The loss of Romania's primeval forests would not just be a European tragedy - but a global one.
Romania’s primeval forests - rich in biodiversity and essential to climate change mitigation - are in jeopardy due to government negligence and the activities of commercial interests.
The forests contain over half of all remaining tracts of pristine forest in the EU - and are home to wolf, brown bear, lynx and countless bird and plant species.
Yet Romania has no up-to-date inventory of where these unique areas of wilderness are located, nor adequate systems in place to protect them.
In 2005, a team of scientists from Holland conducted mapping of these primary forest tracts for the Pin Matra study. However, the inventory contained a number of errors and there were extensive omissions.
Environmentalists stressed the urgent need to conduct further identification and mapping and in 2016 the government initiated a new catalogue, setting out criteria for the identification of virgin and quasi-virgin forests.
Yet - despite numerous studies being submitted by experts and NGOs such as Agent Green, Greenpeace and WWF - only a handful of new areas have been accepted and groups complain that forest authorities are stalling the process by failing to provide access to relevant forest management plans and maps.
One environmentalist close to project said: “My team has mapped thousands of hectares of virgin and quasi-virgin forests, but we are still waiting for most of these forests to be included in the catalogue. There is great pressure from the logging industry for them not to be designated protected sites. It’s very depressing.”
Forestry in Romania is big business, complicated by an opaque system of rights and ownership structures. Traditionally, local communities exploited forests for firewood, local crafts and home-building, but over recent decades several foreign companies moved in on Romania, backed by the state and capitalising on lax regulations and a culture of corruption.
There followed a wave of illegal logging, threatening to decimate the country's forests, as factory processing capacities outstripped legal cutting quotas.
Impoverished local communities holding precious stakes in ancestral forest land sold wood to these big buyers, even as many referred to them as vampiric, sucking up timber and profits on the back of Romania's resources.
Environmentalists have worked hard to engage with local communities to expose the tactics used by the timber mafia who operate unsustainably and launder massive amounts of illegal wood into the supply chain feeding mainly export markets.
Campaigners did gain ground as the state introduced measures such as the Forest Inspector website which makes transportation data available to the public, along with a hotline for community-members to call if they suspect a truck to be carrying illegal timber.
But corruption remains a huge problem and logging continues even in protected areas with many people afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.
In the case of virgin forests, the logging may be perfectly legal on paper, with experts suggesting that over 50 percent of relevant forests are not included in either the Pin Matra study or the new catalogue.
Once any logging activity has taken place, however insignificant, the area no longer qualifies as virgin forest and can therefore be omitted from the catalogue and remain viable for commercial exploitation.
In 2017, activists stopped a truck leaving an area of forest in the Fagaras mountains. A subsequent investigation by the authorities found over-cutting of 4100 percent.
These ancient forests were included in the Pin Matra inventory and fulfil the criteria for protection under Romanian law, but were being logged regardless.
A spokesman from Agent Green said: “The new ministry states that neither private forest authorities nor state forestry body Romsilva have the Pin Matra inventory anymore. It’s a strange and worrying statement, even a criminal one.”
Furthermore, the World Heritage Committee recently recognised 24,000 hectares of beech forests as of “outstanding universal value”, however activists have identified logging in buffer zones of numerous World Heritage areas, such as the Domogled National Park and Sinca Woods where Agent Green documented extensive cutting in areas of high ecological value.
Yet direct action by activists seems to be having some effect.
World Heritage Site
This was evident in the recent Sarmisegetuza Regia case which has cultural, historical and environmental significance.
The site is the ancient Dacian capital, a ruined citadel over two thousand years old. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is surrounded by majestic old-growth forest that is also included in the Pin Matra study. One local activist called it “Romania’s Machu Pichu.”
At the site, nature and culture are bound together as the trees protect the archaeology, the roots stabilising the soil and forming an integral part of the historic site and its ambience.
However, the government approved initial logging of over a hundred trees, with plans for much wider deforestation.
Dr. Aurora Peţan, historian and president of the Dacica Foundation, said “They took large machines up to the fortress’s acropolis and the sacred area. They left deep traces in the soil although they knew the archaeological layer was just a few inches deep.”
A spokesman from Agent Green added: “They took trees down right on the walls of the fortress and dragged them through the site with large forestry tractors under water-soaked soil conditions, leaving irreversible wounds in the site.”
The authorities argue that the felling is to protect the site and visitors from falling trees, but during their investigation Agent Green found mainly high-value timber in the local depot rather than sick trees, and drone footage showed that most trees were extracted far from any tourist trails.
The shocking drone footage has caused a stir in Romania, in particular as the logging company supplies one of the big exporting players.
The NGO hopes to use the headlines to protect other tracts of ancient forest and biodiversity treasure-troves from being lost in remote places far from the public eye. As per the damage to these Dacian ruins, the loss of Romania's primeval forests would not just be a European tragedy but a global one.
Katy Jenkyns is a freelance journalist.