Romania is home to one of the largest and most important old-growth forests in the world—but its trees are disappearing at an astonishing rate. Meanwhile, a spate of attacks has shaken environmentalists and activists in the country. On episode 43 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk with the reporter Alexander Sammon, who recently traveled to Romania to investigate illegal logging for The New Republic. Can Europe’s forests survive the global appetite for timber?
Alexander Sammon: I looked up the road and saw basically a little hut. It was a logger’s cabin that’s kind of standard for operations like this. We saw the smoke. And then I saw a logger approaching us pretty quickly on foot. At that point, we decided that we have to make an exit, we have to escape.
Laura Marsh: In September, the reporter Alexander Sammon traveled to Romania to investigate illegal logging. He knew going in that there had been a spate of attacks on journalists and environmentalists in the forest. In 2015, an environmentalist named Gabriel Paun was beaten unconscious by loggers. The former minister of waters and forest was poisoned with mercury in 2017, after she tried to crack down on illegal logging. In 2019, two forest rangers were murdered, and in 2021, just before Alex arrived, a documentary film crew was ambushed in their car by a group of 15 armed men.
Alexander: What has made the forest so dangerous is the global appetite for wood. Romania is home to one of the largest and most important old-growth forests left in the world. And until relatively recently, the land was publicly owned and protected.
Laura: Here’s where the story takes another turn, because some of that land has since been passed to big corporate owners. Harvard University owned swathes of the forest, and now the biggest private landowner in Romania just happens to be the world’s single-largest consumer of wood: Ikea.
Alex Pareene: Today on the show, we’re talking about what happens to that illegally logged wood.
Laura: Who buys it? Where does it end up? And can you even know where the wood in your furniture came from? I’m Laura Marsh.
Alex: And I’m Alex Pareene.
Laura: This is The Politics of Everything.
Laura: When Alexander Sammon was reporting the story, he spent some time accompanying a Romanian activist, Andrei, who was documenting logging and protected areas. Andrei isn’t his real name; he asked to be referred to by a pseudonym for his protection. One day, Alex and Andrei were driving on back roads near the Vidraru Dam, a few hours by car from Bucharest. They were searching for a spot they’d seen in satellite photos that looked like it had been recently logged.
Alexander: As we got close, we actually saw a little roadside placard that announced that there was a logging permit for the area that had expired at the end of July.
Laura: So no active logging should have been going on.
Alex: We kept going up this muddy road, a logging road. We noticed that there were deep tracks in the mud that suggested there had been trucks there recently. And then, finally, we round the corner and see a bunch of big logs stacked on the side of the road. These logs were fresh; you could smell it. You could hear even the sound of chain saws at this point—there was an ambient hum of chain saws, so we knew it was active.
Laura: Andrei had been using a drone to document the logging that you encountered. So he launched the drone, and he was taking pictures, and then you saw a hut, like a log cabin, and a logger appoaching.
Alexander: There wasn’t enough time even to get the drone down. So we dove into the car. Andrei was in the driver’s seat, and he hands me the drone controls and tells me to try my best to fly it to a location ahead of us where we’re going to be able to pick it up. At that point, we were driving as fast as we could down this road. We’re kind of thrashing our way through these potholes and on the escape.
Alex: You obviously made it out OK: You’re speaking to us now. But why were you afraid of encountering a logger in a forest in Romania?
Alexander: Well, Romania has this sordid history of violence around logging, and illegal logging in particular. In the last handful of years, there have been six separate murders of forest rangers or environmentalists who have come across illegal logging outfits. I think the most recent stats say that 650 incidents have occurred, whether beatings or attempted murders. Two days prior to my getting there, there was an attack on two journalists and an environmentalist. So the very recent history of that particular attack was looming pretty large in our minds at that moment.
Laura: What did you know about the attack by the time you arrived?
