Logging season in Romania runs seven months, from mid-September through April, a frenzy of chain saws chewing through millions of spruce, pine, oak, maple, beech, fir. Some of the wood is cut legally; most of it is not, and violence between the logging industry and its opponents breaks out often. Early this season, two Bucharest-based documentary filmmakers, working on a project about the illicit wood trade, set out to find a large, treacherous-looking clear-cut in Suceava, a northern county where some of the country’s largest sawmills are based and where Ikea owns thousands of hectares.
The filmmakers—Mihai Dragolea, a director, and Radu Mocanu, a cameraman—were shadowing a local environmentalist, Tiberiu Bosutar. A former wood chipper turned activist, Bosutar was no stranger to illegal timber. Over the course of five years, he had built a reputation as something of a forest vigilante, accosting loggers engaged in questionable activity or following trucks stuffed with wood contraband, then streaming the encounters on Facebook Live. Just a few weeks before, he’d gone viral broadcasting an attempt to detain a truck carrying illegal logs; when his white SUV ran out of gas, he flagged down an ambulance and kept up the chase.
But the filmmakers’ trip wasn’t meant to be a stunt. The group took Bosutar’s personal vehicle, well-known in the area, and lingered for coffee at a nearby gas station to make their presence known and prove that they had not come to antagonize. Then, with Bosutar behind the wheel, the person who’d tipped them off about the cut riding shotgun, and the filmmakers in the back, they took to the highway, turned left up a dirt road, and began to climb.
It didn’t take long before they saw what they came for: stumps. “The forest was fucked up to the bone,” Dragolea told me. “It was really damaged.” No surprise, really, and on any other day, Bosutar might have taken to Facebook. Instead, he chose to call the forest ranger’s office. It was an ideal opportunity, he thought, to showcase the potential for communication between activists, law enforcement, and loggers, and fulfill a New Year’s resolution to try a less combative approach. “It was a good moment to show that we are open to dialogue.”
Not long after, they heard the whinge of engines; soon, two SUVs arrived. Out jumped not local police, but a horde: 15 men armed with bats and axes. The documentary crew broke for Bosutar’s car but couldn’t get the locks in time. The attackers pried the doors open, snapped the key, slashed the tires, and smashed the camera equipment. They beat Mocanu, trapped between the car and the mountainside, unconscious. They clubbed Dragolea in the face. The director dove down the nearby ravine, where he hid under the roots of a fallen tree and called the police, begging them to come with their sirens on. “I said, ‘They’re killing the journalists in the forest, and they are tracking me down,’” he recounted. “I knew cases where people had died in the forest, I saw axes around me. If someone didn’t call, we were going to die for sure.”
Meanwhile, with Bosutar still in the car, the attackers were attempting to push the vehicle off the mountainside, hoisting the chassis up on two wheels. When he agreed to get out, they bludgeoned him, stripped him naked, and posted photos of him online, blood streaming down his face, with the caption, in Romanian: “For the virgin forests, I take my shirt off.” They directed him to walk down the hill until he encountered a second group of attackers.
But the police got there first, along with ambulances, which took all three men, two of whom passed out in transit, to the hospital. Not long after, the incident made international news via an Associated Press wire. The beating was even picked up stateside by The Washington Post.
There wasn’t much more help on the way. A police spokesman told the AP that law enforcement would treat the attack with “the utmost attention”; less than a week later, only four of the 15 assailants had been charged, not with attempted murder but with the lighter charge of brawling. All were out of jail, pending trial. Fearing for his life and his family, Bosutar fled from Suceava to Bucharest. “This is not the first time I’ve had an attempt on my life,” he told me outside the hotel where he was hiding. “It’s been three or four times already that I’ve been attacked. Do I simply admit that this is a failed state, that I don’t have an ally within it?”
“I don’t know what I should do,” he added, and started to cry.
