Schweighofer Exposed: Behind the investigation that moved Romania
“All political parties destroy our forests” or “Don’t fell that tree, you’ll have to deal with me!”
These were the chants heard at the beginning of May 2015 as President Klaus Iohannis returned the draft of a new Forest Code to Parliament.
The cries of indignation were ignited by contents of a hidden camera documenting what millions of Romanians knew, but until now, could never prove: that Austrian wood company Schweighofer knowingly purchases illegally harvested timber.
Now a stunningly remarkable five-minute video was going viral around the world and people were in the streets across Romania.
Among the street protesters was a remarkable woman who kept telling herself, ‘No matter what happens to me now, I have managed to do this little thing. I hope it keeps going’.
Here is the 5-minute video:
Her little thing was not little at all. It was compelling evidence beyond the force that has been destroying Romania’s greatest treasure – our forests. Forests and national parks that should be the economic engine of a vibrant tourism industry – have been turned into lunar landscapes, destroying wildlife, fish and causing large scale flooding of homes. Every political party leader since Communism has looked the other way, suggesting high-level political corruption in this national crime.
“Finally we provide the proof... and then the Romsilva executives they take a sick leave”
Monica Lazurean Gorgan is a film producer. She is included in the credits of feature films like “Best Intentions” and “Domestic (2012)”, both directed by Adrian Sitaru. That’s how the cinema world knows her.
“In 2010 I was asked to produce three short documentaries on environmental issues for the Soros Foundation. I was allowed to choose my topics. Illegal logging was my first topic because the environmental crimes were so obvious and news articles were coming out on this. I began doing some research on my own, I made a short film for Soros. Then I decided I wanted to take this topic further. To make a serious, broader film, because I realized what was going on in our forests”. This was the beginning of an investigation that would grip thousands in 26 cities across Romania.
Monica Lazurean Gorgan was lucky enoughtoreceive help from NGOs specializing in environmental issues. She followed the story for several years, and then she made a decision.
“I told myself - ok, if I make a documentary at the national level, let’s say it’s really well put together, well documented and so on... People in our country will see it, but it will have very little international exposure. In fact, it won’t have much of an impact because there were already several very good stories on TV by Alex Dima on Romania, I love you! and some very good reporters from Antena.
You know how public pressure works in Romania. Here’s the proof that this wood is being felled illegally. And then the Romsilva executives take a sick leave, they don’t show their faces for a week, until the uproar boils over, and then everything goes back to normal in that absurd Romanian way. So I told myself I absolutely must put an international spin on this”.
Monica’s international strategy led her to Vienna - the home of Schweighofer Holzindustrie.
“Given the dramatic situation in Romania, as well as the fact that Austrian elements were involved... They went for it. The Vienna Film Fund executive said, ’Yes, I definitely want to support this project!’ I received a development grant and began to work on the project together with the Austrian producer,” Monica Lazurean Gorgan recalls.
With a development grant in hand, Monica’s next mission was to find an experienced investigative partner. This led her to Alexander von Bismarck, the great-great-grandson of Otto von Bismarck and the Executive Director of EIA.
EIA is a Washington DC based organization described on it’s website as “the most consistently independent, fearless, dynamic and effective NGO working on global environmental issues today. EIA pioneered the use of investigative techniques, including undercover documentary evidence, to record and expose the world’s most pressing environmental problems for the past 30 years”.
Von Bismarck specializes in illegal logging and massive deforestation across the globe. EIA has been active in Russia, but not in Romania. Not until he met Monica Lazurean Gorgan.
How to Sell Illegally Harvested Wood
Alexander von Bismarck - Sasha, to his friends - came to Romania, and, after a few days’ research alongside Monica, he decided to launch an investigation into illegal logging here.
“When Sasha came to Romania, I told him, ‘Look, Schweighofer incentivizes the illegal harvesting of wood all over the country. They have outrageous prices and they encourage the poor to cut down everything they can get their hands on and bring it to them. Schweighofer doesn’t cut trees. They just buy the wood and then pretend, ‘I don’t know anything, it’s none of my business who really cut it, where, or how. My paperwork is in perfect order. That’s how they cover their tracks. That’s the gist of it.”
In the United States, the EIA’s persistence and investigations led to a 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act that made it illegal for any US business to purchase or sell any products made from illegally harvested wood. It has been effective in reducing demand for illegal wood.
In Romania, you can buy wood or timber from illegal sources and nothing will happen to you.