Alexander: It was a local documentary film crew, a director and videographer from Bucharest, and they were working on a project about the illegal logging trade in Romania. They had teamed up with an environmentalist, this guy named Tiberiu Bosutar, who’s something of a vigilante in a lot of ways. He has a very popular Facebook page, and for the last five years has built a reputation by staking out illegal logging sites, confronting loggers, and chasing down trucks that have illegally harvested wood on them. In the absence of robust legal enforcement, he’s taken it on himself to do a lot of this stuff. The filmmakers had gone on a four-day trip shadowing him, and on the last day they were attacked.
Alex: The attack was brutal: 15 men armed with bats and axes. One member of the crew was beaten unconscious. The attackers even broke their car keys so that the men couldn’t escape. They thought they were going to die. Finally, the film director managed to call the police, who eventually showed up.
Laura: I want to shift to asking why this is happening in Romania. Why is it Romania particularly where there are so many of these old-growth forests to be illegally logged?
Alexander: It’s an interesting contingency of history and geography. You have the Carpathian mountains in Romania, which are home to these incredible forests of spruce, beech, oak, various trees. Because of Romania’s status as a Soviet state, those forests were largely protected from the global market for quite some time. But with the fall of communism, these forests were opened up to the European market and to global exploitation. Now they’re one of the few remaining old-growth forests in Europe, but they’re also under extreme pressure because of that status.
Alex: Romanian communism ended in 1989. Romania joined the European Union in 2007. By the time that happened, major companies had already identified Romanian forests as a huge asset. What’s happened to the forests since Romania joined the EU?
Alexander: More or less in that time, we’ve seen somewhere between half and two-thirds of the virgin forests of Romania destroyed.
Laura: A lot of people might not understand why the stakes are so high: why there are these attacks, why it’s so fraught. What is at stake in clearing the last of the old-growth forests?
Alexander: There’s a lot of money on the line—that’s one thing. There are huge multinational timber corporations, and there are furniture companies like Ikea, which happens to be the largest private landowner in Romania. They all have a lot riding on those trees becoming things like chairs and particleboard and bed frames and the like. On the other side, you have the European Union and its climate commitments and biodiversity commitments, which are, I think, less prominent and less widely known. Those forests are extremely important because they’re not only the most effective carbon capture method on the planet—the old-growth forest captures carbon at this incredible rate that’s not seen in logged and replanted forests—but they also serve as an ecosystem for bears and lynx and other endangered or threatened species.
Laura: How did Ikea get involved? How does Ikea end up owning a forest?
Alexander: It’s actually a very interesting saga. As part of the liberalization of the Romanian economy after the fall of communism, the government instituted this land restitution law, which basically said that the Soviet state had claimed all of this forest land as public land, obviously, under the Communist regime. The newly liberalized Romanian state wanted to return those forests to the private owners who had had them before communism. They put in this land restitution law, which from the very get-go was plagued by massive corruption. You hear stories about grandmas in retirement homes in Prague hiring a lawyer and coming away with thousands of hectares of private forest land in Romania where they haven’t even lived, they don’t even share the same last name as the people who had it before communism. A huge percentage of the forest land is privatized like that, in these fly-by-night operations. There’s no administration to even verify these claims. So people do that, and they end up holding these tracts of forest and immediately selling them because they want to cash out. One of the big investors in Romania in this period is the Harvard University endowment. Harvard contracts a Romanian businessman to go out and look for prime investment opportunities out here. Within a number of years, Harvard is actually the largest private landowner outside of maybe the church at that point. Harvard University was the proud owner of an incredible percentage of Romanian forest.
Laura: So Harvard University doesn’t sell firewood. It doesn’t make furniture. Why would they want to own a forest in Romania?
Alexander: The Harvard University endowment is like any institutional investor: always looking for opportunities for any way to make a quick buck. In essence, that’s what they’re doing. The opportunity to buy that much land on the cheap, I think, was seen as a great investment opportunity. They snatched it up just like they would snatch up retirement homes or gyms or trailer parks or any other asset that might be underexploited given political conditions or anything else.
Laura: So the way this land passes from Harvard to Ikea is a bit complicated, if I understand correctly, because the way the land had been handed over meant other people were making claims to the land Harvard had, and Harvard found itself facing these disputes, and they eventually decide it’s not really worth it.
