About forests, palinka, bears and a... kamikaze journalist in Japan
The palinka bottle
January 26, 2019, 04:00PM, I’m landing at Haneda, one of the two Tokyo City airports, ravaged by exhaustion after a 20+ hours trip. A pretty long waiting line at the Customs. First thing that comes to my mind is whether the scrupulous Japanese customs officers are going to let me into their Country with my 2-liter bottle of plum brandy. It was intended as a gift for my colleagues at the environmental organization I was supposed to visit later; (the plum brandy, or palinka, was home made at Rosia Montana, connoisseurs know the importance of this detail). One of them had a close encounter with magic liquor after one of them visited Romania in order to make an on-site investigation into the trail of the wood sold by Holzindustrie Schweighofer (HS) on the Japanese market. Customs officers took about 10 minutes to decide whether I should or should not enter their Country with my odd alcoholic beverage, contained in a mineral water plastic bottle. First, they argued among themselves, then called their supervisor, all in cool-headed seriousness. Suddenly, they decided it was all OK after spilling a fair amount of the stuff during an olfactory test gone bad (X-rays were proved inconclusive). Amused after all, I thought this was a good sign: Japanese people care about products entering their country. If they worry so much about a possibly illegal 2-liter bottle of plum brandy, maybe the news of huge amounts of illegal wood being sold in their market would worry them even more.
In short, I found myself in Japan a week time together with EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency) representatives, our Declic partners in Washington D.C. We met the CEO’s of the 5 most important Japanese wood importers buying from Schweighofer. We showed them the outcome of 4 years of investigation showing clearly, with undoubtable proof, that a large part of the wood exported by the Austrian Company is illegally harvested in my country. In other words, Japanese yens finance a vast criminal network in Romania.
From the first discussions with the Japanese CEO’s I realized the hardest thing I had to do is make them understand corruption, the way it spread in my country. Yes, they knew the term, but their minds couldn’t digest it the way I was trying to explain it. They couldn’t wholly envisage the thievery brotherhood in Romania. A criminal network comprising high state officials, then dozens and dozens of small beaurocrats of all government levels. Then thousands of ill-fated people with chainsaws risking life and limb to put food on their family table. It’s a much too complex, impossible to comprehend network. The sustainability manager of the first Company we met looked me in the eyes, incredulously. He said, ‘With all due respect, it’s hard for me to believe what you’re telling me here could happen in a European Union member country’. We were received with the same incredulity and doubt by the representatives of the next two Japanese Companies we met. They listened politely, but were still in doubt: could something like this happen in the European Union? In short, the idea that Europe is a safe business partner, not to worry about, was too long taken for granted. Plus, my feeling is that Japanese people immensely trust their own Government and state apparatus.
That was the moment I feared I went all the way to Japan for nothing. Then, everything changed suddenly. The same way it did when I was, suddenly, allowed to get through Customs with my palinka. The skepticism of all people we met was turned around 180 degrees. Here’s how it happened.
The central event of my trip to Japan was a conference about unlawfulness in Romanian forestry. I counted over 60 participants in the conference room: journalists, Japanese environmental activists, government officials. But also, business people; some of them we already knew from last days’ meetings, some others we were scheduled to meet the following days. And some surprise guests!
During the first part of the conference Mr. Dave Gehl from EIA sustained a presentation that proved clearly, based on years of investigation, that wood harvested illegally in Romania ends up on the Japanese market. Facts and figures, the American way. Impossible to contest in you are in good faith. During my presentation I tried to fill up the lack of knowledge about Romania. (As expected, Japanese people know everything about Dracula, and heard about Nadia Comaneci. Otherwise, almost nothing. They don’t know who Simona Halep is either, although she fights Japan’s champion, Naomi Osaka, for the WTA Championship first place). It gave me NO pleasure to talk about the terrible corruption in my country. Neither to show pictures of devastated forests or poverty-stricken villages. But I judged important that the idea of EU being a place with rivers of milk and honey had to vanish from the audience’s mind. I needed to help them understand the vast phenomenon that makes huge wood theft possible, together with indescribable violence against rangers and all those who try to defend the forests. I showed some slides of beaten rangers and the Minster of Forestry visiting one of the victims in hospital. I saw peoples’ eyes popping out of their sockets in amazement. Some of them previously met that very Minister, who assured everyone that wood from Romania was 100% legal... I left the nice part for the final. I ended my presentation showing images taken in the forests we want to save: bears, wolves, lynxes and other wild animals living there. The audience was particularly impressed with this following image, taken by myself. The fact that in Romania, one can walk in the wild looking for mushrooms and meet Mr. Baloo in person looked fabulous to the Japanese. And I was standing in front of them alive and unharmed. How could I explain that when I’m walking in the wild, I’m more worried to meet people than bears?
