Global Human Rights Defence

Environmental crimes impacting human rights: Security of Romanian forest rangers threatened by “wood mafia”

Environmental crimes impacting human rights: Security of Romanian forest rangers threatened by “wood mafia”
The effects of deforestation. © Andrei Singer/Flickr, 2010.

Author:Laura Libertini

Department: Europe Team

Introduction

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) declared that “the European Union is widely considered to be the third-largest destination for illegal wildlife”. Indeed, the European Union (EU) is a key transit hub for the illegal wildlife trade. According to the IFAW, nearly 12,000 endangered species were sold in digital marketplaces throughout Europe from 2016 to 2018 (IFAW, 2019). To counter this trend, the European Commission came forward with the European Wildlife Action Plan 2016-2020 to tackle wildlife trafficking within the EU’s borders and reinforce its role in fighting these illegal activities regionally and globally. The new Plan consisted of 32 measures and focused on three priority areas: prevention, enforcement, and cooperation (European Commission, 2016).

Wildlife crimes

According to the WWF Italia, among the species most endangered by wildlife trafficking, the sturgeon is on top of the list. One-third of sturgeon meat and caviar products have been sold illegally in four key sturgeon countries: Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine. Secondly, the illegal sale of ivory obtained from elephants has seen the number of these ancient species halved. It appears that three-quarters of the ivory sold in the EU come from poaching or illegal trade. More than 20,000 elephants are killed every year to sustain this market. In fact, between 2006 and 2015, the overall African elephant population plunged by more than 20 percent, generating an international illegal ivory trade worth approximately 17 billion euros every year (Statista, 2018). Lastly, tigers are the main target of poachers, who hunt these animals to produce traditional medicines and fur production (WWF Italia, 2022). Only 4000 wild tigers are left across Asia, while more than 8000 are held in captivity in China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and South Africa. Illegal poaching for their body parts is the main driving force behind the tiger’s decline in the natural environment. At least 2,359 tigers have been captured from the illicit trade since 2000, an approximative figure which presumably represents only a fraction of the actual size of the market (Environmental Investigation Agency, n.d.).

Wildlife and ecological trafficking have developed into billion-euro criminal businesses, prevailed by organised criminal groups. The attractiveness of these industries can be explained by the low detention risk and the insignificance of penalties, whilst the profits are comparable to those in the illegal arms trade and human trafficking. The number of criminals in this business has led to a rising outbreak of violence, with rangers losing their lives fighting wildlife trafficking (European Commission, 2016). The criminal activity that takes place is detrimental to the efforts of surveillance and maintenance carried out by rangers, as well as ordinary men and women, who put their lives at risk to protect biodiversity and the environment. The International Ranger Federation has estimated that in the last ten years, 1175 rangers have lost their lives during daily activities, although the actual figure could be as many as three times higher. Forty-five percent of these deaths are the result of murders caused by clashes with illegal poachers (WWF Italia, 2022).

Illegal logging and timber smuggling

Environmental crimes taking place in the European Union are also characterised by widespread illicit logging and timber smuggling. The European Commission defined illegal logging as the “harvesting of timber in contravention of the laws and regulations of the country of harvest. Illegal logging is a global problem with significant negative economic, environmental, and social impact” (European Commission, 2010). Each year in Romania, approximately 20 million cubic metres of wood are illegally trimmed from Romanian forests. Some of this timber is irregularly sold on the illegal market in Europe. The Carpathian Mountains of Northern Romania remain one of the last primaeval forests of Europe, characterised by unique species of flora and fauna. Romania is also home to over half of Europe’s latest old-growth and virgin forests, which are valuable ecosystems home to a wide variety of species. The logging activities of the so-called “wood mafia” are therefore endangering the hectares of ancient timberland and the lives and safety of the people who live and work on them. Within the country’s national forest management authority, Romsilva, 185 foresters have been physically attacked since 2014 while six more have been killed. An example of these attacks was reported by Euronews in 2020, when brothers Ilie and Dimitri Bucsa, responsible for breeding trout, tried to report that the fishpond water was contaminated by sludge brought by illegally felled wood dropped on the riverbanks. They were physically assaulted by illegal loggers as a result, and declared that these loggers “threatened us and beat us up. They caught us up the road and hit us on the head with clubs” (Euronews, 2020).