In an accident of geography and history, Romania is home to one of the largest and most important old-growth forests left in the world. Its Carpathian mountain chain, which wraps like a seat belt across the country’s middle and upper shoulder, hosts at least half of Europe’s remaining old growth outside Scandinavia and around 70 percent of the continent’s virgin forest. It’s been referred to as the Amazon of Europe, a comparison apt and ominous in equal measure, because of the speed at which it, like the Amazon itself, is disappearing.
Most of Europe was rapidly deforested during the industrial era; less than 4 percent of EU forestland remains intact. Romania, far enough from the continent’s industrial centers and long a closed-off member of the Soviet bloc, remained a shining exception. During the country’s communist period, the government converted the forests to public ownership and kept them off global export markets, enshrining the forest management trends of an ancien regime. The result is that Romania retains some of the rare spruce, beech, and oak forests that qualify as old- or primary-growth, having never been excessively logged, altered by human activity, or artificially replanted.
But the fall of communism in 1989 dissolved one layer of protection for those forests, and the subsequent wave of privatization inaugurated widespread corruption. In 2007, Romania’s entry to the European Union created a massive, liberated market for the country’s cheap, abundant timber and the inexpensive labor required to extract it, conditions that encouraged Austrian timber companies and Swedish furniture firms to set up shop. Succeeding fractious, ineffectual regimes enacted further pro-market reforms and did little to curb corruption; in the final months of 2021, the country’s prime minister designate found himself unable to form a government at all. Add to that the astronomical growth of the fast furniture industry, which particularly relies on the spruce and beech that populate these forests, and the result has been a delirium of deforestation.
There’s one obvious, notable beneficiary of this situation: Ikea. The company is now the largest individual consumer of wood in the world, its appetite growing by two million trees a year. According to some estimates, it sources up to 10 percent of its wood from the relatively small country of Romania, and has long enjoyed relationships with mills and manufacturers in the region. In 2015, it began buying up forestland in bulk; within months it became, and remains, Romania’s largest private landowner.
The global market’s edacity for timber, perhaps predictably, has gone far beyond the legal limits set up by an already permissive state. According to a 2018 report, initially suppressed by the Romanian government and leaked later that year, the country saw 38.6 million cubic meters of wood exit its forests annually during the preceding four-year period; the government had licensed just 18.5 million cubic meters. In other words, without even accounting for possible violations based on method of extraction, more than half of the country’s timber is illegally harvested. Even legal logging, which on private and public land alike must be preceded by a forest management plan that is approved by the government, can be rife with corruption and abuse. Since roughly the date of Romania’s accession to the EU, between half and two-thirds of the country’s virgin forest has been lost.
As is often the case in trades dominated by illegality, violence is never far behind, and around the time of Ikea’s purchases, a wave of high-profile, logging-related attacks commenced. In 2015, Romanian environmentalist Gabriel Paun was beaten unconscious by loggers in an ambush caught on camera; he eventually fled the country and has spent years living in hiding. Doina Pana, the former minister of waters and forests, announced that she had been poisoned with mercury in 2017 after attempting to crack down on illegal logging. In late 2019, two forest rangers, Raducu Gorcioaia and Liviu Pop, were murdered in separate attacks in the span of just a handful of weeks.
“We spent so many years looking at the Amazon and Indonesia, the Congo basin and Russia, all these places that are just much more famous for really bad stuff happening in the forests,” said David Gehl of the Environmental Investigation Agency, which tracks environmental crime around the world. When the agency started looking at Romania, Gehl told me, its members were “shocked” to see the same kinds of things happening within the snug confines of the European Union, where international, consumer-facing brands like Ikea prosper.
With so little formal law enforcement—Romania’s Forest Guard was chartered in 2015 as a 617-person unit that doesn’t work nights or weekends—the task of protecting the forests has often fallen to activists and volunteers, a responsibility that has proved treacherous. All told, at least six patrolmen have been killed in recent years; in another 650 registered incidents, people have been beaten, shot at, or otherwise attacked in relation to illegal logging. Neither 2019 case went to trial; Paun’s attackers, caught on film, remain free.