The next speaker was Mr. Michael Hauptmann, director of the Schweighofer Sustainability Division. He looked shocked about hearing his Company name being associated with criminal activities. (Maybe he didn’t know HS was put under investigation in Romania and Ukraine for damages estimated to tens of million Euros?) He told me straightly that I exaggerated in the worst manner. He added that “the basic principle of HS is to always act according to the governing laws and regulations of the countries in which it operates”. So, not the profit at any price...
What happened next was almost unreal. The microphone was taken, or rather stolen, by a Romanian Professor who came over from Brasov to tell the audience from Japan that all we said and showed previously was an enormous lie. That we denigrate our country and that the forests of Romania grow more and more each year. Although Professor Valeriu Norocel works in forestry, it seems he doesn’t know that official Romanian statistics also take into account as forest every bit of freshly cut woodland, later to be re-planted. And also, every bit of bush-land, in other words everything looking green from a satellite. So, we cut down century-old trees, we’re left without virgin forests, but as a Professor, we brag about record surfaces of bush and weed-grown land... Another member of the audience, also being there to defend Romania’s interests, was a journalist from the Kamikaze magazine, as he introduced himself, a kamikaze fighting on Truth’s side. He distributed magazines and tree seeds in the conference room. He declared he was worried our actions (Declic and EIA) could affect Romanian wood export and make thousands of people jobless. Although Mr. Alexandru Cautis says he’s a journalist, he doesn’t seem to have read the statistics showing the expansion of HS in Romania already left tens of thousands of workers without jobs. (There were hundreds of small timber and furniture factories spread all over Romania; they couldn’t face HS competition and had to close down). On the other hand, we contacted Kamikaze magazine and found out they never sent anyone to this conference. Him being there had nothing to do with the periodical. So, I wonder... whom did he represent?
A failed stunt
It was all a failed stunt framed up by Schweighofer’s PR Department. I thank them personally for the favor. It was too obvious that the distinguished Professor and the “Kamikaze” journalist were there to sustain the Austrian Company. (Latter, HS confirmed that the professor it's on their payroll). This is how the winds changed direction. The next day we met representatives of the Japanese Government Forestry Agency. They attended our conference a day before and were puzzled. They let us know the Agency will publish the result of a Government investigation on the risk of acquiring Romanian timber no later than this summer. A few hours later, during a meeting with people in charge at Sojitz Corporation we received some other good news: they will send an ultimatum to HS. If the Austrian Company doesn’t implement a system of traceability for all timber sources until 2020, Sojitz will stop buying from them. A day later, another huge Japanese Corporation, Itochu, told us the same thing without mentioning a timeline set for HS yet. It’s a good start.
What is wood source traceability?
I left the most important thing for the end. I don’t think Holzindustrie Schweighofer would pack up and leave Romania tomorrow just because EIA and Declic asked them to. Their economic interest in this Country is too high. What we ask the Austrian Company to do is stop trading timber coming from illegal sources. At this time HS brags about having a GPS log tracing system implemented, showing exactly where each piece of timber comes from. But about 60% of the wood traded by HS is bought from warehouses that DO NOT have such a system. In there, stolen timber is “laundered”, like they take all risk and produce a stamped piece of paper as proof of the wood source legitimacy. Until now that piece of paper was good enough for the Japanese wood importers. Hopefully that will change soon enough. HS should impose the same traceability standards to all warehouses they buy timber from, and they can do it. They didn’t until now, but the chain is getting shorter: they are under investigation for bribery and auction faking in two European countries, thus facing more problems with their international clients. Let us remember that following another Declic campaign Leroy Merlin stopped buying from Schweighofer. So did Spar and Brico Dépôt in Austria. We’re optimistic about Japanese Companies following over. The Austrian Company and its Romanian partners will therefore be compelled to implement true wood traceability systems. This will be a substantial step toward saving the forest.
How you can get involved
For more than three years we researched the most efficient ways to save the forest. Sometimes protesting, blocking roads or booing the authorities is not enough. Because in this instance the authorities are involved in the big plundering. We addressed HS clients, international certification organizations, we shed light on illegalities through investigative work. With every action, we managed to limit the disaster proportions and we think we are on the right way to pulling Romania out of the hands of the timber Mafia. It’s important to continue down this way, but investigations and international community informing campaigns are costly activities. We couldn’t continue without the generous help of those who care about the forests. If you are a recurrent donor, we thank you! We also thank you if you become one right now, by clicking on the button below.