Romanian timber mafia killing environmental defenders

Liviu Pop
PHOTO: Facebook/ Liviu Pop

On October 21,  2019, Liviu Pop, a forest ranger in a mountainous region of the Maramures in Northern Romania was shot dead with his own gun and found in a forest gorge. He was responding to a tip-off about illegal logging. The married father of three was the second forest ranger killed in just over a month which raised fears for those whose job is to protect the Romanian forests. Raducu Gorcioaia, who has been working to preserve Romania´s forests for many years, was found dead in his car, a short distance away from an illegal logging site in Pascani forest district in the north-east part of the country. He has suffered serious head injuries reportedly caused by an axe. In the past five years alone, there have been six murders, and over 650 attacks have been registered by the Romanian Forestry Union.

The danger of the Romanian forest mafia is also confirmed by the head of a Romanian environmental NGO, Agent Green, Gabriel Paun: "The forest mafia has tried to kill me several times. Four years ago, I was investigating close to Retezat National Park and a bunch of thugs attacked me and tried to kill me. They broke my ribs, cracked my head open and broke my hand before I managed to escape by running. We are deeply concerned that forest rangers and activists like us are being killed while investigating illegal logging in Romania."

Romania is home to more than 525,000 hectares of virgin primary forests which is more than any other EU country outside Scandinavia. 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. Romanian government has been long criticized for neither having an up-to-date inventory of where these unique areas of wilderness are located nor adequate systems in place to protect them. Environmental organizations also point out that even the authorised logging practices often contradict EU laws on nature protection. Yet, the main threat to these unique ecosystems is the large-scale illegal logging. According to a scientific report, some 20 million cubic meters of wood are illegally cut each year from Romanian forests - slightly more than the amount of legally felled trees. Some of it ends up in the European market.

The recent murders of the two forests rangers have provoked a strong reaction of the civic society. In November 2019, thousands of Romanian have marched in Bucharest and other cities to protest against illegal tree cutting.  European civil society organisations sent an open letter to Romania's President Klaus Iohannis. The letter calls for an unbiased investigation, demands the Romanian government dismantle the timber mafia, and asks for assured protection for those who work to defend forests. A petition demanding justice for the murdered rangers was signed by over 100,000 people in just a few days. The case of Liviu Pop´s murder was first dealt with in by the prosecuter´s office in Maramures where Pop lived. However, a connection was suspected between the responsible prosecutor, the suspected murderers and the profiteers of the illegal business. As the court in Bucharest is believed to be impartial to the illegal organisations, many demanded that the investigations continue there instead. The pressure was strong enough: in November 2019, the Prosecutor General decided that the case would be transferred from the Maramures Court to the Romanian Supreme Court in Bucharest.

 “We are happy that Raducu Gorcioaia and Liviu Pop as well as their families and friends will now have the chance for a fair prosecution of the case and therefore more justice. Nevertheless, the problem in Romania’s forests has not yet been solved. As long as corruption, mafia-like timber trading, and illegal logging are common in Romania, foresters and conservationists are not safe. Romania urgently needs to consistently tackle illegal practices and corruption in the forestry sector. This is the only way to protect the forest and the people in Romania who are committed to its protection”, says Gabriel Schwaderer, Executive Director of EuroNatur.

Meanwhile the fight to save the primeval forests of Romania continues. A little success can be celebrated; the Romanian Supreme Court has recently forbidden any further exploitation of the ancient forests in the Domogled-Valea Cernei National Park.

In February 2020, the European Commission threatened Romania with legal action for failing to tackle illegal logging and not doing enough to protect some of Europe’s largest unspoilt forests. It followed complaints submitted to the Commission last year by several environmental groups: Agent Green, ClientEarth and EuroNatur.

Further reading

ENG 03/04/2020 Success for Romania’s virgin forests: a ban on felling in the Domogled National Park

ENG 20/03/2020 Video: Romania's virgin forests ravaged by 'wood mafia' (Euronews)

ENG 13/02/2020 Brussels threatens Romania over illegal logging in primary forests (Euronews)

ENG 04/11/2019 Romanians protest over illegal logging and murders (BBC)

ENG 21/09/2019 Romania forest murder as battle over logging turns violent (BBC)

ENG 07/03/2018 Protecting Romania’s primeval forests (the Ecologist)


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