On Termites' Trail - Joint Efforts Against Illegal Logging

Termites are eating our forest. No, not the insects, but other ‘termites’ that turn wood into cash. The problem is on the public agenda again – after the revelation for illegal logging near the town of Velingrad, Bulgaria and the dismissal of the forestry employee who signaled the violation. This, however, is just one example of illegal practices.

Exactly the well-known schemes, but also the reasons for their existence, problems in the sector apart from the illegal logging and the opportunities for a positive change were discussed by journalists, NGO experts and state representatives during a public discussion entitled ‘Termites without Borders’ organized by Foundation ‘BlueLink’ in cooperation with the political party ‘Zelenite’ conducted on 20 October 2015 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The focus of the event was the presentation of the preliminary results from the investigative research of the journalist Atanas Tchobanov about illegal logging in Northwestern Bulgaria by a company owned by a town councilor in the municipality of Desa (located near the border town of Vidin, on the Romanian side of the Danube river). The journalist, however, also points out other examples of illegal logging as a transnational problem like the ‘termites of Schweighofer’ – i.e. firms from which the Austrian company buys wood, while applying corrupt practices, a ‘delicate’ circumvention on the ban on row timber exports by exporting wood chips, profit schemes from illegal logging such as ‘19/45’ and ‘20% above the forecast’. 

‘19/45’ is a scheme announced by the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in 2014  (then in opposition): ‘On the 19th day of each month certain people were driven to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, as before that they received a slip of paper, saying that they should collect 45 000 leva  each’. Money was collected from the state forestry departments (SFD) and state hunting departments (SHD) by the six state enterprises which supervised them. In order for the director of each SFD or SHD to “provide” between two to five thousand leva in cash each month, the money were sought from logging companies which needed to cut in excess of the approved quantity so they could supply the money,” explained in front of BTV  camera the forest ranger Hussein Shakirov.

The scheme ‘20% above the forecast', entitled that way by Atanas Tchobanov’, is related to the difference between the amount of timber which was forecast, logged  and entered in the accounting books, as reported by the forestry departments. Profit comes from not reporting those, in most cases, 20 – 25% with which the extracted timber exceeds the forecast. The latter scheme was brought to light be a source of bivol.bg from within the Executive Forestry Agency (EFA).


Why are these practices possible? Nelly Dontcheva, head of the Forests Program at WWF -Bulgaria, pointed out several main reasons for illegal logging in Bulgaria. First of all, this is mixing of control functions within the same institution – Ministry of Agriculture and Food (MAF), through the Executive Forestry Agency (EFA), and economic interest, through the state forestry enterprises. ‘It turns out that one body with two hands has to simultaneously control what both of them do’, adds Dontcheva. Other reasons are corrupt practices, political pressure and ‘unprofessional personnel policy’ – elimination of ‘inconvenient’ (high position) experts in favor of other people.

Eng. Martin Ivanov from the Regional Forestry Directorate (RDF) – Sofia, however, reminded about the role of citizens in the whole process who buy illegally extracted timber. ‘Why all these people, when we talk about forests, say ‘mafia’, ‘corruption’, etc. but when a person X comes to you and offers you illegal timber, why do people buy it without a document, having in mind that its price is not even lower?’, wondered Ivanov. He explained also why there are consequences from the illegal trading of wood for citizens and the state becomes ‘the bad guy’ fining a 70-year-old grandmother with a small pension: ‘If we don’t fine the grandmother, we can’t find out where the timber came from, we can’t send the file to the prosecution and we can’t find out who had done the illegal logging and the illegal trade’.

As a positive example of measures undertaken by the state authorities Atanas Tchobanov mentioned the compulsory installation of GPS in the trucks and the development of an information system. A positive review of the actions of the authorities was also given by Martin Ivanov, taking in account the actions applied with respect to access to information: ‘Practically everybody can get information about where, how much and by whom logging activities take place, both through the EFA’s website and the information boards placed at any site where timber is extracted’.

Ivanov pointed out as an example the extended station to the national system for a unified European number 112 that was launched in May 2015 which directly receives and handles signals for logging and poaching, as they are transferred simultaneously to the respective state enterprises and regional forestry directorates to perform the necessary background checks. In addition, a system for marking timber, extracted from state forests, with plates has been introduced. It helps to curb the sale of illegally harvested timber, and respectively of the illegal logging, even though according to Ivanov it was not designed in the best possible way.

