Romania's Putna-Vrancea Natural Park Image: Environmental Investigation Agency

How Romania Is Using Satellites to Stop Loggers Leveling Its Fairytale Forests

The new system allows the public, journalists, and businesses to track the entire system and easily identify illegal activity.

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Dec 9 2016, 2:15pm

Romania's Putna-Vrancea Natural Park Image: Environmental Investigation Agency

Every day on Romania's highways, "ghost trucks" slip by unnoticed.

Digital records show the vehicles, loaded with timber, coming from verified logging sites in the Romanian forest. But the GPS data associated with the records reveal they actually have much more random origins: from cornfields, to cemeteries, to California.

It's part of an illegal logging industry the government has said removes an estimated 141 million cubic feet of timber each year for the country's old growth forests, some of the last in Europe. But a new, high-tech solution from Romania's Ministry of the Environment is designed to counteract illegal logging by putting as much information as possible in the hands of the public using satellite imagery and GPS tracking. The hope is that, when all of the data is public, there will be nowhere for those shirking the law to hide.

"Around the world, we see countries that have similar problems with illegal logging, and they have great laws on the books," said David Gehl, the Eurasia Program Coordination for the Environmental Investigation Agency, which has investigated Romania's illegal logging industry in the past. "The problem is the lack of enforcement. What happens is there's not enough funding given to the agencies to enforce these laws."

The new system, launched Friday, is called Inspectorul Padurii, which means "Forest Inspector." It works by combining images from three different satellites, taken at least once every five days, according to Micu Bogdan, a ministry advisor who helped develop the system. The software scans these images for changes in the forest that indicate logging has taken place (i.e. trees that were there in yesterday's photo are missing today), then automatically highlights those areas. The map is then overlaid with information from the government's digital database: who has permits to cut what and where, what the truck's license plate number is, and when the logging took place. All of this information is combined to make it easy for anyone to spot illegal logging.

A screengrab of the new system. The red areas show where logging has taken place in the last five days.

"The police and everybody will see all of the details like who actually as a person is doing the cut, when it starts, when it's going to end, what they want to cut, what are the limits of it," said Bogdan.

The map makes it easier to spot certain red flags that may not be obvious otherwise, including ghost trucks: records that claim to show a truck leaving a registered logging area, but are actually sent from cell phones in random locations. The government's electronic system requires loggers to use a registered phone number to text out information when they leave a logging site, for example. This information contains the phone's GPS location to make sure that loggers are where they say, but the map clearly shows records generated in places other than the Romanian forest: as far away as France, Dubai, and even California.

"On a map it looks totally different than in a database or an Excel spreadsheet," Bogdan told me. "You are supposed to generate [the record] only from the place where you are loading the truck, generating from any other place is illegal. So you're looking at illegal activity staring you in your face. We don't know exactly why and how they do it but they are covering up some illegal activity, that's clear."

Illegal logging can be as obvious as cutting down trees without a permit, or logging in a protected area, but the issues in Romania are more insidious, Gehl told me. In 2014, the government instituted a digital tracking system, which assigns a number to each logging information and tracks everything from how many trees are being cut and where they're going to who is driving a truck.

But illegal loggers in Romania use legal operations to hide their acts. This includes tricks such as cutting down old growth while claiming to be on a thinning operation (where smaller trees are cut down to allow the older, larger ones even more space to grow).

Romania's Putna-Vrancea Natural Park Image: Environmental Investigation Agency

"There's also something called 'accidental logging' in Romania where a storm knocks down a couple trees in the wind and you collect those trees," Gehl said. "But then people say 'oh there was big storm, I need to clear 100 trees,' and they go cut healthy, economically-valuable trees."

All of these slippery behaviors make it difficult to track and stop illegal logging, which is why the government is hoping to enlist the public's help to widen the net with it's new system.

It's not the first time Romania has used this approach, a combination of citizen activism and technology. Since 2014, when the digital tracking system was introduced, the government has had a hotline—later an app—that would let citizens check the license plates of logging trucks to determine if they were registered, and in the area they're supposed to be. Citizens were keen to help, placing 7,000 calls in the first six months, with 2,000 of those call identifying illegal activity. Unfortunately, the government only took action in one of those 2,000 cases, according to Der Spiegel.

"Having the information does not mean the problem is solved. There's going to be a lot of work after this to get more information public and to get the government to act," Gehl told me. "But having the public access that information is a way to empower people to hold the government to account."