Virgin forests in Central-Eastern Europe are the last remaining ones on the continent, yet they are being mercilessly torn down. Part of this multi-billion euro industry is a mafia-like system; Austrian timber companies are right at the heart of it
(This article was originally published by Addendum )
“Just watch out if you go into the forest on your own. It can be dangerous in there. Strange things can happen. Some people have never made it out again.” That is what they said to the lanky man in the glasses. He was threatening to tell all, to lift the lid on the whole system of illegally harvested timber and the trade in it. He himself was part of that system, but he was prepared to get out of it and risk everything as a result.
A company caught up in its own chipping machine
The transformation of trees into boards involves a process of gigantic dimensions. Columns of articulated lorries deliver the logs to huge timber yards day and night. Here they are measured and assessed, and then they are flung onto a conveyor, stripped of their bark, and fed into the sawmill machine. 40 tree trunks every minute, 2400 every hour, 28800 every shift. Romania’s biggest processor, a colossus in the sector, has an insatiable hunger for wood. And that processor is a secretive Austrian man: Gerald Schweighofer.
Back in 2018, Schweighofer staff stood accused of having formed an organised criminal group and being involved in illegal logging, tax fraud and unfair commercial practices. “Investigations are still ongoing; we are assisting the authorities and will not be making any further comment,” says Michael Proschek-Hauptmann, since 2017 the public face of change at Schweighofer. Responsible for compliance and sustainability, Proschek-Hauptmann is an acknowledged expert in environmental issues and has made the journey from Vienna specially in order to give Addendum a guided tour of one of the Schweighofer mills in the Transylvanian town of Sebeș.
Until recently, any visits by journalists ended at the gate. It had even been known for activists to be pepper-sprayed by security staff. But the newly decreed watchword is openness. For the Austrian company is under serious suspicion of involvement in the illegal logging of the last remaining major contiguous areas of forest in Europe. Schweighofer has been stripped of its prestigious Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of sustainably produced timber. The 110-page report of the FSC investigation, which has been seen by Addendum, refers to “clear and convincing evidence” that Schweighofer was “involved systematically […] directly and indirectly, in the trade of timber which has been harvested and/or handled in violation of existing laws and regulations” and had associated “with individuals and companies with criminal and corrupt backgrounds”.
Tearing virgin forests down
And this when what is at stake in Romania is a unique natural paradise, home to wolves, bears and lynxes, as well as to a host of plants that have long since died out elsewhere. And while climate activists are trying to reduce CO2 emissions through flight-shaming and demands for driving bans in cities, a single 150-year-old beech tree absorbs nine tonnes of CO2 – enough to offset a journey of 56,000 kilometres by car. Yet these and even older trees are being indiscriminately felled. For these trees are also a business – a business that engenders greed that in turn leads to violence, threats and in one instance even attempted murder.
With the aid of satellite images, Global Forest Watch has calculated that 317,000 hectares of Romanian forest were lost to logging between 2001 and 2017. That’s the equivalent of 444,000 football pitches. Half of these trees were in national parks or conservation areas and were hundreds of years old. “While the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest has been horrifying people for years, hardly anyone realises that Europe contains remnants of virgin forests that are just as important. The fact that the majority of these are on our doorstep, in the Carpathians, and are under threat remains an untold story,” says David Gehl from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a US NGO investigating the predatory exploitation of nature throughout the world. The EIA reports accuse Schweighofer of having been the “biggest receiver of illegal timber” and having “lied about the source of its products for more than ten years”.
The arrival of the Austrians
No history of the depletion of the Romanian forests would be complete without the role of Austrian businesses. The names of these companies are not well known to the general public, even though they are world market leaders in their respective branches of the global timber exploitation chain.
The giants in the timber sector must have thought they’d hit the jackpot when they first discovered a new Eldorado for themselves: Romania, one of the poorest countries in the EU. One of those giants was Schweighofer. From 2002 onwards it started selling its sawmills in Austria, using its profits (reportedly in nine figures) to build vastly bigger structures in Romania. Romanian politicians welcomed the arrival of the Austrians. Schweighofer now has more than 3000 staff, a turnover of 762 million euros and five factories in the country, producing pellets and sawn, glued and profiled timber that it sells throughout the world.