“I felt safer in Iraq, in Mosul, in 2016,” said Mircea Barbu, a former foreign correspondent who now works as an investigator for the Romanian environmental NGO Agent Green. “In Iraq, it’s just a matter of bad luck if they catch you—if you get out of there, they’re not gonna follow you back home.”
So when I met up with Andrei last September to investigate logging in protected old growth, we knew we would have to take precautions. Identified here by a pseudonym for his protection, Andrei was in the last leg of a 17-day trip that had taken him to the far corners of the country. For a report to the European Commission, he was documenting logging that had occurred during the previous 12 months in protected Natura 2000 sites, examining locations where satellites had indicated continued conspicuous forest loss and evidence of habitat degradation. He had agreed to let me tag along for the final three days of his trip. Thickset like a rugby player, his beard just starting to gray, Andrei looked like someone who’d fare fine in a fight—an impression offset by his jovial demeanor.
The Natura 2000 program, established by the EU, protects a network of natural areas for their outstanding value as habitats, particularly for animals such as bears, lynx, and birds. The standards apply to privately and publicly owned land alike, and govern Romania by dint of the country’s admission into the EU. Natura 2000 sites play a crucial role in the 2030 EU Biodiversity Strategy, for which there is an actionable legal standard, and are similarly important to the EU’s climate ambitions, for which there is not. Old-growth forests absorb 70 percent more carbon than logged and replanted trees, making them the most effective carbon-capture method on the planet; by the time a single beech tree reaches 150 years of age, it will have absorbed nine tons of CO2, the equivalent of 35,000 miles driven by car, its sequestration rate accelerating as it ages.
For obvious reasons, Andrei labors under cover. If anyone asks, he says he’s a tourist in search of nature photos. He works weekends, when logging sites are less likely to be active, so as to avoid run-ins and minimize the chance of getting recognized. He uses a drone to capture much of his footage; hovering at 300 meters, it buzzes out of earshot and is invisible from the ground. It doesn’t hurt that his car is a rental, whose plate number won’t easily be traced to him. Usually he travels alone, or with a friend. “For me, it’s quite rare to be out with journalists,” he said.
On a dusty highway turnout, we laid out the day’s plan: We would drive into the Southern Fagaras mountains, where we’d try to access a couple of locations that—according to an amalgam of satellite images from Google Earth and lower-res, more frequently updated images from a server called Sentinel Playground—looked to hold recent clear-cuts. I’d follow along in my rented Toyota Corolla as far as it could handle the conditions, then I’d pile into his white Dacia Duster, a small 4x4 SUV common in Romania, and we’d take logging roads the rest of the way. Provided that the Duster didn’t give out sooner (in the past two weeks, the rear tire had locked up, the hand brake had failed, and the engine was leaking oil), we’d hike the final leg on foot, hoping to get incontrovertible photo and video evidence of the forest’s condition.
Illegal logging comes in various forms. The most common is cutting in excess of the amount permitted (clear-cuts larger than three hectares, for instance, violate Romanian regulations), but any method that damages waterways, causes erosion, or leaves a mess behind can also run afoul of the law. Only a few minutes after I left my car at a forbidding cluster of potholes, we had our first encounter. Rounding a bend in the road, we found our path blocked by two trucks, one being disgorged of recently cut logs, the other being loaded up for transit, likely to a depot, from which wood is sold. Large logs were piled along the roadside as well, awaiting export. “There are still some branches attached,” Andrei pointed out. “It’s illegal to bring them down like this because you’re damaging the soil when you drag them.” Often, silt in the river can be a signal that logging is happening nearby, but the water to our right remained clear, an indication that the timber had likely been brought down from much higher up the mountain.
While we waited, Andrei set up his camera, and, keeping it low on the dashboard, took photos of the scene. “Normally, when I take photos, I make sure they don’t see me,” he told me. “I just want to make sure I’m getting the number plates of these trucks, because we can check them later.”
