Last summer, during the night, a group of illegal loggers attempted to steal already prepared firewood from the Forest Estate Banat. After a number of anonymous calls and messages, the Head of the Forest Office organised an ambush. On the spot, the control unit of the Public Enterprise Vojvodinašume caught a group with two boats with a capacity to hold 14 cubic metres of timber. This is just one of many attempted thefts of forest trees in Serbia which intensify before the winter season.
The problem of illegal loggings has been present for a long number of years and, as a result, the state and private owners are losing millions of dinars, and thousands of trees are cut down without the permit of the authorities.
Government institutions, such as the Forestry and Hunting Inspection of the Republic of Serbia, the police, Public Enterprises Srbijašume and Vojvodinašume, as well as enterprises managing the national parks, file hundreds of criminal and misdemeanour charges each year against illegal loggers. An average of at least 17 thousand cubic metres of trees of state forests are cut down illegally each year.
Illegal logging in Trgovište
Photo: Association “Green Network of the Pčinja District”
Not every single cutting of forests means destruction of nature, only that which is carried out without a plan and contrary to regulations. Controlled cutting of trees has a positive impact on the environment.
“Forests prevent and reduce all types of soil erosion, they act as water filters, as well as clean water sources. They have a positive influence on soil fertility, they absorb noise, reduce dust and have a positive impact on climate changes while, on the other hand, they are a source of income and ensure the survival of people living in rural, primarily mountainous areas”, says Saša Stamatović, Director of the Forestry Directorate with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management.
Common Oak, also known as “Slavonian Oak”, takes between 120 and 180 years to fully grow and reach the maturity when it can be cut down, while it takes illegal loggers only a few minutes to cut it. This oak is a high quality type of wood and it is most common in the territory of the Forest Estate Sremska Mitrovica. It can also be found in the region of Sombor and Novi Sad.
“What a crime it is when someone acts out of ignorance, negligence, or criminal urge, and cuts down that oak which has grown only 20 cm and is supposed to grow for another 100 years” says Slađana Dabić, officer in charge of cultivation and protection of forests in the Public Enterprise Vojvodinašume.
She also added that illegal logging not only results in economic loss, but it also leaves long-term consequences on the environment and quality of life of people when forest trees are cut down before their time.
Most thefts occur in the south of Serbia
Over the past 10 years, criminal acts of timber theft rank no.1 in comparison to all other acts against the environment, as is evidenced by data presented by the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia.
The number of individuals against whom criminal charges have been filed have doubled in 10 years, from 1,314 in 2007, to 2,007 in 2016. Each year, approximately 450 individuals, on an average, are convicted for timber theft, although most result in a suspended sentence.
Forest land in Serbia
Approximately 30 percent of the territory of Serbia is currently covered by forests, which is insufficient if compared to Slovenia in which 70 percent of the land is covered in forests, however, significantly more than 17 percent which was the case in Serbia after World War II. Work actions for afforestation organised in Yugoslavia improved the percentage of land covered by forests. Today, East Serbia is richly populated with forests, while only 6 percent of the territory in Vojvodina is forest land.
Only the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Serbia (MUP) filed almost 3,000 criminal charges against more than 2,500 individuals in the period from January 2014 to July 2017.
People interviewed by the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) state that more often than state forests, the target of theft are private forests owned by farmers who cannot guard them, or their descendants who have moved to the cities and left the forests without any supervision.
“Quite often in the chain of theft is the first neighbour or a close relative of these people”, says Mr. Stamatović, Director of the Forestry Directorate.
Stamatović states that there are also organised groups that patrol poorly populated villages and cut everything they can find. These groups often deceive the local population by telling them that they are cutting only marked trees, and then they devastate the whole forest and run away.
An act of illegal logging is also considered when the owner of a forest cuts trees which foresters haven’t previously marked for cutting.
