Max-Weber-Institute of Sociology
Max-Weber-Institute of Sociology
When we think about the clear-cutting of the virgin forests, the first thing that comes to mind for many of us, is Brazil and the Amazon. But there is no need to go that far. The deforestation of some of Europe’s oldest virgin forests through legal and illegal logging has become the norm in many parts of Romania. In an almost ghostly fashion, some of the most biodiverse forests in all of Europe are disappearing. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, illegal logging seems to have become largely uncontrollable. More and more bald patches are appearing in the forested mountains. More and more forests are disappearing. Despite frequent attempts to stop it, numerous EU-regulations, and the Interpol Forestry Crime Team, clear-cutting has continued to increase. How can this be explained and why is illegal deforestation so hard to stop? After all, the perpetrators are not out and about at night, like Dracula in his day, but in broad daylight.
The Carpathians and their national parks
The Carpathians are home to an estimated two-thirds of Europe’s last wild forests. In this fabulous region, 90% of the primeval forests of Central Europe have survived. Unfortunately, the actual extent can only be estimated. This is because, according to many experts, the current statistical data on the loss of virgin forests is unreliable and misleading.
Even the national parks, which should be protected by national and EU law, have fallen victims to logging. Among these, up to two-thirds of the land are used for commercial logging. The globally applicable standards are not being met, partly because the control, protection and maintenance of these parks lack financial funding.
How does the illegal logging work?
As it often is the case, it is opportunity that creates thieves. In many regions of Romania, illegal logging is favored on the one hand by the remote, geographical location and on the other hand by the population density. This is the case, for example in Maramures, northern Romania, where it is very easy for the population, timber suppliers, as well as authorities to go about their business unhindered. However, this is not enough. The clear-cutting in the Carpathians also has a firmly established side that goes beyond opportunity, which in sociology we call systemic corruption. Once this has become the norm in a social or economic field, it is difficult to return to the initial state of opportunity corruption.
Therefore, legal business and illegal machinations go hand in hand. Thus, in Romania, too, the legal and illegal sides of clear-cutting are two sides of the same coin. For example, the arrival of large international timber companies after the fall of the Iron Curtain was welcomed by the Romanian government, and they immediately offered ten-year logging contracts at economically favorable conditions to most country forestry offices. In view of the economic situation, this was an offer that could hardly be refused. Almost all foresters accepted. The legal management of the virgin forests was soon in the hands of large companies.
The state authorities are also used to generate illegal revenues from the forest. According to the studies made by Vasile/Iordachescu, the underdeveloped rule of law in Romania is not capable of deterring criminally active parties. It is not uncommon for state actors to be involved, and judges and public prosecutors, as well as politicians, are among the preferred recipients of bribes. Actually, when in the past the silvic and forest legislation was under amendment, it was not a rare event that several deputies and senators received calls, that they should not make severe changes, as these may upset the large multinationals operating in this sector. This, too, is an element of systemic corruption: actors from different social circles and social sectors are involved in networks of temporary duration, without forming mafia-like, permanent criminal associations.
But let’s start from the beginning: The cut wood must still be certified on site in Romania, provided with so-called logging certificates. In fact, there are certain legal standards according to which the wood may be harvested. These depend on the geographical area, the tree species, the size of the tree, its age and whether or not it is infested with bark beetles. All this must be attested in a certificate for the particular felling. If the tree is infested with a bark beetle, it may be cut, but if the tree is healthy and young, and especially if it comes from a natural reserve, cutting is not allowed.
However, despite these strict certification rules, the exact origin of a large part of the felled timber in Romania is not traceable. The traceability of the wood is lost as soon as the wood arrives at the warehouse or on the transport vehicles. This is because legal and illegal timber are mixed here, and it is not possible to subsequently determine which timber was harvested in a legal process. The local foresters and employees sometimes also mark healthy trees that are to be felled, and in this way support illegal logging. At the same time, the logging certificates are also falsified, so that it is no longer possible to trace the illegal timber. In the warehouse, the legally felled logs and the illegally logged timber are mixed and sold on.