There is also the Kronospan company. With an annual turnover of more than two billion euros, it is the world’s biggest manufacturer of wood-based panels, numbering Ikea among its customers. Together with their Swiss sister company, Swiss Krono, the Kaindls are one of the main players in the Carpathians as a whole. And finally there is the Egger company, a global concern with 18 sites in eight different countries.
Once they had staked their various claims and signed contracts, and the notoriously corrupt Romanian state forestry company, Romsilva, had issued their logging licences, they could get started – since the arrival of the Austrians in 2003, some 260 million Romanian trees have been felled.
Threatened and beaten up
“We do not kill virgin forests,” Schweighofer’s sustainability manager, Proschek-Hauptmann, stresses right at the start. He nimbly dodges every attempt to raise the subject of the company’s past, preferring to present reports, show figures, point to the company’s specially developed GPS truck-tracking system. This system is supposed to verify the source of every single tree and substantiate Schweighofer’s apparent reformation into a company that no longer accepts timber from national parks.
The longer we listen to him the more inclined we are to believe him. Or would be, at least, if it weren’t for the men who risked their lives to prove how the Austrian timber giant conducted itself before it adopted its apparent transparency. Andrei Ciurcanu is one such man. Powerfully built, he could have been a logger himself had he not decided to dedicate himself to tracking down the people who were destroying his homeland forests. Ciurcanu spent many hours struggling through the wilderness, many days on the lookout, and many months documenting the manoeuvres he had witnessed. He also made many of the horrifying films showing today’s moonscapes where forests of mighty giants once stood.
He and Gabriel Paun, his boss at the environmental protection NGO Agent Green, were threatened and beaten up by persons unknown. On one occasion the brake cable on their car was cut. Another time Paun was sent a virus attack that wiped six gigabytes of data from his computer and then prevented him from re-starting it. “Right from the start, Schweighofer built its entire business model on the legal purchase of illegal timber. They knew it, they tolerated it, and sometimes they actually encouraged it. And it’s not just me saying that: it has been confirmed by investigators from the Organised Crime Unit,” said Ciurcanu, speaking in Bucharest. “And now, all of a sudden, they want us to believe they’ve turned ‘green’?”
Where does the timber really come from?
Ciurcanu points to his most recent investigations which, he says, show that only the Schweighofer modus operandi has changed. Many suppliers do not deliver the timber to the sawmills straight from a commercial forest, but instead take it to storage yards. There they are able to mix legally and illegally felled timber together, before it is declared clean and supplied to the timber giant. In the case of Schweighofer, he says, this allows them to bypass the GPS truck-tracking system, since that only records the journey from the storage yard to the sawmill. Moreover, Schweighofer continues to purchase timber from suppliers who log in national parks.
Proschek-Hauptmann claims to have everything in hand where the controversial timber storage yards are concerned, however. “These are strictly regulated facilities: they keep registers, they record deliveries, and everything can be checked.” According to their own figures, nearly half of Schweighofer’s Romanian timber does not come direct from the forests but from storage yards like these. For this reason, the EIA says it is naïve of Austrian companies in this often criminally corrupt environment to suddenly put their faith in the honesty of their Romanian suppliers. Proschek-Hauptmann says, “We have developed internal control systems and introduced a requirement for every storage yard operator to be visited by us at least once a year.” Yet even now, the company’s GPS tracking system is unable to monitor the source of each individual log in half of its Romanian timber.
Little action, much wood
It is late now in Sebeș, the small Transylvanian town that is host to Schweighofer and Kronospan companies. Matthias Schickhofer is in town. He is a photographer with several books to his name. In them he portrays the beauty of Europe’s last remaining virgin forests and describes the threat they face. Working with Euronatur, a German conservation foundation, he has been focusing on Romania for a long time now. For even though two-thirds of the surviving virgin forests of Central Europe are located in Romania – as much as 200,000 hectares – only about one-tenth of this amount is under any kind of protection.
To illustrate the problem, Schickhofer opens Google Earth on his computer. He flies over the densely forested Carpathian Mountains on his screen and zooms in. Where just a few years ago there was still dense beech forest, there are now huge gaps, looking like brown stains in the midst of the green. “All of this cleared land lies within national parks or the Natura 2000 nature protection network,” he says. “The state forestry authorities seize on any small-scale bark beetle infestations or storm damage as an excuse to clear whole hillsides one after another.” The brown patches used to be just scars on the forest; now they are all that is left – a single brown patch of bare land.
