In Ukraine, where nearly one-fifth of the territory is made up of forest, the issue of illegal logging is getting more and more critical every year.
In the west of the Lviv region, not far from the Polish border, there is a small Carpathian town called Staryi Sambir. Its locals say that illegal loggers cut down trees from the mountain that stands right above the city.
Joined by Dmytro Karabchuk, the founder of the “Forest Guard” project, which fights for the preservation of Ukrainian forests and teaches people what they can do to prevent deforestation, Hromadske goes on a mission to explore the Carpathian forests for any signs of wrongdoing.
Legal and Illegal Felling
There are deep ditches made by tractors and truck wheels that have not yet dried out – it seems that the forest here was cut down quite recently. Within 15 minutes of searching we come across the first stump, dusted with soil. Karabchuk describes it as the typical picture of “impudent, illegal logging.”
Founder of the project "Forest Guard" Dmytro Karabchuk (C), Lviv region, August 3, 2018. Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
“A tractor arrives, there are several people in it with chainsaws,” he says. “They cut down everything they can. The main thing is that the tractor then drives the trunks down. They do not care whether they have any documents.”
A few hundred meters from us we hear a chainsaw start up, so we follow the sound. Two men are sawing already fallen trees into smaller pieces and loading them into their vehicle. When they notice us, they immediately stop and jump into the car.
Illegal loggers saw down trees on a mountain right above the town of Staryi Sambir, Lviv region, on August 3, 2018 . Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
Dmytro Karabchuk, together with the team of project "Forest Guard", is fighting for the preservation of the Ukrainian forest, Lviv region, August 3, 2018. Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
Not all felling is illegal, so at first, it’s difficult to determine whether these men are illegally chopping up the trees. Some parts of the forest are logged for firewood stock and some when the trees are sick, Karabchuk explains.
Evidence of illegal deforestation, Lviv region, August 3, 2018. Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
“To stop the spread of the disease across the forest, and at the same time to use some of the wood for economic purposes, sanitary felling can be carried out,” he says. “But the process is often abused: they either saw down more trees than the documents indicate or just forge the documents.”
In these cases, it is necessary to send forestry and ecological inspection authorities an inquiry about whether these trees were supposed to be cut down.
Our conversation with Karabchuk is interrupted by the sound of a chainsaw, and then another. Suddenly we hear the cracking sound of a tree falling. Judging by the rumble, when the first trunk broke, it took down another tree.
Trees cut down by illegal loggers, Lviv region, August 3, 2018. Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
Climbing through trees and blackberry bushes, we find three illegal loggers. One of them is whittling down the sawn wood. Others have busied themselves around the tractor’s broken caterpillar band.
A broken tractor belonging to the illegal loggers, Lviv region, August 3, 2018. Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
Founder of the project "Forest Guard" Dmytro Karabchuk (left) with Staryi Sambir police department investigator Vasyl Meleshchuk, Lviv region, August 3, 2018. Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
Karabchuk calls the police as we continue to shoot. About five minutes after the call, one of the lumberjacks’ phones rings. He looks around, then runs to his associates. It appears someone has warned them that they are not alone. They grab their things and run. Their broken tractor is left on the road.
Investigator Vasyl Meleshchuk takes down the details of the crime scene, Lviv region, August 3, 2018. Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
After the “suspects” are gone and about half an hour after our call, the police arrive. The local law enforcement officers, without much optimism, climb the mountain.
“Yes, of course, this is illegal logging,” Staryi Sambir police department’s investigator Vasyl Meleshchuk says as he takes out his notebook. He begins to take down the details of the crime scene while the others photograph the broken trees and tractor.
Forest protection engineer Ivan Volyanskiy says that forestry authorities can not deal with illegal felling of trees in the Lviv region on their own, August 3, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/ Hromadske
“But it’s not so simple,” he adds. “I will have to go to court to allow for a special examination there. We will investigate the species of wood, the amount of the sawn wood. Based on the results, we can determine the value of the [logged wood] and the damage to the environment.”
According to the police, the investigation into the illegally felled trees can last six months or longer. The officers, however, do not know what to do with the abandoned tractor as there no license plates.
“I don’t know whose it is. In order to appeal to the court to arrest this tractor, I need its numbers, but they are not here,” one of the officers says.
Call for Help
An employee of the forestry department, Ivan Voliansky, who suddenly appeared on the scene tells Hromadske that despite the fact that illegal logging happens often, it has become no easier to fight with the culprits.
View from the mountain, overlooking to the town of Staryi Sambir and windmills, Lviv region, August 3, 2018. Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
“We are unable to fight them like we we used to in the old days. We are happy for any help, because we are also in a difficult situation,” he says.
The felled and damaged trees are legally transferred to the district forestry administration. But none of the department representatives knew who would be responsible for the abandoned tractor. They do not rule out that the next day it could be gone. They say there’s nothing they can do.
Founder of the project "Forest Guard" Dmytro Karabchuk, Lviv region, August 3, 2018. Photo: Dmytro Replyanchuk/ Hromadske
During this trip, Hromadske saw nearly every type of forestry violation, the impudence of illegal loggers and the powerlessness of law enforcement, which must fight for the preservation of the forest and punish those who illegally cut it down. Hromadske will monitor how police are investigating this case and whether they find the perpetrators.
/By Dmytro Replianchuk and Oleksandr Kokhan
/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov