Black wood
Stefan Candea / 2005-07-12 ro
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The Romanian Center for Investigation Journalism (CRJI) with the support of the Association of Danish Investigation Journalists carried out an ample survey on the illegal traffic of wood phenomenon. Investigations were concentrated in the counties of Suceava and Harghita and aimed to the presentation of all the aspects related to this phenomenon – from the impact on the environment of the clearings, political implications or the worries of the European Union towards the uncontrollable imports of “black wood”.

The complex phenomenon of the “black wood” comprises several aspects: from the so-called subsistence thefts to pseudo-legal business developed through the intermediation of companies controlled by officials of the National Autonomous Organization of the Forests (RNP). Another aspect is represented by the groups of political-economic interests running activities in the field of wood exploitation. Just a restricted cercle of businessmen have access to the tenders for wood mass exploitation, even under the terms in which such tenders run correctly. Initially, the respective deals increased with the support of the same RNP officials. According to the official data, the estimated total damage caused by illegal chopping of trees from public and private property between 1991-1998 amounts to almost 3,000 billions of ROL.

Statistics show that during the last years, 353,000 hectares of forests were chopped out completely. According to the World Bank, the damages caused by illegal chopping were estimated to about 1,5 billion dollars. At present, nobody knows exactly what timbered surfaces are on the territory of the country. According to specialized surveys, during the last decades no inventory of the national forestry fund was carried out. During the mid-90's, 266,000 tons of fire wood lesft the country through the port of Constanta. In 1999, the export of logs increased by 3.7 times as compared to the previous years and in 2000 it went over 22%. In 2002, 850,000 tons of wooden material were exported only through the port of Constanta, and several other thousands through the port of Galati.

The year 2003, the export of wood registered the greatest increase of the last 15 years, exceeding by 110% the exports of the preceding years.

From the lack of a governmental strategy meant to estimate and fight the illegal chopping of wood, one cannot know exactly how much of the Romanian wood is of legal origin and how much comes from illegal chopping. If in Estonia, a fresh EU member, 40% of the exploited wood comes from thefts, according to the assertion of the Belgian Ministry of Development, it can be said that the situation in Romania cannot be better. From disparate media information the following conclusion may be drawn: the exported quantity of wood exceeds several times the chopping quota approved by the National Autonomous Organization of the Forests. Eliminating the quantity of wood used by the domestic furniture producers it results another “net quantity of black wood” feeding the foreign market. From where comes this wood, which is the system through which it is introduced on the market, how much does the state lose from illegal traffic are questions which will not get an answer too soon. The collected information show that the systems is compromised from the top of the institutions meant to protect the woods against organized theft. Neither the European Union does not feel comfortable when it comes to its wood imports.

Though during the last years a real “media prejudice” was created that Romanian forests are experted to the area of the Arab countries, figures show that Romanian exports of timber and logs head to their great majority to the European Union. As an example, according to an official 1998 statistic of the RNP, over 60% of Romanian exports went to Hungary, followed by Austria, Germany and. Somewhere far behind, Turkey. The most sensitive areas of the traffic wityh wooden material in the EU space are Belgian ports, of which the outstanding one is Anvers. Colette Burgeon, Secretary of the House of Representatives of the Belgian Parliament, drew the attention on the dubious imports of wood carried out through the port of Anvers.

The Belgian Parliament intends to amend the legal framework of imports and to grant supplementary prerogatives to the Belgian customs officers. Els Van Weert, state secretary of the Belgian Ministry of Development says that 20% of the wooden material introduced in the European Union comes from Eastern areas, implicitly from Romania. The wood comes from illegal chopping.

During the last two years, the Greenpeace Organization got involved in the sensitivation of European officials so that EU adopts a package of laws to stop the imports of “black wood”.

In what concerns the Romanian exports, it is certain that the price of the Romanian wood is three times smaller than the European one. For the last years, Romania exported wood of hundreds of millions Euros. The price used per ton of raw wood was of 110 dollars at the level of year 2000, way below the price of the world's market. At present, the price circles around the value of 90 Euros. A survey mentions that the underestimation of export prices reflects the tendencies of tax evasion and illegal export. Because, by law, in an unjustifiable manner, the charge of 20-30% was kept for wood imports to Romania, the domestic export was encouraged, implicitly the illegal chopping receiving an impulse. Whilst the raw wood exports increased exponentially one year after the other, it was ascertained that the imports of semi-products increased also.

Then, the semi-products, turned into furniture reach the EU space. For the last year, the depreciation of the European coin decreased the exports of wooden material and furniture also. As a result of the exploitation of the last 15 years, the National Timbering Program specifies that the remaking of the chopped forest areas will cost Romania for the next 5 years, around 600 million Euros. Still during the last years Romania managed to decrease below the European average of timbering, with just 26.7% of the surface covered by forests.

The road of the black wood – Harghita (I)

The issue of the windfalls

In 1995 and 1998 natural calamities occurred on the territory of the Harghita Forestry Division. According to wise sources, during the two mentioned years, over 5 million cubic meters of wood were destroyed, a quantity equal to that approved by the National Autonomous Organization of the Forests for 30 years. According to an official estimation, in November 1995, about 4 million m 3 windfalls were produced.

