The role of Austria in destruction of WILDRivers in the Balkans and Romania

Austria is a country which is proudly marketing its nature as a tourism highlight. It is actively working towards the 2% Wilderness target and the six National Parks are best practice examples in many respects when it comes to nature conservation. The Wetlands of the Salzach, Mur and along the Danube are being restored with millions of Euros. New protected areas and Wilderness are being established.

But Austria also has another face just like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While Austria has started to realize that nature is worth protecting and is investing millions in protection and restoration projects, Austrian companies and banks are playing a crucial and active role in the destruction of Europe´s last old growth forest and wild rivers.

Nature Conservationists estimate that during the last 10 years Romania lost almost 120.000 ha of prime forest due to illegal logging practices. The Austrian forestry company Schweighofer (Vienna) is one of the largest wood processing company in Romania. According to numerous reports Schweighofer is under scrutiny by the Romanian authorities to have bought illegal cut timber. WWF has undertaken the first steps to shed some light into their activities and is demanding from the EU immediate clarification of the situation.

Europe´s last wild rivers are found in the Balkans. The river Vjosa is the last unobstructed river from its the spring to its delta in the Mediterranean without any dam. Austrian companies are key to numerous hydroelectric projects in Albania, Bosnia and other countries. The Kelag (Klagenfurt) is planning a large hydroelectric dam in the Sana river and Enso (Raaba-Grambach) is planning a hydroelectric dam on the river Langarica. Sometimes these projects are even financed by the Austrian Development Bank (Österreichische Entwicklungsbank). Thanks to the work of fellow NGOs like Riverwatch and Euronatur, the EU has become aware of the potential damaging effects of these investments and are demanding that Albania is abiding by European Environmental Standards.

It may come as a surprise to many Austrians that a country protecting so vigorously its nature at home and investing millions in the restoration of degraded habitats is often at the center of destruction of Europe´s last old growth forests, Wilderness and wild rivers in other European countries. But as the chances for such nature devastating projects are declining in central Europe, these companies are focusing their efforts on the Balkans and Eastern Europe, since they believe that the resistance to destroying nature is there less due to a lack of civil society movement.

Riverwatch and Euronatur as well as the European Wilderness Society and WWF are some of the NGOs tackling this issue. Articles in newspapers and post in social media and on websites and an increase in public support is increasing the pressure to stop the destruction of Europe´s last natural jewels. Under the slogan of “Save the Balkan Rivers – Stop the Dam Tsunami!“ the Balkan Rivers Tour for example aims to raise awareness about the beauty of the Balkan Rivers and the threats they are facing. Led by former Slovenian Olympic athlete Rok Rozman kayakers from all over Europe will paddle 16 rivers in 6 Balkan countries, starting with the Sava in Slovenia on April 16 and ending at the Vjosa in Albania on May 20.

Help these NGOs and us to protects Europe´s last wild rivers, old growth forests and Wilderness.

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One thought on “The role of Austria in destruction of WILDRivers in the Balkans and Romania

  1. Thanks Max for highlighting these campaigns and the duplicitous role of western players, notably power companies and banks, in South-eastern Europe! Their interest is not to help local consumers to receive electricity or use timber but, e.g. by exporting electricity and timber, to increase their own profits. In fact, there is huge inefficiency and waste of produced energy as well as bad payment habits in the region, partly reacting to non-reliable electricity supplies. Destroying these still intact natural resources does not improve local consumer habits or improve efficiency of existing energy production but is pure over-exploitation and destruction of ecosystem services that e.g. EU law does not allow. Rivers like the Vjosa constitute the best natural river heritage still left in Europe – a reference area and true classroom for engineers and river scientists to learn how non-altered catchment systems, that cannot be found anymore elsewhere in Europe, actually function.

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.

Motto: SYSTEMIC FOREST ECOSYSTEM MANAGEMENT INSTEAD OF WOOD FACTORY

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