official,“as far as ENVI is concerned, there can be no discussion on the process or follow-ups. It’s all confidential.”
Rumour in the corridors of EU’s power has it that DG ENVI would listen to all stakeholders, eventually. There is an intention to get a group of Romanian stakeholders, armed with facts and figures, to the Commission in July, to have their voices heard. That is because the ENVI delegation was the great absentee of EU’s May’s fact-finding trip, we’re told.
But would this be enough to convince the EU, ahead of European parliamentary elections, to press Romania to implement EU’s directives fully and swiftly? Or will the interests of the lords of timber win the final argument?
“Romania provided us with its draft restoration plan of the Natura 2000 areas concerned by the infringement – this is a key step in addressing the deterioration of forest habitats that occurred in these Natura 2000 sites”, a Commission official told us. “However, the plan is not satisfactory.“
“The Commission will continue working with the Romanian authorities and will raise its concerns, so that the restoration plan ensures that the deteriorated habitats will be restored. Depending on the progress made, the Commission will consider further steps.”
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