Massive windfalls were registered on the valley of the river Oituz, at Miercurea Ciuc or Tirgu Secuiesc. The former manager of Harghita Forestry Division, Denes Dominic, fired for abuses, was accused that, after one year fro the occurrence of the calamity, reported less than 50% of the real volume of windfalls, approx. 1.6 million m 3 . the great beneficiaries of those windfalls were the companies Petroforest, Romanel, Romforest, Foresta Tarcau, Forest Star, all registered in the Piatra Neamt County. The companies were officially accused that, besides the windfalls, they chopped entire woods in the basin of the river Giurgeu and in the area of Tulghes. Ther companies used the licenses to exploit the windfalls as a pretext to chop healthy trees from areas neighboring the windfalls. And that, whilst in the area of the Sanmartin Forestry District, the field of Sangiurgeu, thousands of cubic meters of windfalls were discovered rotten without being inventoried and registered until 1998. The same situation was found in the forests of Ciumani. Theoretically, subsequent to the collection of the wooden material resulted from windfalls, exploitation should have been stopped and the areas timbered. Part of the companies which won tenders for windfalls exploitation could not manage the work volume. The consequence: hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of wood decayed in the woods.

Former MP Bogdan Ionescu told the press that in 1995 the state made a mistake declaring the areas affected by windfalls as calamity zones. Thus, the companies which wanted to exploit windfalls were granted tax facilities for the purchase of ‘state-of-the-art' equipment. After the exhaustion of the windfalls, the respective companies put an enormous pressure on the Harghita Forestry Division to be allowed to exploit forests. The same pressure stimulated wood thefts and the next thing happened was that wood processing companies turned into the most certain stolen wood collectors. Sources we contacted said that the start of the “black wood phenomenon” was caused mainly by the manner in which the huge quantities of wood coming from windfalls were collected. From confidential information, taken up by the press also, it results that in Harghita County, the foresters deliberately chopped special corridors in the forests on the slopes so that winds may run through the trees and mangle the forest.

It is thus that the natural calamities which destroyed the forests in Harghita year after year could be explained. In their turn, the same foresters had the most to gain from windfalls.

Natural reservation sacrificed for the exploitation of wood from windfalls

Another area affected by windfalls was Borsec. Ten years after the natural calamities, effects are still visible. Along the road between Gheorgheni and Borsec, the mountain peaks destroyed by winds are seen at every step of the way. The mayor of Borsec says that timbering has been done in the affected areas but a simple look is a proof to the contrary. Another affected area is that of the naturtal park from Lacul Rosu. Local sources told us that the companies which exploited the wood from windfalls stayed in the area and chopped the forest around the wind affected zones. The activity of the companies damaged the natural reservation. Forest roads were built for wood transportation and the wastes thrown into the lake. The “Foresta Tarcau” company built the forest road on the Northern bank of the Suhard rivulet throwing the gravel into it.

According to a testimony, “in the area of the superior course of the Belchia rivulet, at its junction with the Kisgyor rivulet, research galleries for mineral ore were drilled”.

Those works brought out areas of radioactive minerals. The radioactive material was covered with blank and then transported by the companies as road filling. In the other areas affected by windfalls, Gheorgheni-Lazarea-Remetea, the control institutions found out that windfalls were a theft opportunity in the affected forests. The Environment Protection Squad noticed that part of the windfalls were caused exactly by the illegal chopping which favored massive trees tearing by the creation of breaches in the forest body.

Recently, the non-governmental organization “Kogayon” announced that it will ask the Parliament for an amendment of the Law related to the condition of the protected area and the establishment of the “National Agency of the Protected Areas”. Several NGO's work on a file with proofs about the irregularities and illegalities in the main protected areas: clearings, poaching or illegal building.

The tradition of the onerous business - I (1995-1998)

The Miercurea Ciuc Forestry Division was involved in a long row of scandals lasting from 1999 up to present time. The issue of the onerous businesses backed up by the foresters in the Harghita area was investigated by the Government Control Department and by Parliamentary Commissions. Nobody paid for the “business of the forest windfalls” of the years 1995 and 1998. according to the reports of the two commissions “ the participation as partners or shareholders in companies having the same field of activity as the National Autonomous Organization of the Forests of the employees of the Miercurea Ciuc Forestry Division (DSH) was confirmed”.

The companies known by the employees of the Miercurea Ciuc Forestry Division took advantage in full by the cheap wood in huge quantities. Between 1995-1998 the business with wood was endorsed even by the DSH management.

Denes Domokos, son of Denes Dominic, by that time the manager of the Miercurea Ciuc Forestry Division (former manager of the National Autonomous Organization of the Forests between May 1997-August 1998) was a partner in the Vulturul SRL company in Miercurea Ciuc having as its field of activity forestry exploitation. Vulturul SRL provided a range of services to the Miercurea Ciuc Forestry Division and exploited wood mass. Denes Judith, manager Denes' wife, is a partner in the “Carmen Silva” company which chopped wood assigned by the Forestry Division managed by her husband. Subsequent to the audit of October 1999 manager Denes, technical manager Kiss Ludovic and Virogh Terezia were fired. They did not suffer penal convictions for what they did. Ioan Micu, head of the Hunting Department, was just reprimanded.