“Brussels should be exerting real pressure to stop the conglomerate of state forestry departments, old networks and corrupt clans destroying the last remnants of these virgin forests. It worked in Poland, where the European Court of Justice stopped the logging of the Białowieża Forest by threatening heavy penalties.”
When cancer came to town
Ana Haţegan is standing by a busy road, with articulated lorries laden with enormous tree trunks thundering by. They’re heading for the gates of Kronospan. From its chimneys, dense clouds of smoke rise into the sky. This is where the company produces formaldehyde, used for gluing the chipboard. Above a certain concentration, the chemical is classified by the WHO as a carcinogen.
“Our campaign group has been fighting this for more than ten years: we’ve organised protests that half the town took part in. This is a residential area, there are children living here, and we have no reason to trust the official measurements,” Haţegan explains. She goes on to say that Kronospan was allowed to build its factory, which produces 30,000 tonnes of formaldehyde every year, without any kind of environmental impact assessment. When Romania was taken to the EU Court of Justice for this breach, it felt at first like a partial victory. But then Kronospan announced it was planning to double its formaldehyde production in Sebeș: “The air was already terrible back then, and we went back onto the streets. We filed lawsuits and demanded independent measurements.”
What Haţegan is describing is the exhausting battle of ordinary citizens against a global concern that has the backing of local politicians. She shows us documents from the district hospital. These seem to show there has been a surge in the number of respiratory complaints and that a large proportion of local residents are affected. Further investigations revealed that Sebeș also has more cancer cases than the district average. “You keep fighting, you obtain documents,” says the petite Ana Haţegan, “you read up on everything so you at least stand a chance of getting complex procedures started, and still you don’t get anywhere. They told me they’d need a whole year’s worth of independent measurements that would cost 10,000 euros. Where am I supposed to find that kind of money?.”
“We will kill you”
Matthias Schickhofer has been watching the entrance to the Kronospan plant the whole time Haţegan has been speaking, and he is appalled. A long queue of articulated lorries has formed, all of them full of logs, mostly thick beech and oak, all destined for the company’s enormous storage yard. “Logs like this have almost certainly come from old, quite possibly virgin, forests,” he explains. “Kronospan claim they don’t use any timber from virgin forests or protected areas, but when I look at this storage yard I am extremely suspicious. One lorry driver just told me that the big beeches on his truck have come from the Tarcu mountains – a Natura 2000 protected area.”
To truly grasp the scale of the illegal logging, it is worth looking at unpublished figures leaked to activists at the end of 2018. They come from the classified Romanian forest inventory and show that some 38.6 million cubic metres of timber was taken from the forests between 2014 and 2018. The quantity legally permitted under forest utilisation plans was just 18 million cubic metres. This means that the total amount felled was twice the legal limit and that 20 million cubic metres of it was what can only be called mafia timber.
We need to find someone who can put this into context. Someone who knows the system from the inside. Waiting for us between the trees is a tall, lanky man with glasses: Mihail Hanzu, a qualified forestry engineer who used to be Forestry Inspector for a municipality near Sibiu. What he experienced there is the story of Romania’s forests: “It took two months for me to become suspicious, four to become certain, and six for them to threaten to kill me.” Hanzu’s mistake? He lifted the lid on the trade’s most important secret: how illegally felled trees are turned into legal timber, and how those involved can make millions from doing so.
“It was a whole system, from the mayor to my colleagues in the forestry department. I found more than 50 ways they were going about their fraud. The most common one was by deliberately understating the volumes. They mark a tree for felling. Write in the documents that it measures 18 metres, even if it actually measures 40, and that it has a diameter of 25 centimetres, even if it is actually 50. There is a great deal of money in that difference, and that money flows into their system. The municipality issues a licence for the logging, the companies sell the timber to middlemen, who store it in their timber yards and later deliver it to the sawmills along with all the necessary legal declarations.”
Hanzu was horrified when he realised the scale of the fraud. He secretly crept into the forests, took measurements and discovered huge areas that had been illegally cleared. In the end he refused to go on signing the documents covering up the scam. “There we were, in the forest, standing right in front of illegally felled trees. Me, my boss, another forestry inspector and the local police officer. I said I wasn’t going to have anything more to do with it.” His colleague turned to him and hissed: “If you don’t do it, I’ll find a couple of gypsies who’ll kill you in the forest.”