The Public Enterprise Srbijašume manages 53 percent, or approximately 1.2 million hectares of forests in Serbia, while approximately 1 million hectares are privately owned. The Church is the biggest private owner of forestry. Forests in Vojvodina are managed by the Public Enterprise Vojvodinašume which owns 114 hectares of forests and forest land, while approximately 5 percent is owned by private citizens.
The largest number of thefts from the Forest Estate “Srbijašume” occurs in the south of Serbia, in the territories of Kuršumlija, Leskovac and Boljevac. One of the highest instances of illegal logging is also reported in the territories of Vranje, Raška, Loznica, Ivanjica, Užice and Kragujevac.
According to the data available at “Srbijašume”, a high percentage of thefts in the south accounts for illegal logging in the territory of the so-called ground security zone. i.e. along the administrative line with Kosovo. Srbijašume personnel can enter this area only accompanied by the police by military forces.
“Cutting down and devastation of forests is a well-known story, in the vicinity of the administrative line with Kosovo everything has been cut down. This is a problem faced not only by the Forest Estate “Vranje”, but also by the Forest Estates “Leskovac” and Kuršumlija. The state should take a more active part in resolving this issue, as there is only a slow progress,” says Dejan Jovanović, Director of the Forest Estate Vranje.
Stolen timber from state forests is transported without any documentation or with documentation pertaining to private forests, as indicated by the report prepared by the Green Network of the Pčinja District. Illegal loggers often act in the period of frequent forest fires and intentionally burn timber because illegal logging cannot be recorded in burning forests. They also do this so that they can sell the highest quality technical wood at a lower cost, as firewood from the burning sites.
As stated by Đoka Marinković from the Green Network, thieves work in groups of three or four, during the day and night, and they make several trips back to fill the trucks.
“On several occasions we have had some unpleasant situations with the people cutting the trees. They want to know what right we have to protect the forest. They make threats, and are even ready to get into a fight, in order to prevent us from reporting them”, says Marinković.
As reported by this Association, the situation has never been worse because we now have a dozen of agricultural cooperatives that have failed in their business, leaving thousands of hectares of forests in their ownership without anyone to guard it.
“The most devastated forests, which have suffered extensive cutting, are state forests on Mount Kukavica, as well as private and state forests in the municipalities of Trgovište and Bosilegrad“, says Đoka Marinković.
According to Srbijašume data, in the Forest Estate Vranje, located in the Pčinja District, since the beginning of 2017, almost 430 cubic metres of wood have been cut.
Sometimes even the forest keepers of public enterprises are involved in these thefts, as recorded in the documentation which CINS had insight into. In the period 2010 – 2013, a forester of the Forest Estate Vranje was convicted twice: once for assisting in the forging of a report on forest control which in fact never took place, and the second time for not filing reports on illegal logging after the theft of 367 trees from a state forest, resulting in damages worth 207 thousand RSD. In both instances he received a suspended sentence.
Srbijašume and Vojvodinašume both confirmed to CINS that there have been cases of theft involving members of their staff and that they are treated as any other illegal loggers.
Misdemeanour charges – more effective than criminal charges
Srbijašume have 624 forest keepers working in 67 forest offices, while 125 forest keepers are engaged in the area managed by Vojvodinašume.
According to the Director of the Forestry Directorate Saša Stamatović, The Forest Law of 2015 resolved the vacuum of approximately 5 years during which time supervision and control of timber trade was practically left without control. During this period, people got used to selling timber without the necessary documentation.
The new law stipulates that supervision is once again under the jurisdiction of the Forestry and Hunting Inspection, while according to previous regulations, this was brought under the jurisdiction of market inspection which lacked the capacities for performing such control. In addition, forest keepers were given the status of authorised officials which also contributed to better control.
Stamatović adds that in practice this means that the inspector or a forest keeper may conduct a control of the warehouse or any stage of the trading operation, even on a forest road, an ask for presentation of documentation proving that the timber has been cut and transported in compliance with legal regulations. Depending on the act in subject, they may file a misdemeanour or a criminal charge, while the illegally cut timber is subject to mandatory confiscation.
