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  • Deforestation in the Balkans

    2010 - 06.01

    The home of more than half of Europe’s bears and wolf populations is being threatened by illegal logging and unregulated real estate projects.

    This weekend marks the International Day for Biological Diversity and to alert public opinion to the looming dangers, national parks in the region will rally together for this event.

    One of the countries worst hit by deforestation is Albania. According to several environmental non-governmental organisations contacted by AFP woodlands that once covered 51% prior to 1990 have now been reduced to 25%.

    A prime example is the Vlora region on Albania’s southern Adriatic coast, where according to the Albanian National Forest Association 102 hectares (252 acres) of forests were cleared to make room for illegal construction.

    Illegal loggers haven’t even spared Albania’s national parks such as the Lura, considered a gem of the Balkans with its vast expanse of pine, fir and beech trees. According to the national statistics institute no one has been tried and convicted for illegal logging although ten times more trees are felled illegally than legally.

    Meanwhile Romania boasts the second largest woodland expanse in Europe after Russia with 300,000 hectares of intact forest. Even so its national parks are also under threat. Between 2004 and 2007 in Piatra Craiului Park in the Meridional Carpathians, nearly 300 hectares of forests were cut down illegally. In protest an environmental group called Agent Green used huge logs to write the word ‘crime’ on one of the now bald mountainsides.

    “This is a disaster; I’ve never seen anything like this. If logging continues, the area will turn into a desert,” Alex, an environmental activist told AFP.

    If that wasn’t bad enough offical figures in Romania show a worrying trend, more than 170,000 cubic meters of illegally cut timber are seized every year and out of the 25,000 fines issued over the last three years only two have ended up in actual convictions. Cristian Apostol a Romanian junior minister for forestry blamed legal loopholes for the situation. He cited various reports where more than 180,000 hectares of forest had been illegally cleared since the fall of the late communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.

    Since that time some of Romania’s deforestation has been blamed on the shifts in ownership after the collapse of communism.

    “The law was there but the necessary structures to enforce it were missing,” said Apostol.

    Today there are more than 800,000 private owners of forest land and for obvious reasons it is not easy to control them all.

    “Things have improved, however, thanks to regional enforcement bodies and private firms and foundations,” he said, adding more than one-quarter of Romania’s forests were now privately managed.

    During the 1992-1995 war forests suffered massive destruction in Bosnia with some 100,000 hectares of forests infested with land mines and expected to remain off limits for many years to come.

    The Balkans have also been badly affected by forest fires. Macedonia saw 35,000 hectares turn to ash in 2007 resulting in floods, landslides and a depletion of wildlife. Authorities and NGOs in the Balkans have now, after years of neglect to take action to reverse the decline of forest land.

    Croatia has slapped severe restrictions on construction in forest areas and Romania has pledged tougher sanctions against illegal lumbering. Romania has also joined Macedonia and Serbia in launching ambitious reforestation programmes.

    Despite this Grabriel Paun, the head of Agent Green, warns against expecting miracles.

    “The trees we are planting now will only turn into a mature forest in 80 years’ time,” he said. “We won’t be there to enjoy it, but we are doing this for the next generations and hoping to see the wildlife return.”

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