Alexander von Brunswick took his Romanian challenge so seriously, that he grew a beard to take on the character of an American businessman offering large quantities of timber, legal and illegal.
The team bought hidden cameras and rehearsed their roles in the sting. In the end, Sasha von Bismarck came face to face with Schweighofer’s Romanian representatives.
“They didn’t even do a background check on him. It went pretty easily. Those guys weren’t suspicious, they were very eager to buy wood quickly. We had prepared some good back-up stuff for him. But because Schweighofer has a very large market share and a huge demand - over 40% of the wood they process goes to Japan - they’re always in need of wood. During our second meeting, we got lucky, as we insisted a more senior manager come talk to us. He turned out to be more relaxed and, basically, said everything that appears in the video”.
Schweighofer Romania made it very clear they were interested in buying illegal wood. They even offered bonuses for additional quantities of illegal timber.
After two years of work, Monica had the video evidence exposing Schweighofer’s criminal role is destroying Europe’s largest and last natural forests.
Amending the Forest Code
Alexander von Bismarck’s investigation was made public at the end of April, 2015.
On May 9, thousands of people took to the streets across Romania to protest against illegal logging and the complicity of the country’s political class in ignoring this blatant scar on the face of Romania. Most corruption is hidden, but illegal logging is a plainly visible assault by Romanian political leaders on the lifestyle and culture cherished by Romanians.
“It was a very special moment for me. It was all happening very fast, I was both filming the protest and trying to contact Sasha on Skype to show him how many people he had spurred into action. But I told myself, ‘no matter what happens to me now, I have managed to do this little thing and I hope it keeps going’. It makes you feel good and hope things will go in the right direction and not be lost.
As far as I’m concerned, we took an important step, several thousand people were in the streets. This was a huge surprise for me; it made me very happy,” Monica Lazurean Gorgan concludes.
One of the results of this investigation has been that the new Forest Code now limits the quantity of wood that can be processed by a single company in Romania to 30% of the country’s overall capacity per year.
Unofficial data showed Schweighofer was processing half of the timber harvested in Romania each year.
“There had to be some constraints put in place because they are now building a new factory and their demand will grow. These constraints were included in the Forest Code. It is such an important victory, but we have to wait and see how it’s implemented. The 30%, this is the important victory.
Schweighofer has declared they will attack the law before the Competition Council because one cannot impose such limitations on a tax-paying company. But constraints are necessary because logging isn’t just any industry, it’s our air. Plus, it pushes small local companies out of business as they cannot afford to buy at the price offered by Schweighofer.
They have a monopoly in the marketplace and this monopoly needs to be broken up. Romania is no longer a colony for foreigners where we sell cheap, they enjoy maximum profits, and our kids are left with nothing”.
"We've been followed"
Monica says such investigations aren’t as dangerous in Romania as they are in Russia, where you cannot film in the woods unless you have the forest rangers with you.
“It can be dangerous in our country too, but I’m not the fearful type. You don’t just go straight in and say, ‘hey, what are you doing there, cutting down unmarked trees?!’ You need some people in the area, informers, and then you know how to go about it. We were careful about this every time we went into the forest and wanted to see a real case. We were making sure that we knew what we were getting into. And I’m not the fearful type. We had followed trucks for miles and we had been followed ourselves... We were followed in Bucharest, in Borsa. I can’t give you very many details because we are still gathering documentary evidence and working on this,” says the producer.
The new documentary that Monica is working on will be presented internationally as it includes other countries, as well as Romania.
However, it is possible that the part about Romania will be shown in the country next year to raise greater awareness for this issue. That is Monica’s wish.
"Assistance" from Public Authorities
Institutional transparency in Romania remains, in most cases, a myth. Public authorities apply Law no. 544/2001 regarding free access to public information in a discretionary fashion.
“It is clear that public institutions stand in the way. Nobody takes any responsibility for anything. We don’t know, submit a written request, register a complaint, and we will contact you with a solution. And the request always gets buried there. Some people, including within Romsilva, side with the large actors in the market. I couldn’t believe it. ‘Let the Competition Council decide, we know nothing.’ ‘How can that be?
You are Romsilva...’ Schweighofer buys from Romsilva at very low prices. I mean, public institutions are nowhere to be found,” concludes Monica.
Regardless of the obstacles, important steps were taken with the help of civil society. Some politicians have leaned in on this, but always with an ulterior motive.”
On October 21, at a press conference held in Vienna, the EIA and other environmental organizations have made public a report on illegal logging in Romania. The EIA said it has records of Schweighofer offering to buy illegally harvested wood from Romania.