Rampant illegal logging in Albania’s biggest national park is ravaging primeval woodland protected by UNESCO, a BIRN investigation reveals.
By Arlis Alikaj
The driver shunted the Soviet-made truck into first gear as it hugged the track cut into the mountainside. Rolling over a large rock, the vehicle tilted precariously toward the cliff edge. Below, a sea of clouds stretched to the horizon.
“If Allah wills it, we’ll make it,” the driver said. “But if Allah wills it, we’ll die.”
His fatalism brought little comfort.
The truck stalled, juddered, then burst back into life. Coaxing the accelerator, he skirted the precipice and continued up the muddy road.
It was just another day hauling black market timber in the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park in eastern Albania.
Despite a total ban on logging and registration of parts of Shebenik-Jabllanice as a UNESCO world heritage site, criminal networks are ravaging its primeval forests to supply logs to the domestic firewood market, an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, reveals.
More than 2,000 metres above sea level, the virgin beech forests of Albania’s largest national park grow tall and broad, making them prime plunder in a country that has lost most of its forest cover over the past half century.
From bribes and forged permits to fleets of trucks kitted out with satellite tracking devices, BIRN’s investigation uncovers the lengths to which the illegal loggers go to exploit the protected zones.
It also highlights a culture of impunity in an EU candidate country that is struggling to put the rule of law behind conservation.
At stake is the health of an ecosystem that serves as the lungs of Albania. The highland forests help stabilise the regional climate, regulating rainfall and aiding air circulation, environmentalists say.
Straddling the Macedonian border, the park is also one of southeast Europe’s last great wildernesses, where the howls of grey wolves compete with buzzing chainsaws.
Along with the virgin beech groves, logging threatens rare plants and animals including the Albanian Lily, brown bears, golden eagles and an endangered lynx known as the “tiger of the Balkans”.
“Shebenik-Jabllanice park is one of the most beautiful parks in the Balkans but there’s been huge damage in its southeastern part,” said Ahmet Mehmeti, leader of an environmental group called the Elbasan Ecological Club and a consultant with state prosecutors on conservation crimes.
“Those responsible for the illegal trade in firewood are breaking the law and using the park to make millions for themselves.”
In 2016, Albania imposed a 10-year moratorium on logging in all its forests and banned timber exports. The move followed decades of untrammelled exploitation that had denuded the country’s once-lush slopes and hastened erosion.
Authorities can still issue permits for tree-felling in specific areas to meet the winter fuel needs of local people — but national parks are strictly off limits. Under Albania’s penal code, offenders can get up to eight years in prison for damaging protected areas.
The latest data from Global Forest Watch, a US-based service for monitoring woodlands worldwide, shows that forests covered 17 per cent of Albania in 2010.
Between 2001 and 2017, tree cover loss in the country resulted in the release of almost three megatonnes of carbon dioxide, Global Forest Watch says.
A big chunk of remaining woodland is in the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park, which accounts for 70 per cent of Albania’s biodiversity, according to the Albanian Ecology Club conservation group.
The 340-square-kilometre park is part of the European Green Belt, a network of zones of ecological importance to the European Community. The ancient beech forests around the remote village of Rrajca in the southeast corner of the park gained UNESCO protection in 2017.
Pelumb Gjini, former Mayor of the village of Stebleve in the north of Shebenik-Jabllanice, helped rally local elders to lobby for the creation of the national park in 2008 after loggers inflicted years of “extraordinary” damage.
“But ironically, the situation has not improved and the environmental massacre continues,” he told BIRN. “The multi-million-dollar business makes it easy to dismiss what’s going on and leave the area without a management plan.”
Around 80 per cent of local people rely on firewood to stay warm during the long winter months, Gjini added.
The environment ministry did not respond to interview requests or written questions about illegal logging.
But Enver Shkurti, director of the Environmental Inspectorate in Elbasan Country, the body responsible for law enforcement in the park, denied there was a problem during an interview at a cafe in Librazhd, the nearest town to the park.
“It is not true that there is illegal logging in the park,” said Shkurti, who was Deputy Mayor of Librazhd between 2015 and early 2018. “Our institution does not have information about any illegal logging in the park, though there may be isolated cases.”
BIRN’s investigation revealed a different picture.
On an undercover daytrip with loggers to the UNESCO-protected zone near Rrajca, BIRN saw swathes of virgin beech forest reduced to clearings. On slopes high above the clouds, stacks of freshly cut wood stood awaiting pickup. Chainsaws shattered the pristine silence.
BIRN’s glimpse into the world of black market timber began on a summer morning at a roadside cafe in the village of Hotolisht, a few kilometres outside the southwestern edge of Shebenik-Jabllanice.
