By STEPHEN McGRATH Associated Press
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Environmental groups say Romania has failed to tackle illegal logging and nature destruction in areas protected by European Union law, two years after Brussels warned the country to put an end to illicit deforestation.
A new report authored by nongovernmental groups Agent Green, EuroNatur, and ClientEarth, obtained by The Associated Press before its official release, alleges that widespread destruction in Natura 2000 sites — areas of special value that are meant to be protected by EU law — has in some areas intensified since the EU Commission issued warnings in February 2020.
The Commission said at the time that Romanian authorities managed forests and authorized logging “without evaluating beforehand the impacts on protected habitats as required” under the bloc’s directives. It gave Romania a month to take measures to “address the shortcomings” and issued final warnings in July 2020.
Gabriel Paun, president of Agent Green, told the AP that instead of curbing illegal logging in the protected natural areas, Brussels’ infringement procedures triggered what he called “panic logging.”
“The report clearly shows that logging in native forests in protected areas has increased,” Paun said. “This is panic logging in old-growth forests based on a fear that the EU’s biodiversity strategy will become binding for all member states.”
He added: “Romania will surely have to face the European Court of Justice over these protected areas as it has failed to comply with EU nature laws.”
The campaign groups’ report found that “the Romanian government has done very little to stop the ongoing degradation of the Natura 2000 sites” and the “threat to these protected natural forest ecosystems remains constant and widespread.”
The three environmental groups will this week call on the Commission to refer the case to the European Court of Justice, the bloc’s highest court.
Romania, an EU member since 2007, is home to vast areas of primary forests measuring around half a million hectares. They are mostly situated in the country’s Carpathian Mountains, out of a total forest cover of around 7 million hectares which provide habitat for large mammals like bears, wolves, and Eurasian lynx.
But successive Romanian governments have struggled to prevent widespread illegal logging, which some describe as being carried out by a “wood mafia.”
Over a three-month period between August and October last year, Agent Green investigators monitored 41 locations within four Natura 2000 sites — each the subject of EU infringement procedures — using a combination of fieldwork, satellite imagery, and data from a national, public database of logging permits.
“Romania’s persistent failure to act means the situation in Romanian forests has gone from bad to worse,” said Agata Szafraniuk, a ClientEarth wildlife and habitats lawyer. “If the European Commission does not escalate Romania’s clear disregard of EU nature laws before the EU’s highest court, the future of these important forests looks dire.”
In a statement to the AP after seeing the report, a spokesperson at Romania’s environment ministry said there was “no evidence that logging activities have increased since the start of the infringement procedure” and that measures the ministry implemented last year are effectively tackling illegal logging.
The ministry said that after increasing sanctions for illegal logging in 2021 it has seen “a strong upward trend” in terms of criminal offenses discovered, with an increase of 47% in investigations referred to a court of justice when compared to 2020.
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