Alexander: And they flip it to Ikea, which is a ready and willing buyer for numerous reasons.
Alex: Yeah, Harvard is sort of an investment bank with a university attached to it. The part of this story that I find so interesting is that it embodies so many of the contradictions of the post–Cold War European project. On the one hand, these old-growth forests in Romania are a key part of the EU’s commitment to meeting its climate goals, and Romania’s entry into the EU means, essentially, they are now responsible for these old-growth forests that help take all this carbon out of the atmosphere. At the same time, the project that they pursue even more enthusiastically is liberalizing the market so that, suddenly, these private actors can go in there and start carving up these forests to sell on the international market. That sums up the entire post-Soviet, post-Communist EU world.
Alexander: Totally. On one hand you open up the market so that this labor pool and this natural resource can be exploited all over the world, and on the other hand, you’re saying, “We gotta take care of this land and make sure that it’s under close watch, it’s crucial for our environmental commitments.” I think less than 4 percent of European forest land is intact at this point. What Europe has done to its forest is quite clear. The track record is obvious. And now all eyes are on this one patch in not even a huge country—it’s a small swath of land, ultimately. These two warring impulses that the EU has are borne out right there.
Laura: After the break, we’ll be talking more about how Ikea fits into all of this.
Alex: We’re going to get to Ikea’s place in this story in a little bit, but first, I want to talk about why it’s so hard to prevent this from happening. Romania is not on their own here—they’re part of the EU. The EU has climate goals and biodiversity goals that should be stopping this illegal logging from happening. Do they have the capability to enforce the regulations around logging in places like Romania?
Alexander: The short answer is no. The interesting thing about what’s going on right now in Romania is that a number of these forests are technically protected under the Natura 2000 program, which is a biodiversity designation for particular parts of the landscape that are of exceptional value to biodiversity and to endangered species. It isn’t even a climate commitment that protects these areas. They aren’t really enforceable climate statutes. The EU can’t sue Romania because of logging that’s going on there, but they can sue Romania because they aren’t protecting these particular forests that are of high value to biodiversity generally. So there’s a legal process that’s ongoing. Again, they’re not substantial because there is no real force for enforcement, but they do have a legal process where they can haul the country before the European Court of Justice and hold it in contempt and eventually, in theory, force it to amend its actions such that these areas are protected. In theory, it’s in the last stages of that process, but the enforcement mechanisms obviously seem to be pretty weak.
Laura: So let’s talk about Ikea. If I were to ask an Ikea spokesperson to explain what they’re doing on this land that they own in Romania, what would they tell me?
Alexander: So Ikea has a pretty good environmental reputation: It’s highly curated and something they care greatly about. If you were to ask them what they’re doing buying up forest land in Romania, they would say, “We’re invested in environmental stewardship, and our forest management is as good as anybody else’s, if not better. Our purchasing this land is actually a show of our commitment to the area. We abide by national laws, we abide by the certification of the Forest Stewardship Council,” which confers the FSC stamp and is the sort of gold standard in forestry. They would say that, according to all that anyone can ask of them, they’re doing a good job, they’re doing a sustainable job. One thing they have said is that what they’re doing in Romania is unrelated to their furniture business, that largely what they’re doing is buying this forest land and, right now, selling only logging concessions that would turn into firewood, so they’re not a major player in the wood markets. These small tracts are for logging firewood, and they’re not engaged in this extractive industry in the way that you might think they are.
Alex: The loggers you saw doing the illegal logging were not Ikea employees wearing blue Ikea uniforms, then?
Alexander: Right. They weren’t carrying around those plastic bags and wearing blue and yellow Ikea vests.
Alex: I think if you could outline the chain of custody of the wood, it would be a useful way to get into this.
Alexander: Totally. In most situations, the way Ikea comes up with its furniture is that there are logging companies that will buy concessions from a forest owner. They buy the concession, they go out, they cut the trees down, and then they take them to a wood depot. From there, they’ll sell the wood to a mill, which is another company, a different private entity. The mill will take the logs and they’ll turn it into planks, they’ll turn it into a particleboard, they’ll turn it into the pieces that will eventually become furniture, and the mill can sell those then to a furniture company. In Romania, there are companies like Egger that do this work. They take the wood pieces and they turn them into pieces that become a piece of furniture. They do that work, and Ikea has a contract with them.