Paradoxically, once the political power changed, Ioan Micu will reach the position of manager to the Miercurea Ciuc Forestry Division and he will be involved too in scandals related to forestry exploitation. According to the documents of the financial auditors in Harghita, the companies of the Dominic clan, bought along the time, timber at minimal prices from the Miercurea Ciuc Forestry Division on the basis of preferential orders. Vulturul SRL sold equipment and machinery to the forestry division at an overestimated price.

The same company sold timber to the Fruit Center in Gheorgheni, an instituion subordinated to the Miercurea Ciuc Forestry Division, timber bought initially from the division itself. Other charges concern the manner in which the company “Abies” from Roman performed several forestry works. The “Abies” company was identified in March 2005 by the foresters in Suceava as the beneficiary of certain massive quantities of stolen wood (2,600 cubic meters of wooden mass).

Another quite often met practice is the is fake forestry tenders. The wood resulted from windfalls of the Gheorgheni area was bidden in 1998 July 27 by the Harghita Forestry Division. Strangely enough, the companies which won the tender had great debts to several forestry divisions and normally, they shouldn't have been allowed to participate in the tender.

The “Petroforest” company from Piatra Neamt (owned by Culita Tarita, future PSD member of Parliament) had, on the date of the tender, aa 334 million ROL debt to Harghita Forestry Division. Still “Petroforest” obtained the exploitation permit of over 50,000 cubic meters of wooden mass. The “Foresta” Tarcau company had a debt of 120 million ROL and subsequent of its admission in the tender it obtained the exploitation of 35,000 cubic meters of wooden mass. Smaller quantities obtained the companies “Roghinton” and “Timeco” which also were indebted.

The tradition of the onerous business - II (2001-2003)

After more than five years from the last serious audit in the Harghita area, during the autumn of 2003, the National Environment Protection Guard together with inspectors of the Finance Guard from Arad, Mures and Harghita started a thorough search of the Harghita forestry districts and of the companies imvolved in the forestry exploitation of the Gheorgheni basin. This time, the audits ended with tens of penal charges and dismissals of the bosses of the Harghita forestry structures. Until now, no presumed guilty person was convicted. Some of the files were solved by the prosecutors with “penal prosecution dismissed”.

Melles Elod, manager of the Gheorgheni Forestry District was tried in several files for abuse, files which are still on trial in courts of law. From the prosecutors' investigations it was found out that Elod was involved in the theft and in the onerous businesses with wood from the Gheorgheni area.

At the beginning of year 2004, Ioan Micu, manager of the Harghita Forestry Division, was dismissed, promoted then as adviser to the manager of the National Autonomous Organization of the Forests, Laczko Terezia, assistant manager of the Division was also dismissed, and the head of the Gheorgheni Forestry District, Melles Elod. It is interesting that, being under investigation, together with former foresters he trusted, Elod established a private forestry district in the basin of the Giurgeu river. The case arrived on the table of the Commission for Abuses of the Chamber of Deputies. According to law, the former manager could not be stopped from opening a private forestry district, neither by the Environment Protection Guard nor by the National Autonomous Organization of the Forests. Finally, Szikszai Bela, manager of the Harghita Territorial Inspectorate of Forestry Condition and Hunting, subsequent to a letter received from Takacs Csaba, executive president of the UDMR, approved the establishment of the private forestry district. Moreover, from a letter sent on the 19 th of October 2003, signed by Melles Elod and sent to the UDMR senator Verestoy Attila, it results that help was requested for the difficult situation in which he found himself. Shortly after that, the head of the Environment Protection Guard, general Constantin Silinescu, receives a letter from the senator “informing” him that the investigation of the Environment Protection Guard was carried out “upon orders”. Elod's assistant, Laczko Terezia was “disciplinary” transferred to the National Park Cheile Bocazului-Hasmas, a natural reservation touched during the past by massive chopping under the pretext of the windfalls. The new manager of the district was assigned Florin Mihaila, former ranger of the Toplita district. His name was mingled with two penal files of the years 2002 and 2005 related to illegal chopping. During the spring of this year, the Gheorgheni forestry district was dissolved.

The most known business people cutting wood in the Gheorgheni area are Emil Len, in the Lazarea area, Gyorfy Tihomir or Sandor Pongracz owner of the “Fundamenta” company, involved in scandals related to wood theft.

Organized theft set up by foresters

The employees of the Gheorgheni Forestry District, Szakacs Istvan and Antal Csaba were sent to court for forgery. They were the executive managers of the “Compos Eximp” and “Vileco” companies, involved in forestry exploitation though they declared that they did not own private businesses. The manager Melles Elod, together with the technical manager of the Harghita Forestry Division owned the company “Hardev-FPT”, with a secondary field of activity- forestry activities. Elod owned 30% of the “Aldi” company, still with a “forestry” field of activity. To avoid legislation, 15% of the “Compos” company of the technician Skakacs, responsible for the planning (an activity prior to chopping) were owned by the NGO “Asociatia FSC Romania”, which included almost all the employees of the Gheorgheni Forestry District led by Elod and with the heads of the districts (compartments) of the forestry institution.

