By: Elvis Nabolli (Shkoder)
Every day, dozens of heavy vehicles laden with freshly harvested timber drive down the slope of Feza mountain, in northern Albania, towards the northern city of Shkodra.
The mountain is home to a thick beech forest administrated by the forestry service but degraded by continuous illegal logging. Since the collapse of Albania’s communist regime back in 1991, the mountain has been mostly stripped of its vegetation – the desolate scenery bearing witness to the impact that illegal logging is having on Albania’s forests.
Despite the devastating impact that this trade has on the environment, illegal loggers often get away with their trade either by paying small bribes to forest rangers or by relying on the incompetence of the police.
Although the local authorities admit that illegal logging is a problem, they maintain they are working hard to curb it and even boast of some successes.
Official statistics claim illegal logging has declined since its peak in 1997, when the country collapsed into virtual anarchy following the bankruptcy of series of pyramid-like investment schemes.
But the official statistics are unreliable as a guide. A 2005 World Bank study estimates that unrecorded, illegal logging in Albania exceeds the legal harvest by a factor of ten.
According to the same study most of the timber logged illegally in Albania is sold in the internal market either for firewood or as raw material for industry.
Forest areas cover 36 per cent of Albania but have been heavily degraded over the past two decades. Feza mountain, in the commune of Shllak, is not an isolated case. Other remote mountain areas like Cukal, Postribe and Boge have been similarly affected.
Villagers in Shllak who are involved in illegal logging told Balkan Insight that they work most in winter when the snowfall makes travel in the area difficult for the police and forest rangers and when they cut oak and chestnut trees.
“We drive up the mountain early in the morning with an empty lorry and cut wood all day,” said Gjin Ndoci, who works for one of the local companies that illegally harvests timber in the mountain. “Loading begins in the afternoon and then we drive back down,” Ndoci added, outlining his daily ritual.
In the village of Gegaj, locals say at least 30 lorries and excavators loaded with illegally harvested timber pass through on their way to the city of Shkoder every day. Along the road through the village empty trunks are thrown here and there.
Ndoci says they encounter very few problems with rangers. “When the forest police stop us, we just pay a bribe of about 1,000 lek [8 euro] and they let us pass through undisturbed,” he explains.
The state police are dealt with just as easily. “When we show them a photocopy of a permit to harvest wood in another area, they let us go,” Ndoci said. “If we run into an insistent cop who wants to look at the documentation more carefully, we negotiate and give him money also,” he added.
Local experts in the Shkodra region agree that this illegal industry is carrying on in front of the eyes of authorities. “Dozens of vehicles loaded with timber pass freely into Shkoder every day without anyone bothering to stop and examine their documentation,” Gjovalin Gjekaj, an expert with the forest service in Shkodra, said.
Most companies engaged in illegal logging in the nearby forest are local. Some are based in the nearby town of Lezha or as far away as Kosovo.
The prefect of Shkodra Paulin Radovani, admits illegal logging is a problem but claims his administration is working to curb it. “The forest service has deployed a task force in the Feza mountain area to make an expert report on the situation and identify trouble-makers,” he said.
Meanwhile, the director of the forest service for the Shkodra region, Gjin Brigjaj, says the rate of illegal logging in the Feza mountain is not as high as local villagers allege. “There are four companies with legal permits to harvest timber in the area,” he explains.
The villagers contest such claims, noting that logging companies often use duplicate licenses taken from other loggers as well as the way they often far exceed their designated quota.
Ndoci knows for sure that his boss does not have an official permit to harvest wood in the mountain. “He uses the permit of another company allowed to harvest firewood in another area,” he explained.
The director of the forest service, Brigjaj, says they are doing everything in their power to end illegal logging and save the forest. He points out that in recent years the forestry service has uncovered 35 cases of illegal logging in the Shkodra region, of which 19 have been referred to the courts.
Official data from the National Institute of Statistics, INSTAT, show that the authorities are not confiscating much of the illegally harvested timber that they come across. They point to a confiscation rate of about 30 per cent. However, when you factor in that the rate of illegal logging may be about ten times higher than INSTAT’s own projections, the confiscation rate of illegal timber is miniscule.
Those employed in illegal logging are unaware of any official crackdown. “The boss made it clear to us that we will work without a hitch because he had settled things with the forest service,” Ndoci, the logger, said. “There, [on the slopes of Feza mountain] where we cut wood, nobody comes to check.”