Romania's 'occupy forests' movement demands clampdown on corporate crime

Thugs throwing rocks at illegal timber investigators from Agent Green in Romania, 24th May 2015. Photo: still from video by Agent Green.
Thugs throwing rocks at illegal timber investigators from Agent Green in Romania, 24th May 2015. Photo: still from video by Agent Green.
A growing protest movement is demanding strong controls on international investors and logging companies buying up Romania's forests, writes Raluca Besliu. In its sights is Austria-based Schweighofer, which stands accused of criminal malpractice and accepting illegal timber shipments. The popular outrage stirred up by corporate misdeeds is now stimulating a wider democratic revival.
The Romanian protesters are resolute in their fight to demonstrate their ancestral bond to forests and continue challenging the content of the Forestry Law. Their movement has only just begun.

Since the fall of communism, Romania's ancestral, cultural link to its forests is being undermined by corrupt political and economic interests.

This familial bond to the forest can partly be explained as stemming from the fact that the Romanian people often sought refuge in the woods during the numerous battles that took place throughout the country's tumultuous history.

The forest became a symbol of protection and life, helping perpetuate their nation. The woods served their shielding role not only in ancient and medieval times, but also during Romania's most recent history, ensuring a safe haven for anti-communist fighters, who resisted and opposed the communist regime from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. 

Since the fall of communism, the ancient bond has been tampered with by political and economic interests, as approximately 200,000 hectares of forest have been sold by the Romanian government during the past few years.

Rampant corporate criminality in the forests

According to an audit report created by the Romanian Court of Auditors, between 1990 and 2011, over 80 million cubic meters of forests were illegally cut and sold, producing damages of over $5 billion for the Romanian state. In 2014 alone, the National Forest Inventory indicated that around 9 million cubic meters of forest were illegally exploited. 

After decades of silence, on 9th and 16th May as well as 5th June, hundreds of thousands of Romanians reaffirmed their ancestral connection with the forest, by taking to the streets of cities across Romania to protest against the country's astonishing illegal logging and demand the adoption of better legislation than the proposed new Romanian Forestry Code.

Despite the protests, the suggested law was adopted without changes on 21st May 2015. 

In Romania, the cost of forests is ten times cheaper than in other European states. If in Austria, a hectare of forest is sold for €10,000, in Romania the same surface costs between €1,000 and €3,000. This attracts investors from many foreign countries, including Germany, Austria, and the United States.

According to Romanian law, foreign investors cannot purchase fields or forests directly, but through Romanian firms. The most telling example would be Harvard University, which owned 35,000 hectares of forest in Romania, making it the second largest owner of forests in Romania after the Romanian government.

However, Harvard decided to sell its forests in Romania, after the representative of Scolopax, the Romanian firm through which it made its purchases, was accused of taking more than $1 million in bribes to induce the university to buy them at an inflated price.

Many of the foreigner investors are only interested in exploiting the forests and exporting the wood and obtaining profit. One of the key companies that the protesters have been demonstrating against is Austria's Holzindustrie Schweighofer, the biggest wood processing company in Romania.

The Romanian protesters are resolute in their fight to demonstrate their ancestral bond to forests and continue challenging the content of the Forestry Law. Their movement has only just begun.

The best form of defence is attack

In April 2015, the company became involved in a media scandal after the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released a video of one of leaders of the company willingly and knowingly accepting illegally exploited timber and encouraged additional illegal cutting through a reward system. The company denied the allegations.

In turn, in July 2015, the company sued a nonprofit, Neuer Weg Association, one of the most active NGOs monitoring the Schweighofer's activities, for publishing defamatory articles on its blog and sending emails with untruthful information to journalists in Austria and Germany.

Neuer Weg has denied these allegations, by emphasizing that the statements contained on the blog are true and based on documentary evidence as well as discussions with credible witnesses, the veracity of which can be easily proven in court. 

These incidents come after, in 2014, one of the Austrian company's suppliers, Susai Servcom, was fined by the Forestry Inspectorate for cutting unmarked trees in Romania's Retezat National Park and for inconsistent transportation notices. In response, the Schweighofer, responsible for the wood processing, promised to improve its system seeking to attest the wood's provenance and refuse trees from national parks. 

Protesters had other reasons to be revolted by Schweighofer. In the autumn of 2014, the company sent an open letter to Prime Minister Victor Ponta threatening to conduct mass firings among its over 2,500 employees, if the new Forestry Law was to include a clause limiting the volumes of wood that any individual company could process.

In May 2015, the company threatened to withdraw from Romania if the law was adopted. According to Romania Curata, that threat was sheer bluster, since Romania is losing around 100,000 jobs, given that Schweighofer is exporting semi-manufactured products, while also externalizing most of the profit, since it is a foreign company.

In the event the law was passed on 13th June - complete with restrictions to require more domestic processing of timber into finished products - and Schweighofer remains in business.

Still not good enough

Apart from voicing their disapproval of abuses and questionable activities of wood processing companies such as Schweighofer, the protesters also opposed the draft legislation of the new Forest Law.

While acknowledging that it brings some improvements over the previous one, mainly because of the limits on the maximum quantity of lumber that a company can exploit, its opponents are, overall, displeased with its content. 

One of their key problems with the new Forestry Law is that it is no longer necessary to prepare forest management plans or studies for pieces of forest smaller than 10 hectares, which means losing control over cuttings occurring on such surfaces.

Another problematic modification to the Code is that Romania has decreased its reforestation commitments from two million hectares to one million by 2030. The protesters also demand that the new Forestry Code punish illegal logging more stringently, delineate the implementation of sanctions and demand the circulation of the investigation files from the Anti-Corruption Agency.

The law may also cost Romanians dear. Under one controversial provision, explains law firm Cameron McKenna, "Owners of forest land subject to the restrictions imposed by forestry regulations or other applicable legal provisions may receive compensation from the state for loss of profit incurred by such restrictions on use of forest lands."

A partial victory that has rekindled Romanian democracy

Ultimately, the protesters want to ensure that Romania's forest wealth is safeguarded and used responsibly, keeping the interest of future generations in mind as well.

There is a European dimension to the matter at hand. The EU Timber Law prohibits trading on the EU market of illegally harvested timber, regardless of its origin. However, the situation in Romania suggests that the application of the legislation remains a problem that the European Union should be more amply involved in tackling. 

The Romanian protesters are resolute in their fight to demonstrate their ancestral bond to forests and continue challenging the content of the Forestry Law. Their movement has only just begun. This will be the third time in three years that Romanians initiate a substantial long-term non-violent protest against one of their government's policies or initiatives.

The first two were a protest movement against a Canadian-led cyanide-based gold mining project and fracking. Therefore, all were environmental initiatives intended to prevent or end a practice seen as harmful, indicating a majority of the Romanian public's commitment to their country's sustainable development, built around preserving and responsibly utilizing their country's natural riches.

At the same time, the three protest movements were not only able to influence political decisions, but also to further an on-going debate within the society regarding the rapport between politicians and the Romanian citizens and the latter's ability to demand and exert change in their country.

By doing this, they are rapidly transforming Romania from a communist and post-communist society to one of the most viable democracies in Eastern Europe and the European Union in general.



Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist from Romania. She runs a blog about young changemakers and entrepreneurs called Taking on the Giant. You can follow her @Raluca_Besliu

This article was originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? onFacebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Creative Commons License