Illegal loggers levelling Romania's Carpathian mountain forests

| 30th March 2016
An illegal clear-cut on steep-sided hills in Harghita County, just a small part of a much larger illegal clear-cut. Photo: Ecostorm.
An illegal clear-cut on steep-sided hills in Harghita County, just a small part of a much larger illegal clear-cut. Photo: Ecostorm.
Austrian timber giant Schweighofer claims to be working hard to ensure that the huge volumes of timber it buys from Romania's mountain forests are strictly legal, writes Katy Jenkyns. But an Ecostorm investigation has uncovered its purchase of illegally cut wood, its acceptance of fraudulent paperwork from suppliers, and the deep shadow of fear it casts over local communities.
The loggers said the wood was destined for Schweighofer. Our guide, who showed us land registry excerpts proving his claim, was visibly nervous. 'It's very dangerous if they see us. As you are foreign they might not realise, but if they know it's me ... '

The brief was to get 'Mordor shots'. It was an apt description of the scene.

Late in the day, the factory belching grey smoke into a grey sky, piles of wood just visible beyond the fence and crows circling.

Vicious thistles pricked through socks and jeans as we skirted the hill, keeping out of sight.

On the other side of the rise, a Transylvanian graveyard: the decaying bodies of once living trees massed in crazy piles that arched overhead or walled us in. A stark contrast to the forests they came from.

We've trekked through these forests in all seasons now, seeing fresh bear tracks in the mud, wildcat paw prints in the snow, heard so many bird calls and felt the magical energy of this living tapestry of beech, oak, maple, spruce and pine.

The Carpathians include acres of old-growth forest as ancient and ecologically precious as any tropical rainforest, home to bears, wolves, lynx, eagles, and an astonishing third of all European plant species.

Yet somehow this wilderness doesn't seem to be embedded into the collective European psyche. Out of sight, mind and, until recently, international media spotlight, illegal logging in Romania is big business.

Legal complexities, loopholes and lack of transparency have provided fertile ground for the development of an organised crime network with tentacles reaching right into the heart of government, according to testimonies gathered during the course of our investigation.

Supplying wood to processors and retailers across the EU

Austrian-owned giant Schweighofer is among the biggest timber companies operating in Romania and dominates the country's trade in softwoods from conifer trees like pine, fir, spruce and larch.

The company insists it doing its best to maintain the integrity of its supply chain and exclude illegal timber. But it is well positioned to profit from the opportunities lax law enforcement and corruption can offer, and investigators claim to have tracked shipments of illegal logs to its facilities.

The mill we were at, one of the biggest of its kind in the country, supplies processors and retailers around the world, including some of Europe's largest DIY stores like Hornbach in Germany, Baumax (Austria / Germany), and Bricostore (owned by UK-based Kingfisher, who also own B&Q).

Logs and off-cuts were piled in greyscale formations. We took shots of workmen operating the shredder turning sub-standard wood into chips destined for the adjacent Kronospan facility to be made into wood-based panels. On the far side of the fence around the mill proper: trains, crates and stacks of processed timber destined for furniture and other wood products that end up in homes and industry in Europe and around the world.

As it got darker, spotting car headlights heading our way, we ran a gauntlet of wild dogs, ditches and, missing our way in the dark, barbed wire fences before making it back to the car.

The loggers said the wood was destined for Schweighofer. Our guide, who showed us land registry excerpts proving his claim, was visibly nervous. 'It's very dangerous if they see us. As you are foreign they might not realise, but if they know it's me ... '

We were unduly paranoid perhaps, but in a depot at also owned by the company, in October 2014, a foreman wearing a Schweighofer logo threatened to break my colleague's camera if we didn't leave.

In the same month a campaigner from the Romanian group Agent Green was beaten and pepper-sprayed after tracking a truck-load of illegal timber from a national park to this place (see video embed, below).

Clearly any dangers investigators might face in the field, such as confiscation of kits, arrest for trespass and potentially assault by someone angry, are dwarfed by the threats that those in local communities or organisations daring to oppose the 'wood mafia' are exposed to.