Alex: So Ikea just goes to one of these companies, these contractors, and says, “Look, we need a thousand folding chairs. We’ll give you five euros a chair.”
Alexander: Then that company has to go out and find enough wood to make into the chair or the pieces of the chair. That’s how they operate. Ikea has a contract with someone who then has a contract with someone who then has a contract with someone. At each link in that chain, there obviously is a different management group, and there’s plausible deniability, and there’s a lack of visibility. They would say the Forest Stewardship Council goes and verifies these groups and ensures that they’re doing sustainable activity. Indeed, almost all of those groups are verified by the FSC as being sustainable operations, but actually tracing a log from the forest to Ikea’s final ownership is extremely difficult. It’s just ultimately very hard to know if a log is legally or illegally felled. But in a place like Romania, where there’s more illegal logging than there is legal logging, you can have a pretty strong sense that the wood that they’re getting is not coming to them in entirely copacetic ways.
Alex: What are some of the ways that the illegal loggers and the mills disguise their tracks? What are some of the methods?
Alexander: It’s constantly evolving. What I was told is that most of it happens at night now. Loggers will go into an area, they’ll cut down more trees than they’re allowed to cut down, and they’ll load them up on trucks. The trucks are supposed to submit pictures of their haul to a database that’s run by the Romanian government to prove they’re not taking more than they should be, but there’s an incredible array of creative workarounds. Truckers will take pictures of just a small percentage of the truck and claim that it’s just a couple of logs. They’ll do things like put water on the camera lens so you can’t tell what’s in the photo at all. They’ll transport at night when they’re less likely to get detained. Of course, the forest guard in Romania doesn’t even work nights and weekends, so it’s not like they’re going to detain them then anyway. Then they’ll take the wood to a wood depot, where it’ll get mixed up with the legal logs, or get ground up into wood chips. It would be impossible to tell which log is legal and which one is not. Then they get handed off, and away they go.
Alex: That feels like a really important part of the Ikea aspect of this. Because Ikea, presumably, is not doing this themselves, but presumably they have to know what’s going on and therefore have to know they’re benefiting from it.
Alexander: Right. It would just be implausible otherwise. Ikea has invested in Romania, Eastern Europe, Russia—that’s the region that they’ve invested the most resources in. Their growth is predicated on that area above all else. That area also happens to be one where illegal logging is totally rampant. Outside of Romania, too, in Ukraine and Russia, this stuff is commonplace, and that obviously is not lost on them. They have a good sense of their supply chains. They wouldn’t leave these things up to chance at the rate at which they’re growing—they’re growing by at least two million trees per year. There’s just not that much wood, ultimately. If you’re going to say that 55 percent of Romanian logging is illegal, which is what the government found in a recent report, how could they possibly get enough wood to satisfy the production that they need to be the dominant global player that they are? They benefit from this, even if it’s only tacitly. There really isn’t even enough enforcement or visibility to prove one way or another how any individual log has been acquired.
Laura: You also point out quite an unusual dynamic in the piece, which is that whenever there have been signs that there might be some enforcement, this hasn’t stopped efforts but in fact encouraged logging to accelerate. Why is that?
Alexander: This was something that Andrei told me while he was doing his investigation, that actually the rush is on right now. The more attention that’s been paid to this issue, and the closer that they’ve gotten to regulation, it’s increased the amount of logging activity. Forest owners and logging companies are worried that if a law is implemented, it would slow down their logging. You might as well log as much as you can now because you’re not sure that you’re going to be able to in the future. The expected environmental provisions that, I think, the EU will eventually try to put in place might say that for an old-growth forest, if it’s 80 percent untouched, it will be protected, but if it’s 70 percent untouched, it doesn’t qualify for protection. So there’s an incentive to log what you have and degrade as much as possible so it won’t be eligible for protection in the future. In this interesting way, the closer they’ve gotten to getting a handle on the situation, the worse things have gotten, because there’s this perverse incentive now to log as much while you still can and try to beat the regulatory intervention.
