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Monday, 13 June 2016

Deforestation in the outer reaches of the EU: a clear-cut story?



Guest Blog Post by Alex Rowell

Politics and forestry have been entwined in Romania for centuries.  Sweeping land-use changes have followed the collapse of empires, world wars and socialist collectivisation. Viewed in this context, current forest management policies become just the latest installment of a long-running tale.

After the fall of socialism in 1991, Romania aligned itself with the western democracies by quickly passing neoliberal reforms which began the path towards EU accession.  A crucial element of this was the restitution process, the legal method by which land is transferred from the state to its pre-socialist owners (or their descendants). In the name of increased efficiency and international competitiveness, but implicitly also to expunge the memory of socialism, restitution has led to complete structural change in Romanian land ownership, including the forestry sector. Four overlapping laws between 1991 and 2013 created a huge new generation of forest owners, with one estimate suggesting that 800,000 owners have been created since 20051.

The First World War had just come to a close the last time there was such a transfer of land to the populace of Romania. To stave off a Russian-style revolution and to consolidate new land acquired from the deceased Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania’s leaders consented to a programme of land distribution. The result was a burst of deforestation, perhaps 1.3 million ha between 1919 and 19302, as rural Romanians cleared space for agriculture. 

Evidence of deforestation in Maramureş Mountains Nature Park, August 2015. 
Photo courtesy of Alex Rowell.

Today deforestation is once again an issue of concern across Romania. After a period of stable forest cover during slow forestry sector development in socialist times, it now has the highest rate of forest loss in Eastern Europe, with 2500km2 lost between 1995 and 2000 alone3. Recent evidence suggests that each passed restitution law has been followed by a burst of harvesting in high value timber sites. This should worry all European conservationists, as Romania holds some of the last patches of temperate old-growth forest in Europe, the majority of Europe’s largest continuous forest ecosystem and it still contains healthy populations of large carnivores. Is Romania’s shifting system of ownership a factor in this? Is privatisation driving forest loss, just as it once did almost one hundred years ago? 

Undoubtedly in some cases restitution created the potential for deforestation in an uncertain period in recent Romanian history. In the transition period away from socialism, many new forest owners doubted the permanency of their new tenures, leading many to believe a time window existed to earn profits from the situation before ownership policy changed once more. Also, such a multitude of new owners ensured that a lack of knowledge over sustainable forestry practice was unavoidable. On top of a lingering spectre of corruption and rural poverty, a common suspicion is that the blame for recent deforestation lies squarely with new forest owners. But such assumptions have been formulated through personal experiences and anecdotes from Romania and a common rule of thumb; that neoliberal policy drives resource consumption.

Temperate old-growth forest in Maramureş Mountains Nature Park, northern Romania. 
Photo courtesy of Alex Rowell.

Using Maramureş Nature Park in Northern Romania as a case study, our research found heavy deforestation throughout the park; almost 30% from 1990-2010.  Interestingly, this study, which for the first time used spatial data of new private forest estates, found that deforestation rates were similar in both public and private areas, regardless of the size. Besides confirming the weak protection status of the park, it seems deforestation has been common in all ownership regimes, rather than simply a factor of private management practices. This result shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; in theory both public and private forest management plans need to be signed off by the state forestry agency ROMSILVA. 

Two trends in deforestation stick out over the twenty year period between 1990 and 2010 in Maramureş Mountains Nature Park. There was a huge boom in timber extraction from 1990-1995 and logging practices have gradually reallocated to more remote areas of the park. This suggests that timber harvesting in Maramureş has been driven by availability and accessibility.

Restitution was only one part of fundamental overhaul of Romania. Now firmly embedded in the European Union (EU), it can be hard to remember, or simply believe, in the younger generation’s case, how different the country was just 25 years ago. The immediate transitional period after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime led to societal upheaval in the long-term, but also institutional breakdown in the short-term. The breakdown in authority and subsequent confusion surrounding early restitution laws may have increased the availability of timber for extraction through a lack of regulation. 

That the highest proportion of logging now arises from remote areas means that new infrastructure has allowed access to high quality sources of timber which were up until now, unavailable. Whilst exact data on road development is hard to come by, forest road construction and improvement have been major development goals of both The World Bank and the EU. Taken with the increasing dominance of transnational timber corporations, such as Schweighofer and Egger, there is now sufficient investment in the Romanian timber market to promote industrial expansion into areas that were until recently protected by their remoteness.

Old-growth forests, stands with idiosyncratic structural features provided by a complete range of tree ages, are the core of European wilderness. But the remaining patches in Romania face an uncertain future. In common with previous research,4 we found that old-growth harvesting is present within protected areas, yet in Maramureş it also far exceeded the rate of extraction of timber as a whole. Once again, ownership is a negligible issue, which means that the only true protection against logging activity of the most precious features of the park is still the inaccessibility of steep slopes.

The Romanian forestry sector is a complex web of competing interests. The theory that land privatisation has in itself driven widespread deforestation is not nuanced enough to explain the situation. Rather, underlying structural social change in the transition period out of socialism created confusion and a lack of regulation in forestry practices. Ensuing economic reform and accession to the EU opened the doors for international capital to a country with relatively undeveloped natural resources. Unfortunately, the hope that these reforms would root out corruption has not been realized, and new corporations acting in the Romanian market have allegedly become embedded in illegal practices. The creation of private forest estates is not the root cause of recent deforestation across Romania. Both private and public forests are often directed towards timber production and mismanagement is just as likely in either. Coupled with an influx of capital which makes it possible to exploit valuable timber stands in once remote areas, Romania will continue to see a reduction in size of the protected area’s forests, including its most valuable old-growth sites.


REFERENCES

1. Griffiths, P. et al. Using annual time-series of Landsat images to assess the effects of forest restitution in post-socialist Romania. Remote Sens. Environ. 118, 199–214 (2012).

2. Olofsson, P. et al. Carbon implications of forest restitution in post-socialist Romania. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 045202 (2011).

3. Griffiths, P. et al. Forest disturbances, forest recovery, and changes in forest types across the Carpathian ecoregion from 1985 to 2010 based on Landsat image composites. Remote Sens. Environ. 151, 72–88 (2013).

4. Knorn, J. et al. Continued loss of temperate old-growth forests in the Romanian Carpathians despite an increasing protected area network. Environ. Conserv. 40, 182–193 (2013).

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About the author: Alex is a conservation science researcher originally from Cambridge, UK. He has worked in practical conservation with the RSPB, Wildlife Trust and Natural England, and now studies a Master of International Nature Conservation in Göttingen, Germany and Lincoln, New Zealand. Alex's research focuses on the protection of wilderness in the EU and in particular threats to conservation in Romania. 

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