The poisoned forestry minister
Further threats followed. Until finally, Hanzu handed in his notice and went to the investigators, intending to reveal everything and put a stop to the system, which was estimated to have siphoned off eight million euros in a single decade in his small municipality alone. The criminal investigators had a camera in their office that was recording everything. Suddenly a woman came in and told them to continue the interview in another office. So they went out into the corridor, where Hanzu and the official were alone and unobserved. Then the official said to him, “Get out of here!” By chance, Hanzu saw an anonymous letter addressed to the Forestry Minister, defaming him in true Securitate style as “a danger to society” and “mentally ill”. It was only later that everything Hanzu had alleged was proven to be true.
When we ask him if this system is just an isolated example, he pauses briefly before replying: “If this isn’t a mafia, what is? It’s an organised crime network that is destroying huge swathes of forest, is making itself extremely rich in the process and has long since passed the point where it could be stopped.” Mihail Hanzu is a whistleblower, someone who has told all because he loves the forest. Asked about the role played by the Austrian companies in this system, he finds it hard to believe their assurances. “They’re the ones pumping the money into this system. They couldn’t stop it now, even if they wanted to. But these companies knew what was going on here when they came to Romania.”
Anyone posing a threat to this system needs to be prepared for the worst, whether they are an environmental campaigner, a forestry inspector… or even a government minister. At the beginning of January 2018 the Romanian forestry minister, Doina Pană, suddenly resigned out of the blue. Until then she had been trying to take rigorous action against the illegal logging trade. It was said she had suddenly fallen ill, but later the former minister explained how, in the autumn of 2017, she had suddenly felt more and more unwell, had palpitations, how the doctors had been at a loss to explain it. It was only after her resignation that comprehensive tests and a toxicological report delivered an incredible verdict: the minister had probably been poisoned with high doses of mercury over a long period of time.
In an interview with the online platform Ziar de Cluj, the politician, now fully recovered, said it had to have been the timber mafia behind the attempt on her life. The new conditions she had imposed had made illegal logging more difficult and the cartels had made “huge losses” as a result. She also points to the monopoly law she had introduced in an attempt to restrain Schweighofer: “This change alone cost Schweighofer 150 million euros per year. But I still went ahead with the new measures, even though they were using every means at their disposal to discredit me. But I never thought they’d go that far.” Schweighofer told Addendum her allegations are “absurd” and that it reserves the right to take “legal steps”. Investigations are still ongoing.
Importing timber from abroad
Meanwhile, the Austrian giants in Romania have a problem: the timber is running out. Schweighofer claims it is already having to import more than half the timber it needs, and puts the blame on Romanian bureaucracy. Activists, however, suspect that the real reason is that media pressure, stricter legal regulation and the ongoing police investigations are making it harder for Schweighofer to go on obtaining timber from various sources. At all events, the raw material is now being imported in large quantities from countries such as Slovakia or the Czech Republic, for example.
“But the tracking system developed by Schweighofer for Romania does not work at all with imports, which means that, yet again, it is almost impossible to trace the source of the timber. That is worrying, since large-scale logging is currently going on in Slovakia, too,” warns Johannes Zahnen, a forestry expert with the WWF. He cannot understand why the 2013 EU Timber Regulation is still not having any effect, given that it was supposed to stop the illegal timber trade in the EU altogether. “Various NGOs provide a lot of tipoffs, but even then, very little is done. EU states are only implementing the Regulation very patchily.”
Until fairly recently Ukraine, too, was considered an important supplier country. The tracks of the Ukrainian railway run practically to the doors of the Schweighofer and Egger works in Rădăuți, in the north of Romania. The environmental organisation Earthsight discovered that Schweighofer alone was taking delivery of 80 railway wagons full of timber every single day. The Kaindl family recently opened a new chipboard factory in Hungary, right on its border with Ukraine.
But in the Ukrainian Carpathians, too, there are now enormous deforested areas. The Ukrainian state forestry authority is proving to be just as corrupt as its Romanian counterpart. Its former head was especially creative when it came to taking bribes. “In order to keep the timber well below the market price, foreign companies were willing to make payments to letter-box companies registered in Belize and Panama in the name of his wife,” says Tara Ganesh of Earthsight. “The head of the forestry authority is accused of having pocketed bribes from four timber companies to the tune of 13.6 million euros between 2011 and 2014.”