A powerful and pervasive criminal network

On my first trip to Romania, in the winter snows, a forester spoke of assassins and fearing for his safety if he was seen guiding us to film illegal logging on land he claimed was rightfully his but was being exploited by the local authorities.

The loggers stated that the wood was destined for Schweighofer, and our guide, who showed us historical land registry excerpts apparently proving his claim, was visibly nervous. "It's very dangerous if they see us. As you are foreign they might not realise, but if they know it's me, it won't be good."

Raised eyebrows all round, we soon thought twice when a former police officer we interviewed about a case involving a different company said he'd been called a couple of hours before our meeting by someone who threatened him and his family if he spoke to the 'foreign journalists' in town. How did they know? Was our fixer's phone tapped?

But despite being watched and threatened, people welcomed us into their homes, in one case showing us the scars of a knife-attack by thugs sent by the "wood mafia", then sharing a delicious meal from his garden: red pepper, pickles, red onion and slivers of lard, typical Transylvanian fare.

The former police officer, filmed amid the blackened stumps of a slash and burn clear-cut, cried as he related how his family had been threatened and his life ruined after he'd made official complaints regarding the felling, which he alleged financed the election campaign of a high-profile politician.

He told us he was set up and imprisoned for timber theft himself, stating that he had an audio recording, taken covertly, of the witnesses admitting to giving false testimony at his trial.

Then he shared stories of being brought up in the forests, telling us we could safely drink water from the stream running through the fir trees and after the salt-crushed red onion and lard, handing round a bottle of home-brewed palinka, the fiery fruit-based spirit common to the region.

State-sanctioned organised crime

Like many others we spoke to, he referred to the "wood mafia", an interdependent system of organised crime where officials were co-opted or coerced - not only into looking the other way but often into active complicity.

Our fixer called it "state-sanctioned organised crime", arguing that the laws are not sufficiently rigorous or enforced enabling illegal logging to take place unimpeded, benefiting "private companies and themselves as private individuals."

Forests owned and administered privately were taken into state ownership under communism and, following the revolution, legislation was enacted to return land to prior owners. A lawyer we spoke to explained that the restitution process was implemented chaotically and in many cases abusively, including granting ownership of land to interest groups with no legitimate claim.

In tandem with endemic corruption this created the conditions for widespread illegal logging on disputed land. He told us aggrieved claimants were often intimidated, narrating stories of beatings, arson, dynamite and bribery, including being offered money himself to turn a blind eye to a case of illegal restitution.

Schweighofer: 'we are not responsible'

And although they are by no means the only player associated with illegalities in the forestry sector in Romania, everywhere we went people cited Schweighofer, the biggest operator in the industry.

The company has stated that it does not exploit the forests itself and is therefore not responsible for the legality of timber delivered by sub-contractors to its doors, highlighting that it is the role of the authorities to audit wood in its upstream supply chain and uphold the law.

Schweighofer further states that it refuses wood without the correct documentation and does not accept illegal wood: "We do not accept wood from illegal sources. We are concerned about illegal logging in Romania as much as the civil society and we want to emphasize that Holzindustrie Schweighofer is not part of the problem, but part of the solution."

However, on-site audits by the Environment Ministry found timber without the correct documentation from suppliers proving the wood's origin, as well as cases of quantity discrepancies, suspected in the government's report to be "from illegal logging activities". The full results of this investigation are pending and the company has cited "outdated procedures" and "typing errors" as responsible for the irregularities.

We were shown documents showing that Schweighofer benefited from illegal land restitutions through the company Cascade Empire, an outfit which owns and purchases tracts of forests and is also part of the Schweighofer group, and reports in the Romanian media have revealed that the company provided advance funding to outfits subsequently indicted for involvement in organised crime.

In another recent development the Romanian Competition Council launched investigations into suspected cartel activity, citing evidence of possible collusion with other companies, including Kronospan and Egger, to divide up the market and to fix timber prices.

