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Romania's virgin forests ravaged by 'wood mafia'

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Romania's virgin forests ravaged by 'wood mafia'
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As a notorious institution of the criminal underworld, the mafia have their fingers in many different pies.

Through friends in government, threats against those who threaten, and daylight robbery, organised crime can drag all facets of a nation into the depths of corruption and crime.

But one Romanian industry currently plagued by corruption, intimidation and violence may come as a surprise: logging.

While some would associate gangsters of old with bootlegging, drug dealing or gambling dens, the illegal logging activities of the so-called wood mafia are threatening to devastate hectares of ancient woodlands and the lives of the people who live and work on them.

A different kind of organised crime

Deep in the Carpathian mountains of Northern Romania stands one of the last virgin forests in Europe.

Left undisturbed for millenia, the woodland exhibits unique ecological features gained over years of peaceful growth.

The fragile ecosystem plays host to myriad flora and fauna, the sounds of tweeting birds, howling wolfs, and rustling branches float on the frozen breeze.

But it's changing.

Now another sound has joined the harmony: the unmistakable buzz of a chainsaw.

Suceava County on the border with Ukraine to the north boasts the greatest land mass of forests in Romania.

As a result, it has been the region worst-affected by large-scale wood trafficking, claiming not only the lives of the ancient trees that inhabit it, but also the lives of those who live there.

One forest worker, who requested anonymity for his own safety, explained the scam: "The entrepreneur goes into a bidding session organised by the forest district, and buys a certain volume of wood."

"He then arranges things with the engineer who goes into the woods and marks some trees. And there's the black market, those trees shouldn't be in any inventory.

"In terms of volume, the quantity is bigger than initially declared. And in the books, the volumes will be falsified. The forester supervises, and not only that, he also sells wood on the black market."

Poisoning communities

While the Romanian Unit on Organized Crime and Terrorism is investigating the case, the parties involved have sought to the play the blame game.

Fingers are being pointing at a vast network of conspirators involving all sectors of the wood industry: traders, transporters, forestry personnel, and civil servants, but as is often the case, one side says the other side is at fault, and vice versa.

Cristian Gafincu who heads up the Forest District Unit in Moldovia told Euronews: "We can’t suspect some people wanted to blame us, but they went into the forest ahead of us and they chopped the trees down saying that it was us, the foresters, who prepared those trees for illegal logging. This has created a trend in the media, who are blaming the foresters."

Nevertheless, according to Romsilva, Romania's national forest management body,185 foresters have been physically assaulted since 2014.

Six more were killed.

While the violence is boiled down to personal vendettas by those in charge of the forestry office, those who dare to denounce the illegal logging cartels call it a reprisal.

It's a situation that poisons the whole community.

Brothers Ilie and Dimitri Bucsa work in the construction industry and used to raise trout. But not anymore.

They say, the fishpond water was soiled by mud brought by illegally felled wood dumped on the river banks. When they tried to complain, they were attacked.

"We filed complaints and some wood was confiscated from local businessmen. They threw cooling liquid in the water

upstream, it got here and killed all the fish," Ilie said.

"They threatened us and beat us up. They caught us up the road, and hit us on the head with clubs."

Going against the grain

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 the stolen wood is believed to eventually end up on the European market.

One logger, Gheorghe, used to work with the traffickers before turning against them.

"I worked for five companies, big ones. For one tree, my commission was about 10 euros. I stopped because I realised it was wrong. And I wasn't making anything. they were earning millions, and I was paid per cubic meter of logging," he said

Illegal logging is big business in Romania: it's estimated at 1 billion euros per year.

Those who wish to try and make an honest living in the forests find the financial strain too much.

One of them, Tiberiu Bosutar, lost his business after trying to play by the rules.

Last year, he wanted to demonstrate it was impossible to be honest in the Romanian wood industry.

"The price of wood in Romania is artificially high right now and to keep a production unit going you also need some cheaper, illegal wood," he said,

"Together with eight local entrepreneurs, we tried an experiment. We bought 100 cubic meters of wood and after covering all the costs we were left with only half the money we invested.

"It is impossible to keep a business like this going without using illegal wood."

Now he spends his life gathering evidence.

He installed cameras on the main road through his village, along which all logging trucks from neighboring forests have to pass.

Using a mobile application, which tracks vehicles transporting wood, he reported dozens of infractions to the police.

"You enter the vehicle plate number, and you can check if the transport you saw had legal papers or not. And you can check where the permits were issued," he said.

In an ideal world, he would have cameras placed at forest access points.

That, he says, could help put an end to the shady practices masked by the silence of the ancient forest.

However, even hard evidence may not be enough to catch the perpetrators.

According to Mihai Găşpărel, Chief Inspector of the Suceava Forest Guard: "The most delicate aspect of illegal logging is when it occurs with the support of or under the appearance of legality.

"Wood can be laundered by doubling the loads, falsifying documents, forging harvesting permits for areas where there is not enough wood. There are also cases when the foresters do not behave properly.

The problem is that these kinds of acts are hard to prove."

Working "hand in hand"

Last February, the European Commission put Romania on notice over illegal logging in the country, calling Bucharest to put an end to the traficking, or face sanctions.

However, this may not be enough to tackle the issue at the heart of the wood trafficking scam.

The Bucsa brothers continue to receive death threats. Fear is never far away, but they won't stay silent.

"We are afraid, of course," said Ilie. "But we continue to complain, and we hope somebody will come to solve this. Because here in Romania the mafia is big, and everyone is connected, all the way up to the state authorities. They all work hand in hand."

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