– how WWF and IKEA are marrying commerce and conservation in Maramureș, Romania, and helping protect some of Europe’s last remaining old growth forests
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“If you want a confession, I found God and His creation, pure nature, in the old growth forest. And at that moment I decided I had to do everything possible to protect it so my children could see it for real, not just in books and museums.”
Radu Vlad, Forest & Regional Project Co-ordinator for WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme, cuts an imposing figure, unmistakably a man of the Transylvanian forests he’s been campaigning to protect for over a decade. Those in the ancient county of Maramureș are particularly special to him because they contain much of Europe’s last remaining old growth forests.
“We can burn all the books and discover the real forest ecosystem here. It’s a living laboratory. Everything in balance in a natural community. Even dead wood leaves an inheritance and supports life!”
Nothing quite prepares you for the majesty or vibrancy of the old growth forest in Spring, the product of thousands of years of natural evolution, all but free of human intervention.
Land of wood
It’s easy to see why Maramureș is known as the ‘land of wood’. Everything is made of it – churches and chairs, tables and tools, barns and bridges, fences and farmhouses.
“People used to say the ‘forest is like a brother’. Each time a tree was a cut, a prayer was said”, says Radu. “We’ve been dependent on it for millennia.”
Fall from grace
“Communism was a golden age for forest management in Romania – good principles for the time, strict legislation and enforcement!” says Radu.
Under communism, forests were state-owned and relatively well-protected. Its collapse in 1989 put their future in jeopardy. The challenge of land restitution in the 1990s triggered an explosion of ownership claims, many false or inflated, and a dramatic increase in illegal logging. In Maramureș, mining and other industries collapsed, forcing people to turn once more to the forest, putting it under pressure as never before.
Parcel 69A near Poiana Botizii, managed by the Strâmbu-Băiuț Forest Management Unit, is covered with 110-year-old beech. It’s up for its first cut and being harvested by Taparo, a Maramureș furniture company.
A team of two men, one wielding a chainsaw and another a wedge and sledgehammer, fell a tree in seconds that began growing before they were born. This is the reality of the working forest upon which local livelihoods and businesses depend.
What looks to the untrained eye like random cutting is in fact meticulously planned – the forest is independently certified as responsibly managed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
“For the first cut we make a ‘negative’ selection of lower quality trees, keeping the most valuable for the next cut in 10-15 years’ time”, says Florin Mârzac, head of Strâmbu-Băiuț Forest Management Unit. “By the time of the final cut, the next generation of young trees are already growing – perhaps 1.5m tall.”
Forests for all forever
Relentlessly promoting responsible forest management is central to WWF’s approach, not just in Romania but across the whole Carpathian region. FSC certification has been a key tool but it hasn’t been a straightforward journey.
Today in Romania, around 2.6 million ha of state and privately-owned community forest are FSC-certified, yet little more than a decade ago, in the height of the post-communist free for all, that figure stood near zero.
“Back in 2006, our biggest challenge was a lack of understanding about the need and opportunity for certification. There was no demand and the cost of implementation was high,” says Radu.
Waste not, want not
“We produce something that can be used by the whole world– a solid wooden chair.”
It’s a master class in economy of scale and nothing is wasted. Even sawdust is compressed into thousands of ‘eco’ fuel briquettes.
“We’ve reached 100 per cent FSC-certified wood”, says Vasilică. “IKEA asked us to do this. Problems occurred early on given our suppliers weren’t certified. But we ran joint programmes with IKEA to help them.”
When WWF began to promote voluntary uptake of FSC certification in Romania, Radu knew that without market demand for sustainability, it would not fly.
IKEA’s role has been crucial. Its ambitious commitment to obtaining all timber from more sustainable sources (FSC certified or recycled) by 2020 has driven uptake of FSC globally. And in Romania, where IKEA has already met the target, it’s shaped both conservation and forestry practice in a country from which the retailer sources 5 per cent of all its timber.
“In partnership with IKEA, we’ve been able to show forest managers and suppliers the value of certification,” says Radu.
Outstanding universal value
In 2014, WWF, Greenpeace, Romsilva and the National Forest Research and Management Institute proposed the designation of more than 24,000 ha of Romanian old-growth beech forest (976 ha in Maramureș) to UNESCO for World Heritage listing.
Accepted by UNESCO in July 2017 and made on the basis of ‘outstanding universal value’, the pursuit of listing has been inspired as much by commerce as by conservation: beyond establishing FSC as a tool for good management, WWF and partners have also helped broker agreement on FSC Principle 9 criteria for the identification and management of ‘High Conservation Value’ (HCV) forests in Romania. This makes protecting old growth forest integral to obtaining FSC certification.
It’s a breakthrough in forest management and market-driven conservation that’s been precedent-setting for the Carpathian region: though protected old growth forest generates no revenue, it makes timber from the forest units that contain it more attractive to buyers committed to sustainable sourcing.
For the common good
“FSC’s strength is its transparency and the huge chance it gives society to participate in change and play a constructive role in sustainability. It’s up to us to get everyone involved, change mindsets and build a better future!” says Radu.
Conservation is about working together to find solutions that meet people’s needs. Mission forest began at a time when Romania’s forests were unprotected. Much has been achieved but commerce and conservation are in the balance in Maramureș.
Sometimes they make an uneasy marriage, yet one that’s necessary. A living working landscape, Maramureș deserves protection, investment and celebration. Europe destroyed most of its ancient forests centuries ago. Romania and the Carpathians still have them – for now.