Romania’s brutal ‘forest mafia’ kills environmental defenders

The recent murder of two Romanian forest rangers highlights the urgent need to protect Europe’s environmental defenders and to save some of Europe’s last virgin forests.

Last week, thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Romanian capital Bucharest to voice their outrage at the recent murder of two forest workers combating illegal logging in Romania, home to two-thirds of Europe’s old-growth forests.

Forest ranger Liviu Pop was shot and killed in mid-October while responding to a tip off about illegal logging in the mountainous region of Maramures. He left behind a wife and three children.

Pop’s murder occurred scarcely a month after fellow forest ranger Raducu Gorcioaia, who had been reportedly hit in the head with an axe, was found dead in his car near an illegal logging site in Pascani forest district. The two murders bring the total death toll of forest rangers in Romania to six in the past few years.

The Silva Trade Union Federation, Romania’s forestry union, has reported that, in recent years, some 650 violent incidents have occurred against forest workers, including physical assaults, death threats and destruction of property.

Forest mafia

Gabriel Paun, the head of Agent Green, an environmental group, has been the target of such violence. He accuses the “forest mafia” of attempting to kill him close to the Retezat National Park a few years ago, when a gang of thugs jumped him, broke his ribs, cracked his head open and broke one of his hands, before he managed to escape.  

“What justice is this when there is hard evidence [against] those who tried hard to kill me in the forest and, almost five years later, they are still free?” he told Meta. “There is a lot at stake because Romania is home to the last, vast old-growth and primeval forest cover [in Europe] – but they are simply becoming chipboard for furniture,” Paun was quoted as saying.

“What good are the policies protecting Europe’s remaining old-growth forests, if the people protecting them are in danger?” asks Kelsey Perlman, a forest and climate campaigner at Fern, a Brussels-based organisation dedicated to protecting forests and the rights of people depending on them, and a member of the EEB network.

“The EU and its member states must urgently tackle the corruption which is destroying forests, as well as peoples’ lives.”

“In Europe, as elsewhere, local people on the frontlines of the fight against deforestation hold detailed knowledge rooted in personal experiences of their forests. Their work benefits us all, and they must be empowered to continue it,” she adds.

Dereliction of duty

Fern, along with more than 50 other NGOs, sent a joint letter to Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis. The signatories highlights how the deaths of those who put their personal safety on the line in order to defend Romania’s old-growth forests is unforgivable, and urge action to protect Romania’s forestry workers and its forests.

In addition, ‘We Move Europe’, a citizen mobilisation initiative, has published a petition demanding an impartial, transparent investigation into Liviu Pop’s death. At the time of writing, it had been signed by nearly 130,000 people.

Although Romania is home to Europe’s last large virgin forests, these are dwindling rapidly. Between 1990 and 2011 alone, 366,000 hectares of forest was illegally logged in the country.

The situation has scarcely improved since then. Between 2013 and 2018, logging exceeded the allowances in the country’s forest management plans by more than 20million cubic metres of wood per year, according to a government report leaked by Agent Green. Moreover, the origin of over two-fifths of Romanian timber is unknown, according to research carried out by the EU.

To put the scale of the disaster in context, Greenpeace Romania estimates that Romania is losing as much as three hectares of its total forest cover every hour as a result of degradation, illegal and legal logging.

Global problem

“Unfortunately, the killing in Romania was no isolated incident,” observes Nick Meynen, the EEB’s policy officer for environmental and economic justice.

“Most murders happen in tropical rainforests, such as the Amazon, but defending the environment is a dangerous job in Europe too.”

From the Philippines and India to Brazil and Colombia, and many other countries, more than 160 environmental defenders were murdered in 2018 and thousands more were criminalised and hounded, according to a report by environmental justice organisation Global Witness.

The Environmental Justice Atlas, in which the EEB is involved, records and highlights not only environmental conflicts but also many of cases of abuse targeted at indigenous communities and environmental defenders.

“We urgently need to protect the protectors better. They are the guardians of the ‘machines’ that give us the oxygen we need for our survival,” Meynen urges.