The director of RFD – Sofia reminded also of the well-known practice of using one and the same transport ticked twice or several times: ‘If you now decide to stop a truck transporting wood somewhere in Bulgaria, I give you a 99,9% guarantee that it would have a transport ticket’. In order to conteract this practice a system called ‘Electronic transport ticket’ shall be introduced, working on tablets and the Android operation system. ‘This, combined with the GPS systems in the trucks transporting timber, should almost eradicate in practice the instances of a transport ticked being used more than once, as you would have the opportunity to identify the moment the ticked was issued, the time of departure of the vehicle and its route to the place of delivery’, explained Ivanov. The system would probably be launched on 1 January 2016 for both state and private owned forests.

The director of RFD – Sofia also talked about another problem that stays in the periphery of illegal logging – undeclared income and illegal labor. According to him a big part of owners of forests who have income from logging don’t declare it and many of those working in the sector are not hired in any official way, without any kind of contract. ‘They don’t want to be insured, it’s easier for them that way, they go from one place to another and in the same time they receive welfare payments’, claimed Ivanov and said that workers “ran away” from the regions that were first to introduce certification. The state opposes these practices through an agreement between EFA and the General Labor Inspectorate (GLI) to perform joint inspections at timber logging sites: ‘Those who issue logging permits are obligated to insert the names of people who have been granted access to the particular clearings. This information can be used by the GLI for checking if these people are hired in any official way by the particular company’.

Apart from the actions of the authorities against illegal logging, Martin Ivanov pointed out a few problems in the forestry sector in Bulgaria that, even though not directly related to the issue, influence it in a way. One of them is the limited budget: ‘there is no need of corruption in order for the qualified specialists to leave the system of the EFA’. According to Ivanov even though the image of the profession still ‘lies’ within EFA, the private sector can offer much better payment and qualified experts go there not because of corruption, but because of better opportunities for self-realisation. ‘This year the salaries of forestry inspectors were raised, because the situation was tragic; they used to get about the minimum wage (380 leva  at the end of 2015) and you understand that you can’t control a resource like that with 360 – 400.

According to Martin Ivanov these problems are not only Bulgarian, but are also inherent to the developed democracies as well, as he called them. When schemes for illegal logging pass across borders, however, even with a good will, it is hard to stop them with local actions only.

According to Aurelie Marechal, Executive Director of Green European Foundation, two of the ways for dealing with the problem at an European level are by cooperation with the European green parties for checking if there is a possibility for legal changes in this area (i.e. counteracting trans boundary illegal schemes), as well as by using the petition instruments of the European Commission which can be employed by citizens to raise attention to a particular problem.

According to Nelly Dontcheva one of the tools that can be used at the European level is the one known in Bulgaria under the name ‘Regulation 995 ’, which aims preventing the access of illegal timber on the European market, extracted both within the European Union and outside its borders. According to her, however, the implementation of this tool is still not good and some groups of products are not included in the document. Regarding the export ban Martin Ivanov stated that it was accepted as an expression of determination to stop illegal logging, despite the fundamental EU principles for free movement of goods, capital and people. But in his personal opinion there is no problem for the timber to be exported in case it was legally logged, and especially, if the needs it satisfies the needs of the local market; the lack of access to external markets would potentially reduce owners’ profits and increase the unemployment rates in the sector.

Borislav Sandov from Zelenite, however, diverted the conversation to another problem when it came to European practices. According to him the European Union spends money for promoting its contribution for projects implementation in different media in the Member States, but there is no EU money set aside for investigative journalism. ‘As we know, one of the missions of journalists is to be a corrective, a fourth independent power’, reminded Sandov and noted that in particular states and particular media money for promotion of the EU goes for corruption and censorship.  

Since the termites are not what they used to be, actions against them should be innovative, too. According to Tchobanov it will be extremely useful to benefit from a contemporary GIS’system like the one established by the Bulgarian office of WWF that would ‘combine’ photos with extremely high resolution from Google SkyBox application and data for logging permits from the EFA. With its help everyone can send geolocalized signals for violations with pictures of the place, using his or her smartphone.

Exactly the transnational character of deforestration and illegal logging is the unifying element in the work of Atanas Tchobanov and investigativejournalists from Romania, Moldova and Macedonia, working in cooperation with NGOs and green parties in their countries. Their work is part of the project „Establishing a Transboundary Watchdog Mechanism for Environmental Problems For Green Political Parties and NGOs on the Balkans“, financed by Green European Foundation. According to Borislav Sandov the goal of the project is in a joint publication to point at common problems and potential common solutions that could be proposed by the participants to solve this issue employing dialogue and cooperation.

The cooperation and dialogue, in the particular case with the state, was also emphasized by Dr. Pavel Antonov from Foundation ‘BlueLink’. According to him in order to this problem working with civil society organizations is not enough, since change and processes in society do not depend entirely on them. Solving the problem requires cooperation between all of the interested parties: ‘We need civil society and expert organizations that are familiar with the issue, but we also need the state, it doesn’t apply to logging only, but to all other sectors’, reminded Antonov.