Five drivers working for logging “bosses” were smoking and drinking coffee. Judging by their accents, they came from different parts of Albania. The licence plates on their trucks parked nearby showed the vehicles were registered to far-flung municipalities: Durres, Fier, Korce and Berat.
Each driver worked for a different “company”. Their task was to hook up with chainsaw teams in the mountains of Shebenik-Jabllanice and load up on timber.
The drivers started arguing over who would get to haul the best wood from the highest elevations in the park. The better the wood, the better their commission.
On the table, they had sheets of papers that appeared to be staff rotas showing holidays and shift schedules for local police officers — useful for planning routes and avoiding patrols.
Before long, another man arrived at the cafe: the elder of one of dozens of villages near the park.
The group started bickering over whose truck the elder would ride in. Finally, he chose a driver and everyone got into their vehicles to head off in a convoy. BIRN accompanied one of the other drivers, a gruff man in his 40s.
“He chose the car and the company of the guy who’ll give him the largest bribe,” the driver said as he revved the engine, explaining that having the elder in your truck meant fewer problems with authorities or local residents.
The elder also assigns logging sites, he said. Drivers know which tracks to take in the park according to paint daubed on rocks or branches at forks in the dirt roads. Each company has their own designated colour. The bigger the bribe, the richer the logging site.
Guns and chainsaws
As he drove into the park, the driver fielded calls from bosses, juggling three mobile phones, each with extended battery packs. He said his truck had a satellite tracking device to help employers monitor his whereabouts.
At a certain intersection, the trucks parted company.
Spotting his company’s colour on a log, the driver trundled up a steep track that got progressively muddier and rockier. For the next 45 minutes, it was 10 metres forward, five metres back. At one point, he got out and put sticks and stones under a wheel to get it through the mud.
Every now and then, men wearing dark sunglasses emerged from the forest to make sure the truck kept to the right path, which appeared to have been cut by a bulldozer spotted parked in the mud.
A brawny young man hailed the driver and handed him two or three documents that the driver said were permits for cutting timber in Dardhe, some 30 kilometres south of the park.
“These papers will keep me out of trouble,” the driver said.
When the truck finally reached its destination at a mountain crest near the tiny village of Rrajca-Skenderbej, more than 2,000 metres above sea level, 10 local men started loading giant beech logs onto the back. Other men with chainsaws were busy felling trees. Wood piles littered the landscape.
Several men with pistols tucked into their belts watched over the work. One twirled a gun on his finger.
“It’s for animals,” he said.
One of the workers lugging logs to the truck was a man in his mid-20s from a nearby village in the park. Out of earshot of the men with guns, he said his only hope of supporting his family was to do the arduous work of sawing and loading, sometimes deep into the night.
“I don’t like cutting down the forest,” he said. “I’m ashamed of what we’re doing, but what else can I do?”
Like all of the people involved in illegal logging who spoke to BIRN, he declined to be identified.
On the bumpy ride back down the mountain, as the logs clacked against the sides of the overloaded truck, the driver made calls to bosses to get an update on the day’s police patrols — to make sure there were no unwelcome encounters.
BIRN’s requests for comments from local police went unanswered and the State Police in Elbasan did not respond to freedom-of-information inquiries into efforts to enforce anti-logging laws.
The driver said he always tried to take more wood than his fake permits allowed since each journey paid a pittance. If the document specified five cubic metres, he would take 15.
“Simple guys like me are at the bottom of the operation,” he said, explaining that the bosses were businessmen with ties to “powerful people” who allow the logging to happen.
He said that half of the cash made from selling firewood goes to the bosses and their workers. The rest covers kickbacks for government officials.
Kickbacks and corruption
The EU Delegation in Albania, which funds a project to help manage the sustainable use of protected forests, cited poor governance and corruption as among the obstacles to safeguarding woodlands.
“Protected areas are affected by illegal deforestation, fragmentation of habitats and degradation of ecosystems due to weak administrative capacities, lack of technical skills, underfunding and corruption in the administration,” the delegation told BIRN in an emailed statement.
Armando Braho, an environmental lawyer at the International University of Struga across the border in Macedonia, said the problem was “more political than legal”.
“There are political interests linked to the profits, which allow these activities to happen,” he said.
While most of Shebenik-Jabllanice is administered by authorities in the town of Librazhd, the southern part of the park — including the UNESCO-protected areas around Rrajca — is in the municipality of Prrenjas.
“Our thinking is that the state has not reacted sufficiently to block illegal logging,” Prrenjas Mayor Miranda Rira told BIRN in an interview. “The 2016 moratorium has not been implemented and the population has no alternatives to keep warm in winter, which makes it very difficult to prevent illegal logging.”
