In the villages around the central Bosnian town of Kiseljak, nothing once disturbed the belt of thick, inviting forest that for centuries provided sanctuary for birds, bears and countless other wild animals.
But these days, changes are afoot in much of the woods that formerly covered this mountainous land, and few are of a beneficial nature. Even a casual visitor following the muddy roads that lead through the forests near Kiseljak can spot the telltale signs of soil erosion.
As the trail continues, the sight of chopped trees becomes common, while the still of the countryside is broken by the deafening noise of chainsaws in action.
Trees gradually disappear and give way to acres of barren land and rock, a sure sign that wood, Bosnia`s greatest natural resource, is being looted.
In one place, IWPR came across a bearded villager who had just finished loading his wood onto a cart. The man waved his hand away, as a sign that he did not wish to discuss what he was up to. But his cart, piled high with massive tree-trunks, said it all.
The clearances around Kiseljak are only one of many examples of illegal deforestation in Bosnia, creating the conditions for a future environmental and ecological crisis. Ecologist Nijaz Abazdic says uncontrolled exploitation of Bosnia`s natural resources may be responsible for several recent disasters, such as a massive landslide that covered part of the motorway near Kiseljak, or another that changed the course of the river Bosnia. “We must stop turning a blind eye to this alarming situation,” he told IWPR.
Illegal exploitation of wood is the main cause of soil erosion, although widespread fires and the 1992-95 war also played their part, when woods were chopped down for military needs, heating and illegal export. With forests covering just over 40 per cent of the country, Bosnia comprises the third largest forest reserve in Europe.
Yet the lack of uniform government rules regulating the exploitation of wood, particularly oak, pine and beech, has made the business of looting this precious natural resource painfully easy. Forestry does not fall under the competence of Bosnia`s weak state government but is managed by the two entities – the Federation and Republika Srpska, RS.
The Federation, in turn, has devolved the issue to each of its ten cantons, which have made the situation yet more complex by turning the matter over to local companies.
Looters take advantage of this bureaucratic muddle. According to Adid Saric, Sarajevo Canton`s minister of economy and forestry, the part of the canton bordering the RS has suffered most damage.
“It is difficult to react because it is unclear which authorities bear responsibility,” Saric told IWPR. He added that arresting looters, even when they are caught red-handed, is difficult. If forest rangers spot thieves, they must report them first to the authorities.
This gives most culprits plenty of time to get away. Moreover, looters are often armed, Saric went on, as well as skilled in their contraband trade.
Smail Karovic, technical director of the Sarajevo Sume (forests) company, in charge of Sarajevo Canton`s woods, said his firm lacked the resources to provide rangers with adequate protection gear. “They have neither firearms nor cellular phones out in the field,” he said. He added that the company allocates 15 per cent of its annual revenue to reviving forests, repairing roads running through them and providing other assistance, amounting to 22,500 Bosnian marks (11,000 euro) this year alone.
Looting forests is widespread in the relatively small Sarajevo Canton, where more than 100 charges have been pressed this year. Karovic said Sarajevo Sume`s good cooperation with the Bosnian Serb authorities had resulted in several successful arrests. But Karovic complained that few of those who had been charged had suffered much in the way of punishment.
During what are often lengthy trials, forest rangers sometimes changed their statements. Culprits mostly got away with fairly small fines of 500 to 3,000 Bosnian marks, (approximately 250 to 1,500 euro), while prison terms are rare.
Many looters own timber-processing plants, usually located on the outskirts of cities or in rural areas. Some are quite shameless about their illegal felling activities. “It`s all free of charge,” in such owner confided to IWPR, with a broad smile.
Another businessman, owner of a timber plant in Gracanica, in central Bosnia, pointed out that no one checked whether wood supplied from the RS to the Federation had been felled legally or not. “The only thing that matters is that wood coming from the Bosnian Serb entity is cheaper,” he said.
Eko Gorani, a Bosnian environmental protection association, says although it has urged all ten Federation cantons to halt uncontrolled deforestation, their warning had not been heeded. “We haven`t received a response so far,” said Izudin Hadzic, the association`s chief.
The Sarajevo Canton claims that it is countering the activities of the illegal loggers by restoring damaged forests, and by spending 1.2 million Bosnian marks this year alone on such activities as tree planting.
Hadzic praised these efforts but questioned their long-term benefit. “Reviving forests alone is not enough to deal with illegal exploitation,” he said. “It takes much longer for newly planted trees to grow than it does to cut them down.”
In the meantime, the forests around Kiseljak continue to disappear. “We are poor people. Our only chance of surviving the winter is by getting free firewood,” a woman from a nearby village told IWPR, as she stacked up chopped wood against the wall of her house. “No one really cares much about these woods, ” she added, “because if they did, they`d look after them.”
Kiseljak, Ilda Zornic, Institute for War and Peace Reporting- Bosnia