The “Compos” company, implicitly the FSC Association, had current contractual relationships with the Miercurea Ciuc Forestry Division. Another association, the “Pro Silvae” was established in January 2002 and had as foudners the father of the Harghita Forestry Division manager (Ioan Micu), the father of the Gheorgheni Forestry District head (Melles Elod), the district accountant's wife and the husband of the responsible for the forestry fund issues, engineer Szabo Maria.

The least troubled by this audit was Ioan Mihoc, manager in chief with the audit of the Harghita Forestry Division, reprimanded with 10% of his salary withdrawal. One should notice that Mihoc will be then promoted up the forestry hierarchy, just as, subsequent to the audit of 1999, engineer Micu was promoted manager of the Harghita Forestry Division.

The “Ditrau timbering file” or how to steal on the basis of (ir)regular documents

The net of the Harghita policemen captured Csibi Tiberiu, chief accountant of the Gheorgheni Forestry District, Gyorffi Denes, engineer of the same institution and Incze Josef, former district chief of the Ditrau area which is subordinated to the Gheorgheni district. The three of them were investigated by the policemen in a file in which the same Melles Elod is involved too. The foresters were charged of fraudulent businesses related to the district timbering, businesses run through foundations and companies owned by people very close to them and of forgery meant to cover up their dirty business. The “Timbering file” unveils the methods (backed up by official docments) through which the officers of the Gheorgheni Forestry District mimed the timbering operations, works which were paid for with considerable amounts from public funds but were finished. In the Ditrau area lists were made up with private owners of forests who requested timbering subsequent to windfalls and who paid money for this. The forestry district settled timbering works in this area without the works being really carried out. Part of those who put up the “fictitious timbering scheme” were dismissed from penal charges by the prosecutors. The reason: they did not know that the data mentioned by the documents they signed were false. The forestry engineer Pan Antal declared that 70% of the timbering was done only on paper and that the money for those operations, especially in joint properties, were simply stolen.

The disaster of Gheorgheni in figures – how much you can steal in 10 years

For three years, the area of the Gheorgheni Forestry District witnessed an organized theft endorsed by the forestry management. The “home” companies of the foresters received wood exploitation licenses after they started chopping and the wood tenders were, to their great majority, faked. In 2002, the Environment Protection Guard found out that over 10,913 cubic meters of wood were stolen from the forest which were not turned over to their private owners and for which the Gheorgheni Forestry District denied protection. The district management chopped wood still from the forests which were not given back to their former owners. It was thus that from a quantity of 3,700 cubic meters approved for chopping, finally 7,800 m 3 were actually chopped out. This practice led to the start of the windfalls of the Remetea and Lazarea village areas, followed then by theft and wood illegal exploitation/handling.

According to the audit documents, the district management made up fictitious documents for a volume of 42,400 cubic meters (the wooden mass was underestimated) – an area of 150.7 hectares of forest; the chopping procedures were breached (origin, loading and transport documents) for a volume of 42,400 cubic meters; the wooden mass was not evaluated on a surface of 219.9 hectares, a thing which led to the issue of false documents for 30,000 cubic meters of exploited wood; the foresters issued documents of origin to persons who did not have that right so that 16,262 cubic meters of wood were sold illegally. A total of about 200,000 m 3 of wood were spoliated. Or, at least this was the figure demonstrated by the audit institutions investigations.

How do you shave a whole forest – the “Alsoerdo” case

One of the exponential cases of the Gheorgheni situation is the destruction of the “Alsoerdo” forest in the vicinity of the Lazaresti village. There, two mountain peaks are completely cleared, officially because of the windfalls, unofficially with the aid of the wood thieves and of the companies close to the Gheorgheni district management. The Harghita Forestry Division says that in the “Alsoerdo” area a massive windfall of about 100,000 m 3 occurred. Almost half of this quantity was not identified on the location (wooden mass underestimation) so that it “turned to vapor”. The other half for which documents of “capitalization” (APV) were drawn up, was exploited by the companies close to the district management, for example Fundamenta SRL. Initially, in 2002, the Brasov Territorial Inspectorate of Forestry Condition and Hunting (ITRSC) noticed the theft of over 10,000 m 3 from the Alsoerdo private forest, valued at 14 billion ROL. On that location came next massive windfalls favored by thefts and forest destruction.

Another ingenious combination was that of a so-called “Lazarea-Association of Forest Owners” and of the “10 Fir-trees Association” which pretended they represented the interests of the forest owners of the Lazarea area.