Schweighofer stresses that the results of the investigation should not be pre-judged, but their influence certainly runs deep. A leaked letter to the Romanian Prime Minister from Schweighofer's CEO contained the hint that if changes were made to the Forest Code that were unfavourable to the company, it would "harm the bilateral investment treaty between Austria and Romania".

Schweighofer: 'There is only room for us'

Then there are the stats. The sheer volumes that Schweighofer requires to fulfil the capacity at its three mills leaves little room for other processors, in particular relating to timber legally available for harvest in Romania of a diameter between 14 and 40 cms, according to calculations made by Nostra Silva, the Federation of Forest and Grassland Owners.

This was acknowledged by a representative from Schweighofer who was recorded on covert camera in an undercover sting by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) stating that "if we want to run in full, and only with domestic wood, there is no place for others."

The company argues that it processes 2.8 million cubic metres per year (below actual capacity of 3.2 million) at its Romanian mills of a legally available volume of around 7 million cubic metres of timber (trees of all sizes), further stating hat "almost 50% of the wood purchased and used by the company comes from import" - up from some 30% previously.

But many sources we spoke to, including the lawyer we interviewed, suggested that "the coniferous wood black market is colossal and so evidently the figures include wood from illegal logging. Just as it has been until now: from illegal logging."

Even apparently legal wood can be questionable. We were told by an industry insider that there is an active trade in false documents, cases of which have been filed with Romania's anti-corruption directorate. In addition, transportation papers which should be used once for specific transports can be easily falsified or re-used to shift multiple truck-loads of timber.

According to the law, wood should be clearly marked for both felling and transportation (for wood over 20 cms in diameter), but in most of the places we filmed we saw a high volume of unmarked stumps and larger-sized unmarked logs.

Many local foresters feel they have no choice but to sell to Schweighofer. Smaller players who could generate jobs and trade within the local economy are simply priced out. We were told on more than one occasion that companies who don't wish to pay bribes are also excluded from the market.

As one source stated, when he went to the police he was told this was the "way it works", and that otherwise he might as well shut up shop.

Contracts encourage over-production

But the terms of Schweighofer's contracts with its suppliers can be onerous. Monthly quotas are often signed and paid for in advance and must be met or penalties will be applied. Companies are therefore incentivised to make up any difference in available legal yield with supplementary illegal timber.

A bonus system operates for delivering over-quota, and although Schweighofer stress that this must only apply to legal wood, the financial incentive to launder additional illegal wood into the mix remains. Numerous sources told us that mixing legitimate and illegitimate wood was a very common practice.

One logging company owner, who said he sold exclusively to Schweighofer, described the company as "the devil" and their activities a "disaster". The contract puts suppliers in a bind, and explains the view expressed by industry insiders as much as campaigners that Schweighofer exploits those who become dependent on it.

Suppliers, many of whom are poor and in no position to bargain, feel they have no choice but to operate in this way, rapidly depleting a finite resource with an intrinsic value far outweighing that assigned to timber on Schweighofer's price list.

Adding to the weight of testimonies obtained by sources we spoke to, the undercover approach to the company by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), posing as sellers, showed senior representatives stating that they would take wood exceeding the quota for harvest in the contract with the community, and promising a bonus for doing so.

Schweighofer: 'we are committed to sustainable forestry'

Schweighofer stresses that it is "a sustainable working company", being certified by both FSC and PEFC.

However, PEFC 'chain of custody' certification obtained by the company was thrown into question last August by apparent failures in the rigour of how the scheme has been applied by certifier Holzforschung Austria, including allegations of conflict of interest involving a senior manager at Schweighofer who also sat on the board of the Austrian wood certifier at the time PEFC certification was granted.

PEFC sent a complaint on compliance of Schweighofer to Holzforschung Austria stating that it "notes with concern allegations that the sourced timber may be connected with illegal activities."

It requested that the certifier "investigate the potential use of such timber in PEFC certified or claimed products and Holzindustrie Schweighofer's correct implementation of the PEFC Chain of Custody standard and to make the findings of the investigation available as soon as possible."