Once the load was cleared, we continued, encountering one more logging outfit before we finally arrived at a dam and ran out of drivable road. After parking, we hiked up a steep, dirt logging path that had been substantially eroded—also, technically, a legal infraction.
From the roadside, the area looked densely forested and largely untouched, and within minutes of entering, we saw evidence of its old-growth status: Spruce, beech, and maple of various sizes and ages grew interspersed, their trunks scabby with mosses, lichens, fungi. The ground was soft with rotting organic matter; wild berry bushes, picked over, suggested bears. Some of the bigger trees reached well beyond 100 feet tall; numerous behemoths were easily 300 years old. The diversity of age, type, and density proved that this region had never been substantially logged or replanted. Even to an amateur, the difference between this forest and the closely packed, uniform grove visible on an opposite peak, a replanted patch of trees of identical age and size, was obvious.
We climbed farther still, until we arrived at a clearing from which we could launch the drone. Once airborne, the camera delivered a stark revelation. The thicket we were hiking through was flanked by commercial logging on all sides. As the drone panned, bald patches revealed themselves on the monitor: new clear-cuts. The spots metastasized across the mountaintop. Elsewhere, we saw what looked like claw marks, the gashes where trees had been pulled down the mountain by cable. In many places, what remained was just brown dirt; the cuts were new enough that not even grass or weeds had had time to grow. The sight of newly built roads indicated that more logging would soon start. Meanwhile, in the clusters that remained untouched, wind had begun toppling and uprooting the exposed trees.
“This is one of the worst,” Andrei said when I asked how the area compared to what he’d seen so far in his survey. “It’s very rare to see so many clear-cuts.” Between wind damage, erosion, and bark beetles, he estimated, there would soon be “nothing left.” We brought the drone down, hiked to a second spot, and launched it again. The work was methodical: Log the footage, mark the location on the map. When the battery ran low, we began our descent to the car.
As proof that they’re following the law, truckers are required to upload photographs of their loads to an online database called SUMAL, which maintains active logging permits. But there are work-arounds. Sometimes, the truckers won’t submit until they’re apprehended by authorities, at which point they’ll offer the documentation and claim they’d been out of cell service range. Other times, they’ll put water on the camera lens or photograph only half of their haul. Though illegal transports in broad daylight are uncommon, Andrei and I looked up the plate numbers we’d seen. Most checked out as expected. But one of the drivers, who had submitted a photo with only half the load in the frame, claimed to be carrying just seven cubic meters of wood, a quarter of what the other trucks of that size reported. Unfortunately, the wood had long since been dropped off at a depot, mixed up with legal logs, possibly even sold to a mill. It was too late to do anything.
In early 2020, the European Commission announced infringement proceedings against Romania for allowing logging without an environmental assessment in Natura 2000 zones. A few months later, the commission escalated the case by issuing a “reasoned opinion,” the last step before hauling the country before the European Court of Justice. Despite deliberating over national legislation that would conform to EU standards, the Romanian government has as yet implemented little besides upping criminal penalties for wood theft.
One might think the infringement proceeding would slow deforestation; if anything, the opposite has been true. The threat of new legislation that would protect both privately and publicly owned old-growth forests has sparked a race to extract timber from those areas as quickly as possible. In 2018, an infringement hearing from the commission shut down all logging in Poland’s Bialowieza forest, also an old-growth Natura 2000 site, after evidence emerged of logging 100-year-old trees. “Obviously, there is now increased pressure,” Andrei told me. “If you want to remove large volumes of wood without being asked questions, you do it now. If you wait until next year, you might not be able to do it.” Logging in a given area can degrade the surrounding forest enough to make it ineligible for protection, and this adds further motivation.
We were setting out that morning from a guesthouse in Curtea de Arges, a town so big and so far from the forest that no one would be suspicious of our presence. At breakfast, Andrei uploaded the previous day’s drone footage. We needed to visit numerous sites, this time in the area of Vidraru Dam, in order to keep on schedule.