She said the municipal government brought in 3,260 cubic metres of firewood from other sources for residents last winter, but with a population of 25,000, according to a 2011 census, the extra supplies did not go far.
“If the state does not take seriously the need for an alternative to keep people warm, in the near future our forest will lose its UNESCO status,” Rira said.
Rangers working for the Librazhd-based Administration for Protected Areas of Elbasan, APA Librazhd, are responsible for patrolling the park.
Bajram Kullolli, who recently became second in command at APA Librazhd after 25 years as a ranger, said the administration’s 15 wardens were overstretched and under-resourced.
“The state should … raise wages, provide allowances for fuel [for patrol vehicles] and increase human resources,” he told BIRN.
The EU Delegation in Albania praised APA Librazhd for its efforts to control illegal logging but said the scourge continued due to the administration’s “limited capacities” and “lack of serious commitment of the Environmental Inspectorate”.
Kullolli said his office had recently sent four or five cases to police and prosecutors but none had led to convictions. Along with bureaucratic delays, investigations were hindered by the technical challenges of proving where wood comes from once it has dried out, he added.
Requests to the General Prosecutor in Elbasan for recent data on convictions went unanswered due to a changeover of regional prosecutors amid judicial reforms that have left large parts of Albania’s justice system in limbo.
But a 2017 BIRN investigation (text in Albanian) showed that of 26 illegal logging cases referred to prosecutors over the previous two years, 23 resulted in charges but only one person was convicted — a man from Rrajca, who was handed a 650-euro fine for chopping down trees without a permit.
‘Tears of the trees’
Environmentalists say logs from the park end up in firewood markets across the country, where they fetch a premium due to their thickness, dryness and reputation for burning longer in wood stoves.
Over the course of a few hours, BIRN saw four heavy trucks on a single stretch of road between the towns of Librazhd and Prrenjas in Elbasan County, all swaying under the weight of logs ready for markets.
Firewood dealers in the southeastern towns of Pogradec and Korca and in the area around Librazhd declined to comment on the source of their logs, but the manager of one market in Elbasan County, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that his best wood comes from Shebenik-Jabllanice.
He said his suppliers use fake documents indicating that the wood was harvested in Dardhe, a municipality outside the park where authorities can issue logging permits to meet local fuel needs.
In summer, wood that is actually from Dardhe sells for around 24 euros (3,000 lek) per cubic metre while the superior Shebenik-Jabllanice wood fetches 32-35 euros (4,000-4,500 lek), he said. In winter, wood from the park sells for as high as 55 euros (7,000 lek).
Asked about claims that wood from the park is being passed off as coming from areas where logging is allowed, Shkurti from the Environmental Inspectorate in Elbasan said: “That is not true at all. These are problems from the past.”
But he said there was some confusion about the legality of logging outside the park due to concessions that pre-date the 2016 moratorium.
“Some concessions were given in 2003 and continue until 2022,” he said. “This gives us a bad image. But these sorts of concessions are not our responsibility.”
Mehmeti, head of the Elbasan Ecological Club, said: “Concessions are abused by cutting more wood than allowed, cutting in areas without permission and changing the papers to say that wood is from different zones.”
Kastriot Gurra, Mayor of Librazhd, was asked about loopholes in implementation of the moratorium in a recent TV interview (in Albanian).
“We don’t have the ability to suspend or annul contracts because they were signed by the environment ministry back in 2012,” he said.
Braho from the International University of Struga dismissed the idea that old concessions should cause legal confusion or get in the way of enforcing the law.
“Even if there is a contract [predating the moratorium], the government can find solutions,” he told BIRN.
Local farmers around the villages of Stebleve and Dragostunja — in different parts of the park — say deforestation is destroying their croplands by causing erosion. Keepers of cows, sheep and goats in the rocky highlands also report losing grazing land.
Meanwhile, people around Rrajca lament the loss of virgin beech forests that many feel an almost spiritual bond with.
“These trees grew up with me,” said a 35-year-old trader who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal from the loggers. “I engraved my name on one of the trees and I used to go camping there with my family. Today, when I came back, I found the tree was gone. They cut it. It’s like they’ve cut me.”
At a clearing near the village of Rrajca-Skenderbej where loggers were busy chainsawing trees, a woman in her 70s rode up on a donkey carrying lunch for her son, one of the loggers.
“Do you see the sap of this trunk?” she said, pointing at the stump of a giant beech. “We call it the tear of the tree, because trees cry when they’re cut.”
*Arlis Alikaj is an Albanian freelance journalist. Editing by Timothy Large. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.