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Romania is home to Europe's richest forests in terms of biodiversity. But every day they're being diminished - by illegal logging.
"This is happening in a lot of places in Romania that have been wiped off the face of the Earth," says Gabriel Păun, President of the Agent Green NGO. "Whole mountains are empty, naked. Places where erosion has begun and nature can’t heal itself. In Făgăraș, in Maramureș, in the National Park of Domogled. It’s a disaster."
Europe's largest virgin forests
Romania is home to over 500,000 hectares of virgin and old-growth forests - more than any other country in the European Union. In theory, 63% of these are protected as Natura 2000 sites, but the reality on the ground is completely different. Environmental laws from Romania are not aligned with the EU requirements imposed by this project.
The exploitation of trees is possible, even inside Natura 2000 sites. But in the Cernica Forest, just a few kilometres away from the capital, rangers paid by the state cut the trees first and did the evaluation studies later.
EU infringement case
"The illegal logging of past years took place in large areas, unfortunately," says Barna Tánczos, Minister Of The Environment, Water And Forests. "Hundreds of hectares of illegal logging brought the infringement case against Romania. But recently, there's been no large-scale illegal logging."
After years of chaos, only a fifth of Romania's forests still has old-growth trees.
Păun shows me one: "When it comes to biodiversity, the value of this tree is priceless. But from an economic perspective, it’s worth at least 10,000 euros."
A social phenomenon
Romanian authorities admit that the illegal felling of trees is a major problem, but they believe the situation is under control.
"It’s not necessarily corporations that are stealing valuable wood and selling it," says Sorin Banciu, State Secretary at the Ministry Of The Environment, Water And Forests. "It’s a social phenomenon. According to the latest statistics, there are over three million homes where people have to keep warm with fire. People in villages who have to keep warm with fire don’t really care whether the wood brought to them has all the legal papers or not."
Romania's old-growth forests are unique in Europe. They are home to thousands of species of animals and plants - and they ease the impact of climate change. For example, in the forest near Bucharest, the temperature is 10 degrees below that of the city.