Again we drove until my rental car couldn’t traverse the potholes. Again we were confronted by evidence of logging immediately thereafter—this time, the plangent hum of chain saws. A few minutes later, we ran into a forester who, upon hearing that we were tourists, recommended a scenic spot for picture-taking. By way of assurance, Andrei reminded me that it was Saturday, and most of the loggers would be done working by 1 p.m. In just a few hours, we would have nothing to worry about.
We drove until we found a logging road that looked like it would deliver us to a site we’d reviewed on satellite that morning. The road was already heavily eroded, with channels deeper than I was tall. Driving was impossible, so we hiked.
Right away, Andrei told me that this appeared to be an even rarer virgin forest; some of its trees he estimated at 500 years old, striking enough in stature for him to stop and take photos for his own camera roll. Traversable roads can be more difficult to find than the logging sites themselves, which became painfully obvious as our path continued to bend away from our destination. Soon enough, we were scaling and descending a series of steep ravines, futilely checking the GPS tracker; our destination was only a couple of hundred meters away, but it seemed unreachable. The dense forest cover kept the air cool but humid, and I was soaked through with sweat. When we finally hit a ridge line, the clear-cut was nowhere to be found. It’s possible, Andrei conceded, that the satellite was just showing wind damage.
But when he launched the drone, he spotted it below us, a hasty job that had left behind not just old-growth stumps but many of the logs themselves. Dead, graying wood covered the soil such that nothing, not even weeds, was growing back. Andrei filmed a short video, and we began our hike back down the mountain.
We spent the rest of the afternoon like this—launching the drone, getting footage, traipsing around on foot. Once the mid-September sun started dipping, we set off for our last location, in the direction the forester had recommended, and from where we’d heard the chain saws upon arrival.
Passing a shepherd’s hut, we began climbing roads of deteriorating quality, the car bottoming out not infrequently on potholes, rocks, and debris. After a time, we found something we didn’t expect: a placard announcing logging in the area. The permit, we read, had expired nearly two months before, on July 30. “Try to get a photo of that panel,” Andrei instructed me. “I already don’t like this.”
We stopped the car, and I got out to remove a branch that was blocking the road. Andrei pointed out deep, apparently recent tractor tracks in the mud. A few minutes later, we stopped again so I could cast aside another bough blocking our way. Andrei told me to do it quietly; it was possible these impediments were left to signal to loggers up ahead that someone was coming.
We inched up the road until finally we saw logs, big and freshly cut. They had been brought down with branches still attached, an infraction far less significant than the fact that this site was both protected and weeks off-permit.
Then we saw smoke. Farther up the road, just past the logs we were surveying, it plumed from the chimney of a matchbox-size logger’s trailer. “Ah fuck,” Andrei said. “Let’s grab a photo of this and then slowly head back.” Quietly, we turned the car around, and began making our way back down the mountain, trying to keep the engine noise minimal.
Once we had retreated far enough to be out of sight, Andrei parked the car and launched the drone. Tracing a barren seam up the mountain, he recorded video of the clearly active logging site, which hadn’t even been on his radar; the site we were targeting was still kilometers away. I stood watch to make sure we weren’t being pursued. “Do you have any phone signal here?” he asked. I didn’t. “Good. That means even if the loggers hear us, they can’t call anyone.” And then, less encouraging: “We are a bit exposed here.”
At that moment, I saw someone approaching quickly on foot. “There’s someone coming,” I blurted. He was too close for us to get the drone down and escape. Andrei handed me the controls and dove into the driver’s seat, jamming the key in the ignition and raking the gearshift into drive. If I flew the drone to a location ahead, he said, we could put some distance between us and our pursuer and have a chance to grab the device. The car beeped objections as we thrashed over potholes, and I tried to keep the drone on course overhead.
After a few minutes, the logger was out of sight, and Andrei parked the car. At his request, I fastidiously monitored the road behind. “I will be done in like 10 seconds,” he assured me. Not long after, I saw the logger again, closing in on us. “He’s coming, he’s coming,” I said. Andrei scrambled back into the car, and we set off again. Anyone driving inbound would have us blocked in; any trouble with the Duster would have left us marooned. I kept watch in the rear windshield, but we didn’t see anyone else; no one approached from ahead.