The two foundations benefited illegally of the private forests and windfalls, a total of 350 hectares of forest. Exploitation and windfalls analysis was carried out by the Harghita Forestry Division which was granted full exploitation powers by the two associations. Forgeries and illegalities at “Alsoerdo” were discovered by the inspectors of the Finance Guard of Arad. Damages were estimated at about 17 billion ROL. Over 200 persons were questioned. In what concerns the theft of the wood coming from windfalls, the policemen questioned over 400 persons. The illegal exploitation of the “Alsoerdo” forest involved also the deputy mayor of the Lazarea village, Ferencz Carol and manager Melles Elod who gave permission for chopping on a surface of 1.8 hectares of forest though the Lazarea Office of the Mayor did not file a request for chopping. The present deputy mayor of the Lazarea village, Keresztes Elemer, says that the windfalls at “Alsoerdo” and other quantities of wood were exploited by the “local wood mafia”. He said that he received death threats from wood thieves from lazarea who work closely with the foresters.

Similarly, the villagers of Lazarea were threatened their house will be burned down if they make statements related to thefts and 27 of them filed complaints for threats. According to sources, in the villages close to Remetea and Lazarea, over 100 saw milles run daily, leaving behind mountains of sawdust from timber production. The sawdust is deposited close to the rivers, a thing which leads to the destruction of the aquatic fauna.

Thefts with “unknown authors” from Toplita, up along the valley…

Nicolae Baciu, mayor of the town of Toplita has video recordings taken from locations cleared by wood thieves. One can notice how the forest was “mowed down” by specialists. Alongside the forest road, the forest is intact whilst inside it the trees are cut with mechanical saws at half a meter above the ground. Thieves stole from the Toplita City Hall forests as well as from the private ones or from those belonging to the forestry district.

According to the statement of the forestry technician Pal Antal in a memo addressed to the Government, between 2001-2004, the Harghita Territorial Inspectorate of Forestry Condition and Hunting found out that over 12,000 cubic meters of wooden material were stolen from the forests of the Toplita City Hall forests. There is no penal charges file against those involved though the “mouth of the village” speaks about them. Moreover, local sources say that the theft of Toplita was done with the agreement of the rangers and of the heads of the forestry district. From media information it results that part of the stolen wood was processed by the company belonging to Sorin Mindru, son of the former first prosecutor from Toplita. By that time, the head of the Toplita Forestry District was Catalin Mutica, present manager of the Harghita Forestry Division. The forestry technician Antal says that he filed a complaint with the Tirgu Mures branch of the National Anti-corruption Prosecution Office in February 2005 and that the investigation of this structure is still going on.

Similarly, with reference to thefts for which no respondents are found, the inspectors of the Arad Finance Guard found the abusive chopping of about 1,200 cubic meters of wood (with no legal documents) in Suseni, a village under the jurisdiction of the Tulghes Forestry District. The wood was sold for the miserable price of 150,000 ROL/cubic meter, under the terms in which the minimal market price reaches 1 million. Suspicions are directed towards the mayor of the place and to the employees of the forestry division, as well as to the forestry control institutions (ITRSC Harghita-Brasov). The chopped forest belonged to private owners, people the most affected by chopping. An unofficial statistic shows that almost 40% of the private woods were cut in the Harghita county, many of them prior to their recovery, but even after, as they were intentionally not guarded by the foresters. According to law, the RNP officials have the duty to provide protection for private forests. The same situation is met in the Bilbor area, desperate owners asking to be received by Gheorghe Flutur, Minister of Agriculture and Forests, to demand the protection of their forests.

In the Ditrau area, unidentified thieves still “devastated” the forests which were turned back to the protection of the Reformed Church.

Policemen and foresters provide a helping hand to organized theft – the Toplita Case

The system of “organized theft” functions like a pyramid. At the basis of the system operate the wood thieves watched over by simple rangers. The stolen wood is sold to timber processing companies.every company is under the “graces” of a policeman or chief from the forestry system. Owners pay their protectors with a percentage (10%) of the “black wood” they exploit. Over them, the patrons are politicians and managers of the Forestry Division seated in Miercurea Ciuc. The papers from Toplita told about this type of “kinship” between wood thieves and representatives of the state, subsequent to statements coming even from participants in thefts. Obviously they were not satisfied by the fact that they had been stricken out of the system. Another traced phenomenon is that of the subsistence theft. Most of the times the owners steal from their own forests for the lack of cutting permits issued by the forestry districts. Thefts are done primitively and animals are used for log transport. Owners blame the rangers because they do not allow them to exploit the forest but leave the businessmen to chop at will because they are bribed. As a paradox, the “subsistence” theft is much more carefully supervised than the big traffic of wood. The police proudly provides statistics of persons with tens of files related to wood theft because they stole some trees.

The press told the story of the Galautas-Toplita area, where the forest ranger, Geli Groza, finds himself in a “cooperation” with the mayor of the village, the result of which being massive chopping from the forests belonging to the Mayor's Office. Thefts extended to the Ciscului Hill, the Diulohaz area, even to the forests of the Toplita Forestry District.

