BLOG | Romania’s forests and a global pandemic: a case of ecological entanglement

Evidence shows that rampant deforestation will worsen the frequency and intensity of future global pandemics. Yet implementing indiscriminate bans on timber harvesting and trade will have an immediate and serious impact on already vulnerable environments and livelihoods, as well being ineffective in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

This blog was written by George Iordăchescu, a BIOSEC post-doctoral research fellow who has recently returned from field research in Romania.

Evidence shows that rampant deforestation will worsen the frequency and intensity of future global pandemics. Yet implementing indiscriminate bans on timber harvesting and trade – measures often called for in response to global environmental crises – will have an immediate and serious impact on already vulnerable environments and livelihoods, as well being ineffective in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

While decades ago tropical forests around the globe were regarded as harbouring various viruses and pathogens, more recently scientists and conservation practitioners started advocating that it is the human destruction of those habitats that create the new conditions for pathogens to emerge. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, global stakeholders, environmental activists, academics and many celebrities have demanded a blanket ban on wildlife trade and shutdown on wet markets. The ethical considerations of this position are legion, and there are already authoritative voices arguing that a ban would be an inefficient way to prevent future pandemics.

Similarly, proposals to strengthen the fight against illegal logging and to dedicate concentrated efforts to protect forests around the globe are getting increased attention. The pandemic is used by governments to justify deregulation of the forestry sector, such as the recent scrapping of FLEGT voluntary partnership agreement by the Indonesian Government. Media outlets in Europe have picked up on these issues but recommended caution in linking the current pandemic to recent forest loss. In particular, the debate has sparked political disputes in Romania, a country that has been invariably portrayed in the international press as ineffective in its fight against illegal logging and timber mafia.

An online petition demanding rapid action was launched at the end of March, only days after the president of Romania declared the state of emergency and the liberal government imposed strict lockdown measures. Linking the forest destruction to the havoc wreaked by coronavirus, the petition set in motion arguably the most widespread debate about timber exploitation, deforestation and illegal logging witnessed by the country in recent years. The petition urged the government to immediately cease all timber exploitation operations, arguing that illegal loggers have increased their criminal operations whilst state authorities have been focused elsewhere on the challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Similar concerns have also recently been raised in other contexts, so this petition was not considered uncommon. Additionally, the initiators claimed that timber traffic has dramatically increased compared to previous years and that for each truck that transports timber legally, another one was doing so illicitly.

The petition created mass mobilisation on social media. Thousands of pictures of trucks and trains transporting logs were posted as undisputed evidence that illegal tree felling and timber trade had indeed increased to unprecedented levels. As people were not allowed to leave their homes, they found themselves unable to use any of the timber monitoring apps and technologies they had become accustomed with over previous years. They resorted instead on taking pictures from their balconies, reposting old photographs, sending emails to elected representatives in the Parliament and signing online petitions in an attempt to stop an inflated national disaster.

In just a few weeks, the spectacle of illegal logging obliterated the boundaries between legality and illegality. Every vehicle loaded with timber was considered a sign of illegal business and used as a tool to pressure the authorities to take extreme measures, even to ban timber exploitation altogether. The Ombudsman started an own-initiative inquiry into the matter, with ministers and various politicians intervening hastily in the debate and proposing stricter measures, higher fines, and tighter controls of the industry. In parallel, professional associations of foresters, forest administrators, trade unions and business networks explained in televised debates and on social media that a total ban would destroy the economy. Forestry contributes 3.5 % to the country’s GDP, offers over 100 000 jobs and provides firewood to more than 3.5 million rural households.

As the debate over the fate of the forest has been overshadowed only by the direct challenges posed by the pandemic, policy changes came straightaway. The export of round wood outside the EU was banned, and officers from the forestry guards joined the police and the army in controlling the traffic on public roads during the state of emergency. At the same time, various amendments to the forestry code were submitted to parliamentary committees, and a new forest crime enforcement authority is expected to commence activity soon, should fast-track legislation be adopted. Further bans on exporting timber and timber products are being considered, as public opinion suggests that people are still not convinced that the government is doing enough.

After more than four years of framing illegal logging and timber trade as a national security threat, the line between legality and crime has been cancelled. Throughout all this time national and international NGOs and politicians claimed that the imminent disappearance of the Carpathian forests required radical measures such as putting large areas of forests under strict protection, criminal punishments for perpetrators of illegal logging and total bans on forestry harvesting, transport and timber trade. Framed as a security threat within national legislation, over recent years both illegal logging and the timber trade concentrated the efforts of state authorities more than any other environmental issue. As timber harvesting became over-regulated and the rangers and foresters pointed to the massive bureaucratisation crippling the system, the Carpathian forests evolved into a space of violence. Usually portrayed in the public discourse as corrupt and part of the problem, several rangers were found dead in suspicious circumstances while guarding the forests over the previous months. As images of loaded trucks flooded social media during lockdown, the many cases of arson and forestry equipment destruction across the country acted as a reminder that the Carpathian forests are indeed a violent timber frontier.

Yet, bans can also represent acts of slow violence. In the Romanian case, this violence is exerted on a rural population that relies on timber to heat their homes and cook their food, as the gas is used as an energy source. In most rural areas, villagers need to heat their homes for 5-6 months every year using significant amounts of timber. Forbidding them to procure their wood this spring would put around 3.5 million households in a situation of significant shortage next year, as firewood is always used from one year to another to harvest its maximum caloric power.

Likewise, most of the 100,000 jobs in the forestry sector are mainly in rural areas. Heavily reliant on labour relations established during the timber boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, most of the rural timber industry uses precarious workforce, sometimes under informal arrangements. Therefore, if the government implemented a blanket ban on the industry, these businesses and their workers would likely be disqualified from the state support schemes for companies affected by closure during this state of emergency.

And finally, aside from any social and economic outcomes, the ecological entanglements of a total ban would harm an already vulnerable environment. In February 2020, many thousands of hectares of forests in the Carpathian region were affected by massive wind throws, which uprooted millions of trees, mostly spruce monocultures. Foresters rushed to remove affected timber which is vulnerable to bark beetle infestations and if left, would make the forest more prone to wildfires after an already unprecedented dry winter. Forcing the foresters to leave the timber in the forest would harm the remaining healthy trees, an argument that has been advanced by forestry experts across the continent. A total ban on timber harvesting would also deprive the state authorities in charge of reforestation and forest administration of the funds necessary to continue their operations. This translates into mass redundancies of personnel responsible for tree nurseries, rangers and daily workers employed in thinning and other forest maintenance operations whose work usually remains invisible.

The slow violence wrought by such a total ban on timber harvesting and trade will exacerbate the vulnerabilities of rural people and the forests across the Carpathian range. As the Romanian case shows, bans are never only about saving forests or allowing nature to heal itself. They have manifold political and social outcomes and enforcing them in crisis situations can have severe – and long-ranging – impacts.