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Other Attacks on Eastern Europe

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Eastern Europe isn’t just under attack from Russia. It’s also under attack from rapacious capital. This story about Ikea demanding to cut the last old-growth forests in Romania may not seem particularly important this week, but in fact our issues with forests and environmental degradation will go on a lot longer than this issue with Russia will and we need to hold western companies accountable for their actions.

Logging season in Romania runs seven months, from mid-September through April, a frenzy of chain saws chewing through millions of spruce, pine, oak, maple, beech, fir. Some of the wood is cut legally; most of it is not, and violence between the logging industry and its opponents breaks out often. Early this season, two Bucharest-based documentary filmmakers, working on a project about the illicit wood trade, set out to find a large, treacherous-looking clear-cut in Suceava, a northern county where some of the country’s largest sawmills are based and where Ikea owns thousands of hectares.

The filmmakers—Mihai Dragolea, a director, and Radu Mocanu, a cameraman—were shadowing a local environmentalist, Tiberiu Bosutar. A former wood chipper turned activist, Bosutar was no stranger to illegal timber. Over the course of five years, he had built a reputation as something of a forest vigilante, accosting loggers engaged in questionable activity or following trucks stuffed with wood contraband, then streaming the encounters on Facebook Live. Just a few weeks before, he’d gone viral broadcasting an attempt to detain a truck carrying illegal logs; when his white SUV ran out of gas, he flagged down an ambulance and kept up the chase.

But the filmmakers’ trip wasn’t meant to be a stunt. The group took Bosutar’s personal vehicle, well-known in the area, and lingered for coffee at a nearby gas station to make their presence known and prove that they had not come to antagonize. Then, with Bosutar behind the wheel, the person who’d tipped them off about the cut riding shotgun, and the filmmakers in the back, they took to the highway, turned left up a dirt road, and began to climb.

It didn’t take long before they saw what they came for: stumps. “The forest was fucked up to the bone,” Dragolea told me. “It was really damaged.” No surprise, really, and on any other day, Bosutar might have taken to Facebook. Instead, he chose to call the forest ranger’s office. It was an ideal opportunity, he thought, to showcase the potential for communication between activists, law enforcement, and loggers, and fulfill a New Year’s resolution to try a less combative approach. “It was a good moment to show that we are open to dialogue.”

Not long after, they heard the whinge of engines; soon, two SUVs arrived. Out jumped not local police, but a horde: 15 men armed with bats and axes. The documentary crew broke for Bosutar’s car but couldn’t get the locks in time. The attackers pried the doors open, snapped the key, slashed the tires, and smashed the camera equipment. They beat Mocanu, trapped between the car and the mountainside, unconscious. They clubbed Dragolea in the face. The director dove down the nearby ravine, where he hid under the roots of a fallen tree and called the police, begging them to come with their sirens on. “I said, ‘They’re killing the journalists in the forest, and they are tracking me down,’” he recounted. “I knew cases where people had died in the forest, I saw axes around me. If someone didn’t call, we were going to die for sure.”

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But the fall of communism in 1989 dissolved one layer of protection for those forests, and the subsequent wave of privatization inaugurated widespread corruption. In 2007, Romania’s entry to the European Union created a massive, liberated market for the country’s cheap, abundant timber and the inexpensive labor required to extract it, conditions that encouraged Austrian timber companies and Swedish furniture firms to set up shop. Succeeding fractious, ineffectual regimes enacted further pro-market reforms and did little to curb corruption; in the final months of 2021, the country’s prime minister designate found himself unable to form a government at all. Add to that the astronomical growth of the fast furniture industry, which particularly relies on the spruce and beech that populate these forests, and the result has been a delirium of deforestation.

There’s one obvious, notable beneficiary of this situation: Ikea. The company is now the largest individual consumer of wood in the world, its appetite growing by two million trees a year. According to some estimates, it sources up to 10 percent of its wood from the relatively small country of Romania, and has long enjoyed relationships with mills and manufacturers in the region. In 2015, it began buying up forestland in bulk; within months it became, and remains, Romania’s largest private landowner.

The global market’s edacity for timber, perhaps predictably, has gone far beyond the legal limits set up by an already permissive state. According to a 2018 report, initially suppressed by the Romanian government and leaked later that year, the country saw 38.6 million cubic meters of wood exit its forests annually during the preceding four-year period; the government had licensed just 18.5 million cubic meters. In other words, without even accounting for possible violations based on method of extraction, more than half of the country’s timber is illegally harvested. Even legal logging, which on private and public land alike must be preceded by a forest management plan that is approved by the government, can be rife with corruption and abuse. Since roughly the date of Romania’s accession to the EU, between half and two-thirds of the country’s virgin forest has been lost.

As is often the case in trades dominated by illegality, violence is never far behind, and around the time of Ikea’s purchases, a wave of high-profile, logging-related attacks commenced. In 2015, Romanian environmentalist Gabriel Paun was beaten unconscious by loggers in an ambush caught on camera; he eventually fled the country and has spent years living in hiding. Doina Pana, the former minister of waters and forests, announced that she had been poisoned with mercury in 2017 after attempting to crack down on illegal logging. In late 2019, two forest rangers, Raducu Gorcioaia and Liviu Pop, were murdered in separate attacks in the span of just a handful of weeks.

“We spent so many years looking at the Amazon and Indonesia, the Congo basin and Russia, all these places that are just much more famous for really bad stuff happening in the forests,” said David Gehl of the Environmental Investigation Agency, which tracks environmental crime around the world. When the agency started looking at Romania, Gehl told me, its members were “shocked” to see the same kinds of things happening within the snug confines of the European Union, where international, consumer-facing brands like Ikea prosper.

Oh Europe, it’s so cute when you think you are so much better acting than the rest of the world.

Look, I recognize that the current situation with Russia is unique and there’s not much we can extrapolate from it. But there is one relevant point that I make again and again–trade policy is a choice. Nations not only can choose what conditions of production products from other countries can export to them, they already do so all the time. The banning of goods from Xinjiang due to the Chinese oppression of the Uyghurs is a good recent example of this. Even states trying to ban Russian products from their shelves–which is kind of silly at that level but OK–is an example of this. We can choose to have imported wood sourced from sustainable sources. We simply choose not to. Ikea is not some global superpower. It’s just that we don’t care enough to make it a political issue.

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