In other testimonies to the press, made by former wood thieves, it is said that the head of the Toplita Forestry District, Dusa Codrut, is in the wood business through the intermediation of a local businessman, Ovidiu Bors. Moreover, foresters from Toplita are accused of havinf imposed a 10% tax on companies handling balck wood. Of those who got rich from wood deals one name went to the press, the son of a prosecutor or of a joint possession president of the area. The wood traffic is supervised by the policemen who get about 3 million ROL (100 USD) for a transport. Policemen accompany wood transports to free the road of eventual problems. Names mentioned in this “small traffic” are those of simple police under-inspectors (Ioan Colceriu, Luca Razoare, Florin Cadar). At the same time with the political change of the autumn of 2004, the new heads of the Harghita police ordered investigations in the area of Toplita and some small “Intermediaries” fell.

According to official data of the Harghita County Police Department, during the last 5 years, the damages caused by illegal exploitations amounted only to 18 billion ROL. According to the same structure, only 8,600 cubic meters of wood were confiscated during the same interval and over 2,000 penal files were drawn up for forestry crimes.

The map of political-economic interests from the wood business

Attila Vereestoy, important UDMR leader, is a true local rich man with a fortune estimated to 40 million Euros. Senator Verestoy even got some nicknames from the wood deals he made – “God's Saw” or “Kerestoy” (cherestea=timber). He ran his wood business mainly through the IVO company in which he is a partner with Ferenczy Karoly, his brother-in-law (this company is mentioned in a report of the Ministry of Environment within the context of forests massive chopping).

The company is advised in legal matters by the former ministry of health Hajdu Gabor (1996-2000). Profits made out of wood were reinvested by Verestoy in businesses with alcohol, in industry, agriculture or mass-media. The senator's areas of interest and influence were Odorhei, Ciuc, Tulghes or Borsec.

Local sources informed us that, at present, Verestoy focused his resources to furniture production, having production facilities in Odorhei and Bacau, another “hot” area of wood business. Now, part of Verstoy's businesses were turned over to close relatives. Nice profits were made during the period of the windfalls (1995-1998) especially in the Borsec area where senator Verestoy's company was present too. In a relevant report from 1998 it is shown that 63.4 % of the timber production went to Hungary and the export was directed through companies from Miercurea Ciuc (Carhent Impex SRL, Korax SA, Vulturul SRL – companies close to the high officials of the Forestry Division), Odorheiul Secuiesc (IVO Impex, Alimpex SA), Sfintu Gheorghe (Sumulur SRL, Prod Com Cerbul, Tamaris)

Former MP Culita tarita operated through the companies “Petroforest” and “TCE3-Trei Brazi” in the areas of Lacu Rosu-Cheile Bicazului (at present, protected natural reservation), Ciumani and Tulghes. Former forestry engineers who dealt with this area told us that massive chopping of healthy forest was done during the period of the windfalls. After the end of the cleaning operations, the cuts continued around the affected areas, under the pretext that windfalls are still under processing. Arrangement studies were used (forests map) to support thefts and superficial estimations of the wooden mass. The “Romanel” and “Forestar” companies of Piatra Neamt operated too in this area. Despite the old and profitable deals with wood in the area, for 2001, Culita had a debt of 31.8 billion ROL (1.5 million USD) to the state budget, debt accumulated by the “Petroforest” company. This debt was split into instalments by order of hos party colleague, PSD MP of Brasov and head of the RNP at that time. Compil SRL, another company owned by the former MP Culita had debts of 695 million ROL.

With all these companies, the MP had some more to gain from VAT returns amounting to tens of billions. According to the statements of the former mayor of Izvorul Muresului, even the former president of the Senate and of the Democrat Party, Petre Roman had some interests (linked to wood) in the area of Lacu Rosu.

The information was confirmed by the UDMR MP Garda Dezideriu, who had a parliamentary speech on this subject.

The Toplita area is controlled by Romanian politicians (in the Harghita County the majority of the population is represented by Hungarian ethnics). Toplita is the only town with a Romanian majority in the county. One of Toplita politicians is the PSD MP Mircea Dusa, whose relative, Dragos Dusa, is at present head of the Toplita Forestry District. Sources from the local press say that the present MP, former Harghita County prefect and mayor of Toplita is no stranger of what happened during the last years in Toplita in connection with the wood deals. One of the logic explanations could be that the majority of the thefts were done in the forests administered by the Toplita City Hall. Neither the other mayors in office after 1990 (Bendris, Toader) are no strangers from wood deals operated in the area. The present president of the Democrat Party in the Harghita County, Vasile Mihalcea, expremely important person after the winning of the general elections in 2004, runs wood deals through the company Monolit SRL

Wood business people

After the obscure exploitation of huge quantities of wood coming from windfalls (1995-1998) wood business was pseudo-legalized. Groups of interests whitened their profits from wood exploitation investing in other businesses. This does not mean that stealing ceased. The Toplita area is exponential for wood business as here is the place where numerous companies develop their activities. The area is strategic as it is located at the junction of the provinces Moldova with Ardeal. The city has no industry, the only production activity being forestry exploitation.

The most known local businessman, Vasile Mihoc, originates from Satu Mare and arrived in the area by the time of the windfalls of 1990. Mihoc is a neighbor of the deputy chief of the Toplita Police Department, Ioan Simon. He runas his busines through the “Rovidana” company. His ascent is connected also to the relationships he has with the Toplita fomer mayor Mircea Dusa, who became then PSD MP of Harghita. Mihoc invested the money made from wood and became one of the local important persons. He also owns several stone quarries in the area of Voslobeni-Dolomita.