Laura: I never like to ask how individual people can react to discovering this kind of information—I don’t like talking about the way consumers can vote with their dollar and not buy from Ikea. But if you are in Ikea and you’re shopping for furniture, can you even find out what came from Romania and what didn’t?
Alexander: It’s really hard to tell. It’s actually almost impossible. If you were to go to Ikea right now and look at what’s on the shelves there in the stockroom, the furniture pieces will say, “Made in Romania,” “Made in Poland,” “Made in Russia,” but that only tells you the last link of the chain: It shows you where they assembled the pieces and put them together. It doesn’t tell you where the wood is coming from, and that information is not publicly available.
Alex: You were tipped off to these codes that could help someone to figure out the source of the wood in this furniture, and you actually went to an Ikea and found furniture that could be sourced to a particular company. Tell me about the company it could be sourced to.
Alexander: I was tipped off to this one code that corresponds to Plimob, which is a Romanian-based manufacturer. It’s not owned by Ikea, but something between like 96 and 98 percent of their product goes to Ikea. I was tipped off with their code, and I took it with me on the way down to the Ikea here in Brooklyn. I looked through the chairs, trying to find if I could identify something that had come from there. Sure enough, after a little while, I found a handful of them that had that multiple-digit code that indicated that they come from that particular company. That company, Plimob, had recently been implicated in sourcing illegally logged wood for its chairs. The information is there, but it’s certainly not publicly available. As a consumer, there’s almost no way you could expect to find those things out and act or shop accordingly.
Laura: I also wonder how much it matters, because this is kind of a case study in logging from one region. You’ve uncovered a lot of violence and attacks and illegal activity and stuff that is bad for the environment and the climate—but is what’s happening in Romania significantly different from what’s happening in forests in, say, China or Russia or other places that may also account for a lot of the supply of wood to fast furniture companies?
Alexander: I don’t think it is. I think it’s pretty standard. These are the ravages of low-cost products. If you’re going to get a chair for $25, someone along the line is paying for that, in essence. These supply chains move around. It’s likely that Ikea’s focus has even moved to other countries in the region: to Poland or Russia, like you say. If you’re getting something that cheap, that means that they’re getting the wood for even cheaper, and at a certain point, the reason they’re getting it so cheaply is because it’s being extracted in those ways. Ultimately, that’s the expectation and the contribution of super-low-cost anything. It’s certainly true of furniture, in particular.
Laura: It’s funny because I think part of the mythology of a company like Ikea is the idea that they had this innovation where they could flat-pack everything, and you put it together, and that was the cost-saving: that you, the consumer, by assembling the furniture, are taking off the price of that labor. That’s why it’s cheap. But of course, the thing it’s made of is wood. And so the base price is going to be set by the amount that wood costs.
Alexander: It’s much less glamorous, and obviously a company like that would not like you to think about it in this way, but ultimately Ikea is an extractive industry like ExxonMobil or any of these other companies that are engaged in extractive activities. It’s a wood company at the end of the day, and how they get that wood and how they get it cheaply is, I think, an important part of the story. There are estimates that say that Ikea consumes 1 percent of wood globally, which makes it the most outstanding wood consumer on the planet as a company. That’s the game that they’re involved in. There’s a lot of branding and a lot of corporate messaging and strategy that goes to make it seem like it’s actually about design or something else. But that’s ultimately what it is.
Laura: Thanks so much, Alex.
Alexander: Yeah, thanks guys.
Laura: You can read Alex Sammon’s story, “Ikea’s Race for the Last of Europe’s Old-Growth Forest,” in the March issue of The New Republic or on NewRepublic.com.
Alex: The Politics of Everything is co-produced by Talkhouse.
Laura: Emily Cooke is our executive producer.
Alex: Myron Kaplan is our audio editor.
Laura: If you enjoy the show and you want to help support it, one thing you can do is rate and review it wherever you get your podcasts. Every review helps.