However PEFC closed its investigation stating: "The Romanian authorities and the stakeholders did not provide evidence that the PEFC requirements are not complied with ... In addition, the accreditation body (accreditation Austria) considered allegations against Holzforschung Austria concerning the lack of impartiality, objectivity and impartiality. In this investigation, no irregularities were found."

In a context where the Prime Minister has declared illegal logging to be a threat to national security, PEFC's reasoning in this instance is opaque, especially as its statement, issued just three months after the initial complaint was filed, suggests that its conclusions were based on information provided by the government and stakeholders, rather than an actual audit of the supply chain.

EIA, who provided detailed evidence of illegal timber entering Schweighofer's supply chain in their report, point out that PEFC's due diligence system is, according to its own documentation "based on information provided by the supplier", without elaborating on the nature of such documentation.

During our investigation, we were referred to a 2013 case brought to the Romanian Anti-corruption Directorate involving a sheaf of blank transportation papers pre-stamped by the local State forestry office, effectively blank cheques for laundering illegal timber, having been stamped without any verification of volumes. An industry insider told us that trade in such papers was common practice in Romania.

We also obtained two fake transportation documents sharing the same (supposedly unique) serial number adapted to register two different volumes of timber going to a known Schweighofer supplier. A forestry expert consulted found that both documents were fake, and real one having been used previously to deliver wood to a different company.

The finding of apparently fraudulent paperwork relating to significant quantities of timber at Schweighofer's mills in the recent inspections further demonstrates the risks of relying on documentation rather than on-site audits where actual volumes can be cross-checked with legal quotas.

According to EIA, there is "no way of knowing if these have been conducted by the certifier, since information about the audits is confidential" and the enquiry by EIA to obtain the PEFC certification reports "was declined".

FSC certification questioned

Schweighofer's FSC credentials have been likewise undermined by misleading statements by the company about the proportion of their supply chain covered by the scheme. In a recent development that has been widely criticised by environmentalists, the company was granted FSC certification that enables it to label both certified and non-certified timber streams as 'FSC Mix'.

FSC have highlighted that its investigation into "the serious allegations against Holzindustrie Schweighofer trading and processing of illegal timber in Romania" is ongoing, but campaigners have questioned how the new FSC certification can have been awarded under the circumstances.

WWF, who issued the complaint to FSC, have stated that the company should not be able to "hide behind questionably incurred FSC certification".

At the DIY or furniture store, consumers might think that wood products originating from within the EU are a sustainable and ethical choice, especially if they are certified by supposedly rigorous schemes.

But just as the Carpathians don't seem to hold the kind of grip on the European consciousness as somewhere like Yellowstone does in North America (imagine illegal logging happening there!), so its destruction passes without the mass outrage it should be generating.

A proud, historic nation brought to a low ebb

Romania, with its PR problems and unhelpful Daily Mail narratives, just doesn't seem able to capitalise on its tourism potential. As we were told by a forester we interviewed, unless something is done "future generations won't have forests anymore", losing a resource which, managed sustainably, should support both healthy ecosystems and healthy local economies into the future.

And it's not just the landscape, hiking, skiing and mountaineering that might provide alternative incomes for some of those dependent on illegal logging. Romania is a melting pot of cultures, language and architecture. Old Soviet-era blocks beside wood-carved churches and the faded grandeur of old towns and castles.

Cars share the road with jingling horses and carts, herds of sheep and donkeys. In some places, people still work the land with hoes and scythes. It's easy to romanticise when you're not the one doing the work, but these are proud people, proud of their traditions and heritage.

Transylvania itself is full of magic and beauty, its culture unique. We passed a wedding on a late-night drive through the mountains on our way to an illegal logging hotspot. The men playing trumpets and violins, the women in traditional dress and children holding flowers. They didn't smile at our cameras.

This wasn't for the benefit of us bystanders; this was their way of life and a dignified and joyful one, sounding in the Balkan brass of the band.


Katy Jenkyns is an investigator with Ecostorm Environmental Investigations.

EIA Report: 'Stealing the Last Forest, Austria's largest timber company, light rights and corruption in Romania'.

Schweighofer's Counter-Report, additional rebuttals and FAQs.

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