With its steep, forested mountains set against blue skies, Romania’s central Pojarna Valley once looked like a postcard landscape, but illegal logging has turned the site into an ugly scar.
“The guys who did this used excavators. They even destroyed the young trees,” said Gheorghe Ridichie, an official at the Romanian Ministry of Environment and Forests, pointing to thousands of stumps poking out of the valley’s now-barren slopes.
Last year, Romanian authorities rallied to halt rampant deforestation in the Balkan state. However, the draft law, setting stricter controls and heavier penalties for offenders, still awaits a vote in the lower house of parliament after making it through the upper house.
Official figures show that in 2012, illegal logging in Romania — some of it in lush, century-old forests — had doubled over five years.
“If this goes on, there will be no wood left for the economy and no forests to walk in,” Minister Delegate for Waters, Forestry and Fisheries Lucia Varga told reporters.
“Over the past 20 years, some 80 million cubic meters of wood were illegally cut, causing 5 billion euros [US$6.8 million] in damage,” Varga said. And “the worst part is that the pace of illegal logging is twice that of reforestation and regeneration.”
Similar problems exist in other East European states, notably Bosnia and Bulgaria. Yet some conservationists fear efforts to change matters may be too little, too late.
Both Romanian officials and conservationists blame the surge on several factors, including alleged collusion between local authorities and offenders, corruption in post-communist states, loopholes in Romanian legislation and an insufficient number of forest guards.
The draft bill has angered forest owners and wood processors, who fear it will create additional costs and legal roadblocks.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, suspect some local authorities are part of the “mafia” that controls the trade.
“The illegally cut wood is often accompanied by seemingly legal documents that are actually issued by dummy companies,” said Catalin Tobescu, president of the Nostra Silva forest owners’ association.
“When the authorities eventually decide to check on these companies, it is too late, they no longer exist and their managers are gone,” Tobescu told reporters.
In a robust sector with high demand, wood processing companies do not always check the origin of the raw material.
Romania’s own market is estimated at 4 billion euros a year, dominated by the 400-year-old Austrian firm Schweighofer which moved into the country a decade ago.
Schweighofer’s plans to open a fifth plant in Romania have annoyed conservationists and woodworkers who say it will have an “irreversible impact” on forests here.
Schweighofer spokeswoman Theresa Willmann disputes this.
The new site involved “a reorganization of the market,” she said, and would create 650 jobs in the sawmill and an additional 2,000 indirectly.
“The total forest fund in Romania will not be affected by the logs Schweighofer needs,” she told reporters in an e-mail.
In a region that hosts Europe’s largest old-growth forests outside Russia — and one that is home to 8,000 brown bears, 4,000 wolves and 3,000 lynx — Romania is not the only state threatened by deforestation.
In Bosnia, whose rich, 43 percent woodland is greater than the European average of 32 percent, conservationists estimate that hundreds of thousands of trees are felled illegally every year.