In 2019, Romania saw the killing of two forest rangers over a month, aggravating the fear for the security of those whose job is to protect the forests of this EU area. Forest ranger Liviu Pop was fatally shot with a hunting rifle after he went out to explore a potential case of illegal logging in the mountain region of Maramures in northern Romania. His colleagues became concerned and started to reach him through the phone, without any response. Local authorities found Liviu Pop’s body in a forested gorge. Shortly after his death, the corpse of a forest ranger, Raducu Gorcioaia, was found near an illegal logging site in the northeast region of the country, in the Pascani forest district. The killing of Liviu Pop and Raducu Gorcioaia has shown the ruthless levels of violence that illegal loggers are willing to apply to steal wood and make profits (McGrath, 2019).

In September 2021, Tiberiu Bosutar, an environmental activist from Agent Green (a Romanian non-governmental and nonprofit organisation for environmental protection), and two journalists allegedly were attacked by illegal loggers near the village of Panaci. They were making a documentary on illegal logging in the Romanian region, and eleven people participated in the attack. Agent Green’s activist Mircea Barbu reported right after this attack that

Last year, 227 people were killed worldwide whilst working to protect the environment. If we do not take these incidents seriously, Romania could soon be blacklisted. To stop this from happening, the authorities need to treat this incident with the utmost seriousness and strongly condemn such crimes (Euronatur, 2021).

Conclusion

The EU plays a pivotal role in tackling this traffic, as Europe is currently a target market and a hub for smuggling to other regions. Europe is also a region where unique species are sourced for illegal trade (European Commission, 2016). The evidence presented in this article shows the interconnection between widespread environmental crimes and human rights. Due to massive poaching and illegal timber trafficking, endangered species and timber increasingly face the risk of extinction. Moreover, the illicit trade of timber and wildlife poses serious threats to the security of forest and park rangers, who work to protect the environment and biodiversity. The case of the rangers killed and threatened in Romania represents only an example of what happens every day around the globe. 

 

References

Armstrong, M. (2018, April 3). The Ivory Trade in Numbers. Statista. Retrieved on 17 May 2022 from https://www.statista.com/chart/13403/the-ivory-trade-in-numbers/

Environmental Investigation Agency. (n.d.). Saving Tigers. EIA. Retrieved on 17 May 2022 from https://eia-international.org/wildlife/saving-tigers/.

Euronatur. (2021, September 21). Renewed violence against environmental activists in Romania. Euronatur. Retrieved on 10 May 2022 from https://www.euronatur.org/en/what-we-do/news/renewed-violence-against-environmental-activists-in-romania.

European Commission. (2016, February 29). EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking (COM (2016) 87 final). European Commission. Retrieved on 10 May 2022 from https://d1jyxxz9imt9yb.cloudfront.net/resource/67/attachment/regular/WAP_EN_WEB.PDF

European Commission. (2010). Forests. Retrieved on 10 May 2022 from https://ec.europa.eu/environment/forests/illegal_logging.htm. 

Gauriat, V. (2020, March 20). Romania’s virgin forests ravaged by ‘wood mafia’. Euronews. Retrieved on 10 May 2022 from https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2020/03/13/romania-s-virgin-forests-ravaged-by-wood-mafia.

IFAW. (2019). The European Union is widely considered to be the third largest destination for illegal wildlife. IFAW. Retrieved on 10 May 2022 from https://www.ifaw.org/eu/projects/wildlife-crime-prevention-europe

McGrath, S. (2019, October 21). Romania forest murder as battle over logging turns violent. BBC News. Retrieved on 10 May 2022 from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50094830?msclkid=ec8050f4cf7c11ecbb6606b11a5ba554.

WWF Italia. (2022, May 2). I crimini di natura minacciano salute e sviluppo. WWF Italia. Retrieved on 10 May 2022 from https://www.wwf.it/pandanews/animali/crimini-di-natura/i-crimini-di-natura-minacciano-salute-e-sviluppo/.

WWF Italia. (2022). Stop ai crimini di natura: bracconaggio e traffico illegale, le specie a rischio, cosa fa il WWF e cosa possiamo fare noi. WWF Italia. Retrieved on 17 May 2022 from https://www.wwf.it/uploads/SCHEDA-CRIMINI-DI-NATURA_APRILE.pdf.

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