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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Romania’s New Timber Traceability System Removes Public Transparency

On January 31, Romania released a new electronic timber traceability system, an important step in its transition to a fully digital forest sector. Unfortunately, the new system has inexplicably removed all public transparency.

Following years of intense public pressure on the government to end the rampant illegal logging that is plaguing the country, the new SUMAL 2.0 traceability system promises unprecedented digital coverage of all aspects of timber supply chains, from forest management, inventories, harvest, transport, and processing. The new digital system transitions Romania’s timber sector away from a widely abused paper-based permit and management system, with the tantalizing promise of untangling many of the Byzantine administrative processes faced by companies.

Romanian law requires public transparency of a wide range of forest sector information. Prior to the release of Sumal 2.0, the government published data from the original version of SUMAL to Romania’s Forest Inspector website and mobile app, which provided Romania’s people with real-time data about harvest authorizations and timber transports; the app had thousands of daily users. The release of SUMAL 2.0 had promised that a new range of data would be made transparent, including links between transport and forest permits, authorized boundaries of valid permits, the GPS tracks followed by trucks, and photos of each loaded vehicle. However, instead of making new data available, the government stopped publishing data altogether.

There is a good reason why Romanian law mandates public transparency of timber sector data - as a tool to combat corruption. Despite numerous massive protests by Romanians and intense scrutiny from the European Union (EU), Romania was once again found to be the most corrupt country in the EU in 2020 by Transparency International, tied with Hungary and Bulgaria. In fact, Romania had the same score it had in 2012, showing a disturbing lack of progress in fighting corruption.

In areas where local corruption exists, mafia groups can exert pressure on police and judges through a combination of bribery and threats of violence. In the past few years, six forest rangers have been murdered in Romania, and at least 650 violent incidents against rangers have been reported. Transparency brings thousands of new eyes to bear in support of law enforcement, making it more difficult to cut illegally and sell stolen timber.

Alexander von Bismarck, Executive Director of the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said, “If and only if Romania’s government returns public transparency to the country’s forest sector data, the new SUMAL 2.0 system can stand as a model for innovative, participatory, and effective forest management. Without this transparency, however, the government risks exacerbating an already dire illegal logging crisis.”

EIA urges the Romanian government to immediately restore transparency to its forest sector in order to fight the destruction of the largest and most diverse primary forests in the European Union.

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