When, for example, the large Austrian companies in the timber industry buy the timber from the warehouses, these are certified as legal. The illegal timber is legalized without traceable origins. The documented origin is the deposit itself and there is no evidence that some of the timber was obtained through illegal logging, e.g. from natural reserves. Since logging certificates are often also falsified, it is no longer possible to trace the illegal timber. WWF estimates in 2022 that 26% of all timber shipments they identified were illegal and did not have a Sumal code or permit. Another 31% had an overload of up to 10%. In this way, the primeval forests in the Carpathians disappear bit by bit every day.
Against this background, it is difficult to establish transparency and get a clear overview of how things actually work.
Although they are complex, hidden networks, there are always similar variables that we can identify: large corporations and suppliers, politicians and judges, forest managers and rural residents. If we look at the light field of uncovered cases, and thus at the tip of the iceberg, we see, for example, that judges and politicians are also regularly involved.
This is reflected, among other things, in a well-known case of corruption in connection with the sale and transfer of forest land. For example, Viorel H., a member of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was sentenced for two years of prison in 2014 for illegal restitution of forest land. The charge relates to the illegal transfer of 43,227 hectares of forest land in Bacau County to Paltin S. The National Anti-Corruption (DNA) has estimated the damage at around 304 million euros, which is the value of the land. H had intervened with officials of certain institutions in Bacau so that Paltin S. could take possession of 43,000 hectares of land. In return for this intervention, he himself was to receive 12,000 hectares. Thus, as is often common is systemic corruption and unusual in organizational crime, the illegal personal enrichment of almost all actors involved was an important element in the corruption story.
The trial also revealed that Ioan A, another PSD politician, was involved in the bribery. He was caught offering €10,000 to Judge Lorand O. in order to influence his decision in favor of Paltin S.. The money was received in the judge’s office at the Covasna court. This also fits the “systemic corruption”: there is a cross-over of several social spheres: politics, economy, judiciary. According to DNA, after the civil decision of the Covasna court, Ioan A., together with Paltin S., Daniel C., Ioan V., Dan B. and Viorel H., organized and coordinated a group whose goal was to generate revenue through the “purchase of influence or the illegal use of influence in order to accelerate the possession and issuance of the title deeds for the forest land and the fastest possible sale of the forest land acquired through the above-mentioned court decision” (Digi 24). The corrupt group mentioned above also includes Ilie S., another PSD member who also held two mandates as Minister of Agriculture (from 2000 to 2004 and from 2008 to 2009). Ilie S. (i.e. the father-in-law of Victor P., the former prime minister between 2012 and 2015) and his PSD colleagues are also accused of illegal use of influence and official powers. Also accused is Adam C., the CEO of ROMSILVA, who lost his office on corruption and bribery charges.
Using data from various trials as well as the media, we were able to create a highly simplified diagram of this network of “systemic corruption”, see Figure 1.0. However, this is only representative of the network that was uncovered in the trial, and it only shows the “big fish”, the most important variables in this network.
This illegal business is in turn accompanied by legal loopholes. According to a conversation with a Greenpeace activist, the timber in Romanian forests is currently sold at a time when the trees are still standing. This eliminates most of the regulations designed to protect the forests. In other words, the uncut trees in the forests are bought for commercial purposes. However, the legal regulations mostly apply only to the felled timber and not to the trees that are still standing. It can be seen that here, too, the willingness to legally circumvent the applicable rules goes hand in hand with criminal border crossings by other actors.
The use of violence also seems to have become a tried-and-true mean of protecting the profits from illegal logging. Conservation activists, investigators, journalists, and forestry officials who oppose these practices are not only threatened, but violently targeted. In recent years, there have been serious cases of manslaughter and murder in the Carpathians, resulting in the deaths of 6 foresters, and more than 650 cases of violent attacks. The last two murders took place in 2019.
The state counteraction
Among many legal regulations, Romania developed the Integrated Timber Monitoring System (SUMAL) in 2014 to counter this. It is an information tracking system for timber provided by the central authorities responsible for forestry and available to citizens. It supports citizen participation. It is not only used to obtain statistical data on the type of timber harvested: who transports it, where it is transported to, and who resells it, but also allows citizens to use the national emergency hotline. In this way, dedicated citizens called to point out suspicious areas where illegal logging was taking place or logging trucks that appeared to be illegal were reported. This also served to put pressure on the local police or gendarmerie to take action against illegal logging. However, SUMAL has since proven to be a very opaque method of tracking logs, as timber thieves have learned to use it to their advantage. Agent Green, an environmental non-governmental organization, is even suspicious of the application’s developers. They believe that the new changes made to the application since 2021 that created SUMAL 2.0 were intentionally programmed incorrectly. For them, there are too many loopholes that encourage illegal logging.
But how can an application created for greater transparency become a counterproductive tool? Agent Green has identified ten different methods for stealing logs. In all of these theft methods, corrupt actors take advantage of the SUMAL 2.0 application. As an example, trucks use a certificate that has been used in the past, transporting twice the amount of allowed timber than is indicated in the certificate. Although truck drivers are required to submit pictures of the loaded truck in SUMAL to provide visual evidence of the truck’s loading, photography is often “omitted” or the pictures submitted do not show the entirety of the logs because the truck is overcrowded. Another common method is that the accompanying documents to be entered at the beginning of the transport are kept offline for the duration of the transport, so that the data is never transmitted to the central server, resulting in the “loss” of wood shipments that are later sold illegally.
Until the last tree is chopped? Systemic corruption and no end
All the ingredients for classifying this supposedly ghostly, well-concealed corruption as “systemic corruption” are thus present in this field:
- A rural population that is accustomed to illegal logging that participates itself in it, as part of these logs are used for heating. If we look at where most of the illegal logging takes place, it is clear to see that these are poor rural communities where the illegally obtained wood is a quick source of income for families. Even though forestry officials have a healthy conscience, they sometimes accept the bribes. They are happy with the money they receive in return for their services and their silence. This is because the villages in which they live offer little to no opportunities to find decent work and earn an income.
- An institutional environment that, for all its formal resistance, facilitates rather than hinders this kind of misconduct (“institutional embeddedness”). In this way, the institutional arrangements repeatedly produce the various forms of systemic corruption.
- A cross-over of different sectors, conservation, politics, timber industry, justice, with which opportunity structures are created again and again.
- A criminal organization or network that allows coordinated action for a period of time but is not permanently established, such as the Mafia or drug cartels. The network emerges, such as that shown in Figure 1, persists for a time, and then disintegrates. The next time, the organizations or the network are no longer the same, but new associations are formed again, depending on the opportunity structures.
- In this context, the criminal organization or network emerges as a preying community that combines personal enrichment intentions with community-based interests but carries out the criminal activities at the expense of the general public.
As a result of the high level of systemic corruption in this field, illegal logging continues to be a threat and has negative externalities on the environmental degradation destroying the Carpathians. Once infected with systemic corruption, even modern EU states like Romania seem to lack the means to combat it. Their institutional arrangements themselves seem to be the hosts that parasitic systemic corruption keeps spawning.
Notwithstanding, the World Wildlife Fund, together with Interpol did set up recently a National Environmental Security Taskforce. Its goal is to advance effective law enforcement by activating and supporting networks on the ground that are capable of deterring forest crime and responding appropriately. Not only in Romania, but also in other target countries such as Bulgaria, Slovakia or Ukraine, the objective is to improve the means of curbing systemic corruption in illegal logging. We don’t have a chance, so let’s use it!
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