Vasile Stoica works through the “Moldotrans” company and in 2002 he made a strike through when he bought from the local people the right to exploit their forests, a thing which cost him an investigation by the prosecutors, but this went out by itself. Another businessman is Sabin Olar, close to PSD and to the former president of the House of Deputies Valer Dorneanu, the present Harghita MP.

Puiu Miron, former president of the co-operative association from Toplita, knew how to invest the money he made from wood deals. Miron built a hotel in Toplita, owns most of the commercial areas in the town, he is in the real estate business in Tirgu Mures, Miercurea Ciuc and Vatra Dornei. Another company propsperous from wood deals is “Industrial Group” Sarmas, owned by Ioan Ardeleanu. The company bought the Hodosana Furniture Factory from Sarmas, where furniture is produced now under the famous brand of IKEA. The same type of deal he made in Dej, where “Industrial Group” bought the Sortilemn factory and now produces furniture for IKEA. Finally, Cristian Ilisan is the son of Vasile Ilisan, he is employed by the Toplita Forestry District and is one of the successful businessmen of the area.

Nine years of parliamentary interpellations about the “wood mafia”

The UDMR MP Garda Dezideriu is in the Romanian Parliament for nine years now. Along the time he had over 50 interpellations and interventions related to Harghita forests, from drawing attention on the corruption of the forestry institutions to thefts or issues related to returns. The MP says that he knows in detail the manner in which the National Autonomous Organization of the Forests (RNP) was politicised between 1996-2000 and also how it was re-politicised after 2000.

Garda thinks that everything that happened in the Romanian forestry has implications which lead to the peak of the political hierarchy. Recently, one of the former secretaries of state of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, responsible for the forests, Adam Craciunescu, raised the interest of the investigators. Along the time there was no political will to solve the issues of the Romanian forests.

Everytime when the necessity of a control at the Harghita Forestry Division was under discussion, the terms of such a control were negotiated in advance, telles the deputy. Moreover, between 2001-2003, the control institutions (the Finance Guard, Environment Protection Guard, the Accounts Court, the Forestry Division) constantly refused to check on the activity of the forestry districts. Most of the times such controls were politically silenced. Heads fell when offences were too obvious. Garda thinks that even the present political power does not seem available to treat seriously the “disaster of the Romanian forests”. The MP remembers how he was almost linched by the local people in Lazarea when he spoke to them about giving back the forests to their former owners, as well as he remembers the bizarre car accident in which he almost lost his life. Garda believees he became undesirable even for his own party in which he found part of the people against whom he fought along the time.

The road of the black wood – Suceava (II)

The “subsistence theft”, Suceava recipe of the wood traffic

On the whole, a simple monitoring of the forestry control institutions from Suceava shows that they are more efficient than those from Harghita. Strange is the fact that despite the impressive volume of theft cases traced, the managers of the Suceava Forestry Division preserved their positions though thefts were not stopped or at lwast diminished. The conclusion is that they had a more important political support than their colleagues in harghita. The majority of the cases solved are mere “pick-ups” of some tens of cubic meters confiscated. Just as in Harghita, the windfalls and the increase of the number of companies of the forestry sector gave an impulse to onerous businesses and thefts. A general phenomenon is the “subsistence theft” done by the local people who do not have other sources of income. They are persistently hunted down by the rangers. Th stolen wood reaches the saw mills – companies specialized in timber production, which sell it further on. When forestry inspectors catch the companies “red handed” with stolen wood, the situation is solved with a simple fine and the wood is confiscated. Within a few hours, they are back in “business” again.

One of the epicentres of wood thefts was the Stulpicani Forestry District.

Policemen and foresters discovered a network of 30 persons who stole the wood, procured justifying documents from forestry personnel and then sold the merchandise. The so-called bosses of the net were two retired agriculture men, Iacob Hoffman and Viorel Sceuleac. They bought the wood stolen by local people and sold it to the “Silta Forest” company in Stulpicani. The network included Liviu Boca, employed by the Stulpicani Forestry District . He obtained documents to accompany the wooden material. The thefts occurred right under the noses of Gheorghe Nica and Corneliu Barbuta, accountants, who were reprimanded for negligence.

What is specific to Suceava is the fact that the net of the contro, institution captured only “small fish” – within the context in which important local political people had businesses in the forestry field of activity and the Forestry Division was politicised. It results that the raids and the controls carried out had the role of throwing a smoke curtain on the most important deals and also to mime the efficiency of the forestry authorities. Due to inefficient laws, companies caught with stolen wood could not be shut down but just fined with symbolic amounts, some hundreds of Euros. On the list of companies having problems with the Suceava Territorial Inspectorate of Forestry Condition and Hunting (ITRSC) are Marion SRL of Cirlibaba (fined with 10 million ROL), Decomar SRL of Manastirea Humorului (77 cubic meteres of timber confiscated), Mariolono SRL of Breaza (9 cubi meters of timber without justifying documents), Forest Jucan SRL (7 cubic meters of timber), Best Forest SRL in Moldovita and Timeca Grup (fined with 10 million ROL for the missiong of certain documents).