In Vojvodina, the worst situation is in Banat
In Vojvodina, in 2016 forest thieves cut almost 1,600 cubic metres of wood, mostly in the Forest Estate Banat in Pančevo. Vojvodinašume state that only in the period 2012 – 2016, almost 3,800 cubic metres of wood had been illegally cut in this Forest Estate, and one of the reasons for this is the proximity of the town and the forests, as well as a highly dissected terrain.
As we have been informed by this Public Enterprise, when conducting their controls, they are often accompanied by the police, especially at night, as forest thieves have been known to physically attack forest keepers.
‘It is quite unpleasant to have to go and face people who won’t refrain from anything and who often come from the socially most vulnerable categories, for whom this is practically the only source of income and who think that cutting a state forest is not a serious offence, says Slađana Dabić from Vojvodinašume.
According to data for 2016 reported by the Forestry Directorate, in the course of the year following the application of the new law, their inspectors filed 1,519 misdemeanour and 174 criminal charges and confiscated more than 3,500 m3 of timber in total.
A criminal act of forest theft is subject to a fine or year prison sentence of one year, in case that more than 1 cubic metre of timber has been illegally cut, while cutting more than 5 cubic metres or cutting in protected areas is subject to a fine or a prison sentence of up to three years.
Previous experience of the Forestry Directorate has shown that filing misdemeanour charges is a much better option as in case of criminal charges it is very difficult to prove with certainty who the perpetrator is.
With respect to the 1,519 misdemeanour charges filed over a year period, 433 individuals were sentenced, bringing 3.84 million RSD into the budget. Of all the filed criminal charges, only 6 individuals were sentenced, and this was a sentence for payment of a fine – the total amount was barely 60 thousand RSD as the prosecutors apply the principle of opportunity with regard to the perpetrators.
Dejan Jovanović, Director of the Forest Estate Vranje, says that a problem in Vranje is that the prosecutor’s office is slow in processing cases: “We are holding quantities of timber that have been confiscated 4 or 5 years ago, and no decision has been passed in these cases (…) Still to be decided is whether the timber will be permanently confiscated or returned to the owners”.
In the Basic Court in Vranje, during 2016, four criminal proceedings were conducted relating to forest theft, of which three were finalised. One individual was given a suspended sentence of three years, while two were sentenced to a fine of 100 thousand RSD each. All three cases finalised in 2017 resulted in fines of 20 to 50 thousand RSD.
The Forestry Directorate states that during the recent controls, an emphasis was placed on timber trade, so that increased fines and mandatory confiscation might discourage people from engaging in illegal logging. An increase in collection of fees for legal cutting of trees of 21% (71 million RSD) in 2016, compared to the previous year, shows the positive results of increased controls.
Improving the quality of forests
In April 2016, the Global Environment Fund (GEF) announced that it had approved a USD 3.2 million grant to help improve the state of forests in Serbia. This grant will be used to finance activities aimed at improving the general health and condition of Serbian forests, as well as to help in forest management.
According to the data of the Forestry Directorate, Serbia has a problem with timber quality due to the large percentage of the so-called coppice forests –trees grown from stumps of cut trees – particularly in private forests.
Private forests are too small and fragmented, which is why the Forestry Directorate is attempting to convince the owners to organise themselves into associations that could apply for subsidies and thus ensure preservation and regeneration of forests.
The principal task of Vojvodinašume is afforestation – in towns like Kikinda or Subotica, afforestation is below 1%, which is why they are appealing to citizens who have agricultural land of inadequate quality to transform it at no charge into forest land.
“People will have increased production on their agricultural land if there is a windbreak in its immediate vicinity, not to mention the benefit of having a significant forest area nearby”, says Slađana Dabić from Vojvodinašume.
CINS investigation is the result of a wider project covering topics dealing with environmental protection, a collaboration of CINS and the Belgrade Open School, as part of the program of the Civil Society for Advancement of Serbia’s EU Accession, supported by Sweden.