Deforestation in Transylvania

by Peter Thacker BA (Hons) PGCE FRGS (TWP Education Advisor)

Temperate old-growth deforestation continues despite increasing protection. Official figures estimate that 125,000 hectares of [Romanian] forestland were illegally cut since 1991. Of this amount, about 30,000 hectares were completely clear-cut and 95,000 partially cut.[1]

Illegal logging[2] is not limited to the highly publicised regions of Africa or South America but exists in the heart of Europe’s forests. Forest degradation continues to pose a serious threat to Transylvania’s once abundant woodland, which are home to more than half of Europe's bears and a large wolf population. This urgent environmental issue jeopardizes people’s livelihoods[3], threatens species, and contributes to global warming.


The main cause of this forest degradation is from illegal and unsustainable logging and fuel wood harvesting.[4] Political factors have played a significant impact on this habitat. Whilst during communist rule all forests belonged to the state, “in 2008 more than 45% of the forests were [subsequently] in non-state hands”[5] and the legal mechanisms were not in place to hold private loggers to account.

Effects of deforestation

Increased soil erosion: Deforestation accelerates rates of soil erosion, by increasing runoff and reducing the protection of the soil from tree litter.

Release of greenhouse gas emissions: Deforestation causes 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Of these, carbon dioxide emissions represent up to one-third of total carbon dioxide emissions released because of human causes.

Disrupted water cycles: As a result of deforestation in Transylvania, trees are not present to absorb groundwater, which can contribute to a much drier local climate.

Disrupted livelihoods: Thousands of people in Transylvania rely directly on the forest through small-scale agriculture and by harvesting forest products. Deforestation continues to pose severe social problems, sometimes leading to increased tensions between locals and loggers.

Reduced biodiversity: Deforestation and forest degradation can cause biodiversity to decline. When forest cover is removed, wildlife is deprived of its habitat and inevitably becomes more vulnerable to hunting.

The importance of Transylvania’s forests

The forests of Transylvania purify the air, improve water quality and quantity, stabilize soil and counteract erosion, provide natural resources such as timber products and medicinal plants, and are home to many of Europe’s most endangered wildlife species. Since almost half of all forests in Romania (13% of the country) have been managed for watershed conservation rather than production, Romania has one of the largest areas of undisturbed forest in Europe.

Forests as carbon storehouses

Another increasingly crucial role of forests is helping to protect the planet from climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2), a major greenhouse gas.

It is widely acknowledged that rising concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are generating deviations in the behaviour of the earth’s climate, resulting in devastating weather events (of which Romania has experienced in dramatic fashion over recent years) such as hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and floods, and threatening plant and animal life. Forests play a critical role in protecting the earth from climate change and regulating climate patterns, as the trees - trunks, branches and roots - and even soil absorb and store CO2, providing a natural reservoir for this GHG.

When forests are destroyed or degraded by activities such as logging and conversion of forests to agricultural land, they release large quantities of CO2 and other GHGs, and become a significant source of GHG emissions and contributor to climate change.

Deforestation and climate change

Deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate in Transylvania and estimates on the contribution of deforestation to carbon emissions vary. A recent IOP Science document on Carbon implications of forest restitution in Post-Socialist Romania determines that, [w]hile the carbon effects of logging were comparatively small in our study, we urge policy makers and land use planners to fully account for the trade-offs and synergies between economic returns from forestry, provision of ecosystem services (e.g., flood retention, soil stability), and biodiversity conservation.[6] The bulk of emissions from deforestation arise when land is converted to agricultural production. The potential for forests to become even greater sources of carbon emissions due to deforestation and degradation is significant.

Private Ownership

Privately owned forests are open to massive exploitation as their administration and management is done by the owners themselves on the basis of local forest management plans.[7] Around half of Romania’s forests are under private ownership whilst the rest are under state control. Foreign investors have started to increase their forestry purchases in the country. Meanwhile, more than 5% of the total forests in Romania have been destroyed in the private ownership sector - some 350,000 hectares in the last 20 years.[8]

Specific training programmes or courses for private forest owners do not exist in the educational system. Private owners are not ready to invest time and money for training because they manage small properties having a maximum of one hectare.[9]

A softwood management strategy is essential to control the wood harvest and alternatives to clear cutting and appropriate reforestation must be encouraged. Evidence indicates that the extent of cutting is already exceeding sustainable levels.[10] This not only jeopardises the wildlife but such short sightedness also threatens the future of the industry. In addition, softwood cutovers are not regenerating themselves at the rate required to provide an adequate supply of wood in the future and are not always appropriate for the local environment or offer a comparable quality.