Those companies did not use any cover, they just received the wooden material and processed it without entering it in the accounatncy books. It results a frail knowledge of the mamners to avoid the forestry control institutions. The activity of ITRSC Suceava focused on tracing the wood thieves from the areas Humorului, Solca or Cacica. Raids were successful. Another “successful” case was catching “red handed” an owner who alone chopped his forest. The event occurred in Dorna Arini where the owner of the “Alex Rusu” company illegally chopped wood from 5.5 heacters of forest. ITRSC proudly announced fines of hundreds of millions of ROL and the capture of some hundreds of cubic meters of wood. On a weekly basis , ITRSC announced minor captures in the local press, whilst big deals were left alone. According to the official data of the Suceava Forestry Division, in 2002 the illegal cuts amounted to 9,881 m 3 , in 2003, 12,675 mc and in 2004, 11,409 mc.

Political barons make the law of the wood in Suceava

Two of the Social Democrat Party businessmen run forestry activities at Suceava. We are speaking about former PSD MP's Culita Tarita and Dorel Craciun, considered the true wood ‘moguls' in Romania. The two of them were accused of having exploited wood from the forests of the Suceava Bishopric, Bishop Pimen accusing PSD of having robbed the forests of the Church. Dorel Craciun is the general manager of “Forestind”, built on the skeleton of the UFET company from Radauti by the purchase of the shares owned by the staff. In 2003, according to press information, his company exploited 120, 000 cubic meters of wooden material coming from windfalls of the Brodina rea. The Forestind company sold several chaltes to the Suceava Forestry Inspectorate.

The former MP Culita Tarita is mostly known as having obtained the concession of the “Great Island of Braila” from the Agency of the State Domains”. Culita ran businesses with wood in the area of the Lacu Rosu Natural Park in Harghita and in Piatra neamt or Bacau. The main support of the two deputies came from Octav Cozminca, former minister of the Public Administration during the PSD government and MP of Botosani. The press told that Gheorghe Nechiforel, former chief of the Suceava Forestry Division, is very close to Cozminca. Nechiforel was charged of having granted facilities to the deputies Craciun and Tarita so that they may get possession of 6 million cubic meters (a really fabulous quantity) from windfalls of the year 2000. the same PSD friend was accused of having distributed 800 hectares of forests to verious persons. During the autumn of 2004, Gheorghe Nechiforel was entered on the list with the Suceava PSD candidates for the Chamber of Deputies.

Another group of interests in the area of wood related deals has in its center the former Suceava prefect Ioan Cusnir. Along with the son of Gheorghe Gemanar (local businessman) and with the daughter of the County Council President, Mirza, he established the company “Gemacu”. Gemanar controls also the “Cominco” company, a beneficiary of tens of public contract. In this company activated Serban Mihailescu, former secretary general of the Government.

The “Gemacu” company was the beneficiary of Phare funding and has as its field of activity wood processing. In 2003, the company filed debts of 2.7 billion ROL to the Suceava Forestry Division, and still its businesses prospered. During this time, the prefect Cusnir told the press that the wood mafia made threats on his life. Prior to the local elections of June 2004 “the party company” cashed 204 billion ROL from the Suceava Forestry Division. Another politician with his name tied to the Suceava Forestry Division is the present minister of Agriculture, Gheorghe Flutur. He was manager of the forestry divison until 1997-2000 when he was elected deputy for the Liberal Party. After the political power shift in 2001, the name of Flutur was on four penal files for abuse. Flutur was accused of having caused 10 billion ROL in damages to the forestry division from having sold underestimated assets, illegal sales of wood, works, investments and repairs without the observance of the legal provisions.

Forest returns – a good theft opportunity

The most press released issue related to forest returns had in its center the Romania Orthodox Church, more exactly the Suceava Bishopric, represented by Bishop Pimen. The scandal started by the bishop almost at the start of the election campaign of 2004, when he accused the then governing party that “devilish hate darkened their minds” is far from coming to an end. The Orthodox Bishopric requests the return of 90 thousand hectares of forests which belonged to the church until 1948. The autumn of 2004, the Government issued an emergency ordinance to shut up their mouths (subsequent to that ordinance, the forests were given back). In the mean time it was demonstrated that the ordinance was unconstitutional and the situation is still unsolved. During the crisis, Bishop Pimen said that the forests which belomged to the church were already cut by PSD businessmen from Suceava. Similarly, in the Harghita and Covasna counties, the historical Hungarian Churches request massive returns of forests. Until 2003, the National Autonomous Organization of Forests fiercely claimed that returns endanger the safety of the forests. RNP led a true media campaign to warn that new owners cut their forests in an uncontrollable manner.

Private owners accuse RNP and the forestry divisions that they were denied protection of their forests and thus they were exploited illegally. Statistics show that, truly, massive thefts happened from private forests. Even more seriously, foresters were involved in the illegal wood chopping and stealing – the case of the Focsani Forestry Division or the cases of the joint possesions of the Harghita county.

Silviu MANASTIRE

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