The conflict about illegally logged timber in Romania has already seen various stages of escalation. Now science has also been caught in the cross fire and misused for political reasons.
Forests and rangers are the victims
Illegal logging has been an issue in Romania, one of Europe´s biggest timber producers, for decades. There are many players involved in this on-going tragedy. From Romanian politics and a mafia-like criminal system to European timber companies and the FSC. The victims are some of the largest old-growth forests left in Europe and the people trying to protect them. Not even National Parks and Natura 2000 can stop this destruction.
The conflict has even claimed lives. Within the last decade, forest rangers have been attacked 600 times and seven rangers have been murdered. The conflict once again escalated into violence in the end of 2019, when two forest rangers were murdered. This finally triggered a reaction by the EU in the beginning of 2020. It urged the Romanian government to enforce EU law against illegal logging. However, this only meant that Romania has to submit a letter adressing its shortcomings, which is still under review.
Scientific studies to map Romania´s forests
Now science, the beacon of neutrality, also gets caught in this conflict. NGOs realized that they can only protect Romanian old-growth forests if their exact location is known. Hence, Greenpeace Romania in 2017 comissioned a study to map remaining potential old-growth forests in Romania. The University for Sustainable Development Eberswalde carried out the study. After its release, Euronatur tasked the authors of this study to carry out a more elaborate analysis based on this study. This evaluation was published in 2019 under the name ‘PRIMOFARO‘.
The Greenpeace study identified almost 3000 km² of potential primary forest. The more extensive PRIMOFARO report even identified potential primary and old-growth forest on 5250 km². This means that Romania has the largest area of close-to-nature forest in the EU outside of Scandinavia. Nevertheless, the scientific report also found that 45% of virgin forest, which were identified in the ‘Pin matra’ forest inventory in 2005, are not intact anymore. This even includes forests in Natura 2000 sites – 63% of all identified forests are located in Natura 2000 sites. This proves that disappearing virgin forests are a huge problem in Romania despite their size.
The results are impressive and shocking at the same time. On the one hand, significantly more intact forest landscapes have been preserved until today than expected; on the other hand, almost half of the primary forests identified fifteen years ago in the Pin Matra study have been destroyed in the meantime.
Science is neutral, its use is not
As a consequence of the results, EuroNatur, its Romanian NGO partner Agent Green and the authors of the report ‘call on both the EU Commission and the Romanian government to take urgent action to improve protection of this unique European natural heritage.’
In response to the PRIMOFARO report, the State Secretary of the Romanian Ministry of Environment commissioned a scientific analysis of the report from the Transylvania University of Brasov. The analysis voices harsh criticism over the methodology used. It concludes that “we have serious doubts regarding the methodology used to achieve the assumed purpose (i.e. to identify old-growth and primary forests and to delimit them from some managed ones).”
Scientists go head-to-head
The reviewers of the PRIMOFARO report responded to this criticism with an open letter to the University of Brasov. In their eyes, the university is politically instrumentalized to undermine foreign intervention into Romanian forestry. PRIMOFARO itself lists several limitations as it is an analysis solely based on remote sensing. Hence, the authors have concluded that an additional on-site evaluation is necessary. Nevertheless, further actions have not been taken so far and it seems that cooperation of the involved stakeholders is unlikely.
However, the reviewers not accept the harsh criticism by the University of Brasov. They express that the rebuttal “may not meet the scientific standards”. In their opinion, the rebuttal makes claims regarding the value of managed forests and the protection of virgin forests in Romania that are not proven.
In turn, the University of Brasov issued a public reply to the open letter. It criticizes that the report calls for direct action on the basis of a remote sensing study. In their view, this contradicts the conclusion of PRIMOFARO that the study must first be “scientifically verified”.
But there are not only differences between the two sides. They both publicly back the protection of the remaning virgin and old-growth forests of Romania. And both see the study as a first step, which should be followed up by on-site evaluations. This makes it all the sadder to see that instead of cooperation, conflict is arising.
We are therefore troubled to see ideological and non-factual rhetoric put forward with the TUB forest expert group report. We are afraid that the Transylvanian University of Brasov might not be defending its independence against third-party interests with the needed vigor.
National Catalogue ignores scientific evidence
Another sign that the Romanian government is ignoring scientific evidence is the ‘National Catalogue of Virgin and Quasi-Virgin forests’. It is supposed to maps all virgin and quasi-virgin forests in Romania. Areas can be included by submitting a scientific study about the area. Since the introduction in 2016, NGOs, universities and scientists have submitted studies for 300 km². However, only 20% of them have been approved. 30% have been rejected, 35% returned for elaborations and 13% even got lost. A report by EuroNatur suggests that the authorities intentionally reject suitable areas or slow down the process to continue logging.
Science must remain objective
It is a pity to see how strong the stranglehold of the Romanian logging mafia is. Not only the government, but also scientific institutions get pulled into this dirty business. While objective scientific criticism of every study is beneficial and necessary, science should never become the pawn of political and economic powerbrokers. We can only hope that increasing international pressure and the intervention of the EU will finally end illegal logging in Romania. If the EU cannot put an end to logging in primeval forests, the new Biodiversity Strategy, which demands to ‘strictly protect all the EU’s remaining primary and old-growth forests’, will prove another toothless paper tiger.