A leaked US cable from their embassy in Bucharest details the scale of the problem:

The Romanian government returned forestlands to their rightful owners in three waves (1991, 2000 and 2005). Poorly managed, the restitution process itself has contributed greatly to the deforestation problem. The first wave targeted only individuals and capped the amount at one hectare per person. The second wave returned forests to both individuals and local communities, with a maximum of 10 hectares for individuals. The final wave -- which is still ongoing -- has no restriction on size or type of recipient. During the first two stages of restitution, the government did not require the new owners to establish a forest management plan and a viable control authority did not exist. In addition, many new landowners, worried that the government might change its mind and take back the land, quickly cut and sold their trees. [11]

Officials from the Romanian Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Rural Development, the Ministry of Environment and Water Management, the National Forest Administration (‘Romsilva’), The World Bank, World Wildlife Fund and Regional Environmental Center-Bucharest were all interviewed whilst this cable was being drafted.

There has been a significant loss of old-growth forests and the replacement of natural forests and woodlands with single-species plantations that provide few of the environmental, ecological and social benefits of native forests. While afforestation and reforestation are important, and helpful for supporting reduced emissions

TWP is harnessing the power of digital satellite imaging to monitor the situation before filing a report with the EEA. The information obtained within this framework is a key reference dataset for territorial analysis, capturing changes through digitised land cover maps.


TWP recommends the following actions to provide the basic conditions for progress:

- Maintenance of the ecological integrity of private forests through strict enforcement
- The enforcement of a softwood management strategy to control the private wood harvest
- Ensure the Minister of Environment and Forests is true to his word in his commitment to place Romania’s most important and valuable forests under protection and to ensure enforcement systems are in place to safeguard this pledge;[12]
- the introduction of a transparent system of tracing the origin of timber;
- develop an ecologically sensitive and sustainable market for Transylvanian wood products;
- deliver field studies of the problem of illegal logging and tracing the movement of dubious-origin timber;
- increased analysis of satellite imagery, development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to more accurately map protected and virgin forest lands;
- promote the process of voluntary forest certification according to FSC;
- creation and promotion of model forest territories to promote the principles of sustained forest management;

End Notes:-

[2] For the purposes of this study, illegal logging is regarded as the harvesting, transporting, processing, buying or selling of timber in violation of national laws. This definition also applies to harvesting wood from protected areas, exporting threatened plant/tree species, and falsifying official documents. It also includes breaking license agreements, tax evasion, corrupting government officials and interfering with access and rights to forest areas.

[3] During recent years, Romania has experienced many floods, causing huge material damage and many losses of life. Constantin-Horia, Simona, Gabriela and Adrian’s paper on Human Factors in the Floods of Romania (NATO Science For Peace And Security Series C: Environmental Security 2009) presents in detail some of the main factors including the “illegal deforestation of hills or mountains slopes” (p.187). See also Europe's Environment: An Assessment of Assessments, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, 2011, p.41.

[4] The Estimation of Forest Land-Cover Change in Romania, between 1990 & 2006 supports this determining that “[t]he main factors that caused land-cover change from forest to other land-covers are illegal logging.”

[5] Estimation of Forest Land-Cover Change in Romania, between 1990 & 2006

[6] Carbon implications of Forest Restitution in Post-Socialist Romania, p. 8.

[7] Issues and opportunities in the evolution of private forestry and forestry extension.

[9] Issues and opportunities in the evolution of private forestry and forestry extension.

[11] Cable 06BUCHAREST1233, Deforestation Continues in Romania


Carbon implications of Forest Restitution in Post-Socialist Romania, IOP Publishing Ltd, UK, 2011

Europe's Environment: An Assessment of Assessments, EEA, Copenhagen, 2011

Europe's Environment: The Fourth Assessment, EEA, Copenhagen, 2007

Europe's Environment: The Third Assessment, EEA, Copenhagen, 2003

Estimation of Forest Land-Cover Change in Romania, between 1990 & 2006, Bulletin of the Transilvania University of Braşov, Vol. 3 (52) - 2010

Issues and opportunities in the evolution of private forestry and forestry extension, FAO Forestry Department , Rome:

Vita Sylvae Conservation:

Further Reading:

European Environmental Agency (EEA)

Forest Stewardship Council

Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC)

Natural 2000 EU Environment magazine

Network Eye on Earth (Global public information service)

Community afforestation programme