As a result of public pressure, Ukraine imposed an export ban on logs. This posed huge problems for purchasers, who responded by hiring lobbyists to put pressure on Kiev at the EU level to lift the export ban. “Ghost trains” with false papers and full loads of logs found their way across the border with Romania at night. And a forestry director was caught red-handed offering police officers $10,000 “tribute money” to turn a blind eye to illegal logging activities. Since only Ukrainian firewood and sawn wood is exempt from the export ban, exports of these are rising sharply. Timber of higher quality is deliberately being falsely declared as this legal, lower grade wood. The criminal structures behind this activity have become so strong that they involve actors at all levels – from lawyers to bankers, and from forestry directors to customs and state railway officials.
Anyone who wants to see the consequences of all this in Romania would do well to hitch a lift in a Dacia Duster driving far down into a valley along ever-narrower roads. The road is bumpy and its verges are covered in plastic beer bottles: “From the loggers,” says Horea Petrehus, a red-haired man. He and his friends often make the long drive into the valley and walk up through the last spruce forest to what they call the apocalypse.
From here a vast area of deforestation comes into view. For as far as the eye can see, all that remains is undergrowth and tree stumps, nothing more. “Is this what Herr Schweighofer likes to call ‘sustainable’?” asks Horea, and tells us what he has seen here: “We’re in the Apuseni mountains, in the valley of the bears. But the bears are long gone. Eight years ago some storm damage provided the excuse. Men with a lot of money turned up, and the loggers soon followed. In the end there were thousands of lorries, all headed for Schweighofer. And this is what’s left. There hasn’t been any tidying up, and even after all these years, there hasn’t been any reforestation either,” says Horea, a forestry manager.
Horea has brought us here after Michael Proschek-Hauptmann praised Schweighofer’s sustainability policies during our factory visit. Where forests once soaked up the rainwater like a sponge and steadily released it back into the soil, there are now frequent flash floods everywhere. Hundreds of locals who used to make a living from gathering and selling mushrooms have lost their source of income. “It is immoral for companies like Schweighofer to claim they don’t know anything about all this.” There is nothing feigned about Horea’s anger. It is the anger of a man who knows the forests and sees them disappearing before his very eyes. “If Schweighofer is now claiming to have changed, I certainly haven’t seen any sign of it. They should start by restoring what they have destroyed, there are hundreds of sites in Romania like this one.” Confronted with these accusations, Proschek-Hauptmann says that a large proportion of the area has been reforested by the local forestry authority.
In the last virgin forest
The following day, activist Matthias Schickhofer is marching through the Arpasul valley in the Făgăraș mountains with a group of international scientists who are attending a conference on virgin forest protection. It is an area untouched by human hand, an area that has been left to its own devices for thousands of years. Scientists from the University of Prague have been carrying out long-term studies in the valley as part of the biggest virgin forest research project in Europe. They are seeking to understand how these untouched forests cope with challenges such as wind and drought. At a time of climate change, these are important questions.
Only a part of this wild valley is protected, and the scientists fear for their research sites. The complex ecological processes in natural forests are still not fully understood, and the virgin forests in which they can be studied have almost disappeared from Europe. “Everything here is connected to everything else. Every fallen tree, every branch and every fungus has its own function within a complex ecosystem. The mighty ancient trees absorb huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so they stabilise our climate. Here in the Carpathians they are the green lungs of Europe,” Schickhofer explains.
He and the scientists are trying to catalogue as many virgin forests as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to secure protected status for them. But it is a race against time: in the meantime, the state forestry service can issue logging licences here at any time, and this is exactly what is happening every day in Romania’s national parks and Natura 2000 areas, where only small areas of forest are strictly protected. Progress on the virgin forest catalogue currently covers about 30,000 hectares – not even half of one per cent of the total Romanian forests. The scientists complain of bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of interest on the part of the Forestry Ministry. No other country in the EU has a comparable forest treasure.
On the way back it becomes clear why the scientists are so worried. The path is soon deeply rutted with thick bulldozer tracks, timber storage yards appear, cable winches lead high up into the mountains, and the ground is covered with the thick, mighty trunks of felled trees – here too, the loggers have already staked their claims.
This article is published in collaboration with the European Data Journalism Network and it is released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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