Lumber cartels are chopping down forests in Romania at unprecedented rates, using terror, mob violence, and government corruption to mask their activities. Although the determined, freshly-appointed Environmental Minister Costel Alexe has painstakingly whittled down the cartels, the coronavirus crisis threatens to undo all this progress.
Every single minute, 1,340 square feet of Romanian forest are logged illegally, amounting to 706 million cubic feet of illegally cut forest per year. In fact, a report released by the Romanian government’s National Forest Inventory (IFN) earlier this year found that more forest in this Eastern European country is lost to criminal cutters than to permitted loggers. 
The consequences of breaking with the lumber cartels, mafias which monopolize local politics and illegally traffic wood to Western Europe, are no small joke. In one case, two former illegal loggers, Ilie and Dumitru Bucșă, blew the whistle on the Suceava lumber cartel after a dispute on compensation. In response, a mob attacked the brothers, and their village of Deia quickly ostracized them. The brothers have become pariahs—according to Ilie, lifelong friends now avoid the Bucșă brothers, fearing retribution from the cartels for associating with whistleblowers. 
To maintain their iron grip on local power, lumber cartels have systematically bribed, threatened, and even killed local officials and rangers who dared oppose them for years. Since 2014, official statistics show that 6 forest rangers were assassinated and 184 more were seriously injured by lumber cartels.  Moreover, such official statistics likely undercount violence against forest rangers, since many cases go unreported out of fear of retaliation and/or corruption, both of which pervade the system at the local, municipal, and national levels.
Illegal loggers don’t solely employ terror to bludgeon local communities into silence – they also use rewards. Local officials receive hefty bribes, while the money from logging benefits even poor rural Romanians by providing jobs, community, and cheap firewood. For many rural Romanians who lack heating, cheap firewood makes the difference between hypothermia and warmth in Romania’s biting winters. 
In exchange, local governments and communities actively cover-up the full extent of the illegal logging epidemic. Even when cases of cartel violence are reported, local government officials, bribed by illegal loggers, often turn a blind eye to both the logging and the violence. After all, only two percent of anti-logger prosecutions since 2010 were successful.  DIICOT, an anti-cartel, anti-terrorist agency, found that local authorities covered up a billion dollars’ worth of illegal timber in a single instance, and this figure will more than likely be adjusted upwards. [1R] For context, this sum represents 0.5% of Romania’s total GDP, equivalent to the size of the agricultural, fishing, lumber, and hunting industries in the US combined.  
The illegal logging has taken its toll on Romanian forests. On paper, Romania’s forest acreage has increased slightly from 2013 to 2018, according to the IFN. However, these figures don’t tell the full story, as the number of mature trees has plummeted. In other words, illegal logging has been wiping out the supply of mature trees that feeds the legitimate lumber market, destabilizing arboreal ecosystems and effectively creating a self-perpetuating cycle of crime, logging, and deforestation. 
Historically, the Romanian government had turned a blind eye to lumber cartels. Throughout the 2010s, Romanian politicians have cut funding to Romania’s environmental agencies. In April 2019, the center-left politician Liviu Dragnea attempted to hand control of federal forests to local priests, who would then have the right to near-unrestricted logging. [2R] This act would have institutionalized lumber cartels and granted them significant immunity. While both Romania’s rural and urban electorates are splintered between various parties, Dragnea enjoyed significant support from many heavily-forested rural communities as well as foreign corporations, the primary beneficiaries of illegal logging. 
For years, Romania’s urban youth and environmentalists had been fighting a losing crusade against the lumber cartels. However, two high-profile assassinations of forest rangers (which prompted massive protests in Bucharest), and unrelated corruption scandals which weakened Dragnea’s political party, revitalized the anti-deforestation movement.   Dragnea’s subsequent unprecedented string of electoral defeats killed the April 2019 “priest bill” proposal and ushered a motley coalition of environmentalist and pro-legal logging factions into power. (Dragnea has since been jailed on corruption charges, while his ex-party, the PSD, now publicly supports crackdowns on lumber gangs.)
A IFN report on Romanian logging published earlier this year, which admitted the extent of the illegal logging crisis and broke with the government’s tradition of pro-lumber cartel cover-up, might be a watershed moment for the forests. After the report, the current environment minister, Costel Alexe, set about tightening long-overdue enforcement of logging permits and prosecuting major cartel bosses. In March, after reports of mass illegal logging in northern Romania, Alexe launched a criminal investigation into the crime. [3R] Moreover, illegal lumber cartels have shrunk markedly and intensified attacks on federal rangers, a sign of their growing desperation.  
The European Union is also in the process of suing the Romanian government for allowing rampant illegal logging, even going as far as threatening sanctions on Bucharest.  While some environmentalists welcome this action, many Romanians disapprove of the EU’s involvement, noting that the EU is only litigating the Romanian government after the government began cracking down on lumber cartels, which only weakens the Environmental Ministry’s depleted coffers. Lumber cartels have disproportionately benefited Austrian and other Western European corporations, given that illegal loggers sell Romanian wood to the timber conglomerates for far below-market prices, so some Romanians speculate the EU action protects Western corporations. These Romanians see EU intervention as a form of “soft colonialism” – foreign corporations benefit from exploiting Romania’s natural resources, while the Romanian taxpayer pays the litigatory costs and cartel consequences.
Now, however, the coronavirus crisis threatens to undo Environment Minister Alexe’s progress. Romania enforced a rigid lockdown early during the COVID-19 epidemic, drawing government attention away from forests. Rural rangers were furloughed as the government shifted its focus and funds towards combating the coronavirus as it ravaged urban centers. Although the lockdown has since been rescinded, the fallout of coronavirus on Romania’s heavily-regulated economy continues to sap the government’s attention. Coronavirus has also dominated the headlines, detracting from public support to combat illegal loggers. 
Illegal logging in Romania is a tale of criminal terror, corruption, and exploitation – and it’s also a tale of deforestation in a middle-income country. The millions upon millions of cubic feet of illegally-logged wood is a crime against not only the Romanian forests, economy, and people, but indeed a crime against the entire world, for it intensifies climate change. Illegally logged wood weakens some of Eastern Europe’s most important carbon sinks and floods the world market with cheap wood, further disincentivizing the shift away from wood and paper products. The same illegal logging that is happening in Romania repeats itself across the world in low- and middle-income countries, Brazil being a prominent example. Romania’s recent progress against deforestation implies that illegal logging in other parts of the Earth could be solved as well, but the coronavirus pandemic threatens environmental progress and anti-corruption efforts across the world. Ultimately, deforestation takes the world one step closer to climate change’s worst-case scenario, which could condemn upwards of a billion humans to death. 
Theodore Ganea is a passionate debater with an avid interest in history and science. He has always been fascinated by international politics, diplomacy, and war, both in the past and in the present. He is particularly interested in covering undercovered international events, involving both of his countries (Romania and America) and the rest of the world.