The new, so-called "restitution law" in Romania will put a large portion of the country's forests back into private hands. The result, some people warn, could spell disaster for the country's forests, which are important not only to the Romanian economy but also to the environment of Europe as a whole. Lack of expertise in forest management of the new owners on the one hand and the promise of a sudden windfall on the other could result in mass felling of the country's stock of trees.
Central Europe Review talked with Dr Ioan Vasile Abrudan about the potential impact of the restitution law on Romanian forests as well as their importance to the country and Europe as whole. A lecturer of forestry at the Transylvania University at Braşov, Dr Abrudan is one of the leading specialists on forestry in Romania.
Central Europe Review: This is not the first case of restitution in Romania, is it?
Dr Ioan Vasile Abrudan: No, the first restitution started in 1991. At that time, only up to one hectare was restituted, and only to individuals, not to other owners such as towns, communes or churches. About 350,000 hectares were restituted, about 5 percent of Romania's total forest area.
What was the impact of that restitution on Romanian forests?
It varied from one region to another. In some regions it was disastrous, because there were a lot of illegal fellings.
Illegal in what way?
Felling above the limits allowed by the forest management plan. Now, a so-called summary management plan is required for areas of up to 10 hectares, while detailed management plans are required for areas larger than this. The plans must be drawn up by authorized organizations or management planning companies in cooperation with the forest owners.
And the present restitution—what impact will it have?
According to the recent restitution law, law no.1/2000, up to 10 hectares will be restituted to former private owners, in other words, individuals; up to 30 hectares will be returned to churches; and also all forests will be restituted to communities. In total, the forested areas claimed by former owners amount to about 2.9 million hectares, which is about half of the total forest area in Romania.
What changes can we expect this to bring?
Of course this will mean a lot of challenges for institutions like the ministries of agriculture and environment, who are in charge of forests and nature protection, or the public authorities responsible for forest management. In the past, they only had to deal with the state forest administration and now they have to deal with a lot of owners, both individuals and communities.
In terms of forest management, there are a lot of risks if the new owners are not given sufficient information and practical support in order to continue sustainable forest management.
The restitution will also impose some difficulties on the state forest administration, which is going to lose control over a lot of productive forest. According to the law, protected forest areas will not be restituted. So the forest administration will be left with the cost of caring for protected areas, while suffering a reduction in revenue due to loss of productive forests.
The management plans to date have been sustainable?
In general, yes, though there have been some exceptions, individual cases of over-harvesting.
Do you expect felling to increase as a result of the restitution?
No, I don't think so, at least not in the state forests. There will be some problems with the private owners, especially in the poor communities, since they see the restitution as a windfall. This is why strengthening institutions and increasing public awareness is important and must be done quickly.
Are the authorities prepared for this?
For the moment this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forests, which has responsibility for forests. But our government is now preparing a Forestry Development Program with support from the World Bank, and one of the components of this program is public awareness and support for a private forest association.
What kind of control mechanisms are there to assure that logging is indeed sustainable?
This is the responsibility of the forest inspectorate. The forest inspectorate was established only a year ago, so it is an ongoing process of building capacity for law enforcement and for providing services and consulting, because their role is not only to provide enforcement, but also practical support for forest owners.
Huge ecological value
Please give us a snapshot of Romanian forests.
Forests in Romania cover about 27 percent of the country's territory, which is about 6.3 million hectares. Seventy percent are broadleafed. Thirty-two percent-quite a large percentage-is beech, which is a particularly valuable species at the moment on the European market. In fact, Romania has the largest beech forest in Europe. Thirty percent of trees are conifers, mainly Norway spruce ,but also some silver fir. About two-thirds of the forests are in mountain regions.
What role does forestry play in the national economy?
In 1999, Romania exported wood and wood products totalling about USD 1 billion, which is 11 percent of our total exports. Of this, more than half were processed wood products, such as components, furniture, plywood, pulp, etc.
A number of new schemes exist for certifying sustainable forest management. Is this happening in Romania at all?
I have been involved here with the Forest Stewardship Council, which is a global non-governmental, non-profit organization with members including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), research institutions, businesses, social organizations, unions, and so on. The Council has drafted a generic set of standards for sustainable forest management throughout the world.
Our main effort is to introduce this approach to Romania. About half of the 380 forest district chiefs in Romania have now participated in courses, and a pilot project is getting under way.
Why bother about certification?
We see certification as enhancing economic returns, since more and more companies are requiring certification. For countries like Romania, this means more value for our exports. The main demand for our timber is shifting away from the Arabian and Chinese markets toward Western Europe. And Western Europeans in particular are increasingly demanding FSC certified timber.
What significance do Romanian forests have beyond the economic value of board feet for export?
Romania has the largest natural forested area—maybe the largest remaining virgin forests—in all Europe. Many areas are important in terms of biodiversity, as habitats for mammals, carnivores. The majority of the European bear population is in Romania. Also more than 40 percent of Europe's wolf and lynx populations are here, not to mention other species. So it is not just the economic value that is significant. The ecological value is huge.
The change from a centrally-planned to market economy is posing a lot of threats to this rich environmental treasure. Threats including possible impacts of changes in land ownership; industry and development; tourism... so there is a lot of work to be done in terms of conservation.
What is the health state of Romanian forests?
We are part of the European forest monitoring system. Compared to other countries, degradation due to pollution in Romania is not that bad.
If you fly across Germany or the Czech lands, you can see trees standing in neat rows like lines of Prussian soldiers. In many areas of Central Europe, virtually all of the original forest cover has been cut down and replaced with monocultures of fast-growing species like firs, resulting in a great loss in species and general ecological instability, with resulting problems of erosion, and loss of resistance to epidemics, severe weather, pollution, and other kinds of stresses.
Has this kind of "industrialization" of forestry occured in Romania as well?
Fortunately, it happened only to a limited extent. The tradition in our forestry has been to promote native species and natural forest composition. So, it didn't happen in Romania nearly on the same scale as it did in many Western or Central European countries. We don't have many plantations, nor too many exotic (ie non-native) species.
In the last centuries, forests were cleared in lowland areas, and this now presents a problem in some places with regard to erosion and changes in local climate, which will hopefully be addressed by government plans for reforestation. But in general, our forests are in relatively good shape.
Andreas Beckmann, 23 April 2001
Photo by Karin Steinbrueck.
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