Tracing any individual tree from forest floor to showroom presents a near impossible challenge. As wood moves through the supply chain, it becomes increasingly difficult to pin down. Owners of a forest auction off its trees to be cut by a logging company, after which the wood is taken to a depot, sold to a mill that processes it into lumber, wood chips, or particleboard, then sold again to a manufacturer, which makes it into a chair, or the pieces of a chair, on behalf of furniture companies such as Ikea, which buy it, brand it, ship it, and sell it for at-home installation. Every link in that chain makes the wood’s point of origin fuzzier. Depots in particular are notorious for stacking illegal and legal logs together behind fencing or inside warehouses, where they become indistinguishable.
If the tracing problem makes it almost impossible to prove that any given log is illegal, it can make it equally difficult to prove that any particular log is legal. Dubious logging that never quite rises to the level of illegality can be just as bad as the formally illegal, and the two often trend toward each other. Plenty of wood, like the misreported truckload I saw on my first day, would be deemed illegal if only there were the resources to review it. Though it’s known that more than half of the country’s timber, on average, is extracted without permission, only 1 percent of that illegal wood gets officially tallied.
That reality is critical for the furniture industry, which is forecast to grow from $564 billion in 2020 to $850 billion by 2025. It’s especially important for Ikea, which is not only the largest furniture company in the world, but the largest buyer and retailer of wood. Having doubled its consumption in the last 10 years, it now devours 1 percent of the world’s timber annually, with a particular regional reliance on Romania and its surrounds. “Ikea’s growth goes really hand in glove with the forestry sector in Eastern Europe and Russia,” said Tara Ganesh, head of timber investigations at the U.K.-based NGO Earthsight. Ganesh has worked on multiple investigations of the company, whose presence in the region, she said, is “massive.”
The insatiable demand for trees means there’s almost no way the company would have the bandwidth to do what foreign governments can’t even manage and trace all the wood flowing in and out of its maw. When the 2018 report, which indicated that more than half of the country’s timber was illegally harvested, was leaked, Ikea dodged. “All the big companies came out and said: It’s not our fault. We get the legal stuff. All those Romanians, burning firewood, and that’s where the illegal stuff is going,” said Gehl of the EIA. That 55 percent of the country’s timber is feeding the fireplaces of a population that shrank over that same period and has decreased by four million since 1990, is, of course, an inconceivable suggestion.
Ikea, meanwhile, sports a sterling reputation for its environmental bona fides. According to the company’s website, more than 98 percent of its timber is sustainably harvested, meaning recycled or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; it intends to reach 100 percent imminently. “Under no circumstances do we allow irresponsible forestry practices,” a spokesperson told me. And yet at least 60 percent of its wood supply comes from Eastern Europe and Russia, around 10 percent from Romania in particular. How can Ikea’s claims be reconciled with its outsize presence in a scandal-plagued region?
The company’s reliance on FSC certification as a working synonym for sustainability helps explain. A small international NGO, the FSC sets a standard based on its 10 principles—for example, compliance with national laws, a commitment to enhancing the well-being of workers, an updated forest management plan—that is then conferred upon forestry operations by smaller, independent auditors, who are contracted by the logging and manufacturing companies to perform preannounced, scheduled reviews. If those groups refuse to grant certification, logging operations can simply shop around until they find an auditor willing to take the check and confer the stamp. Perhaps it goes without saying that such a system initiates a race to the bottom. Ever since the FSC came into being in 1993, it has provoked criticism among environmentalists; in 2018, Greenpeace called the organization “a tool for forestry and timber extraction.” It doesn’t help that Ikea is the largest wood consumer in the FSC network and was a founding member of the council. (Ikea “is only one of 1000+ members,” a spokesperson for FSC wrote me. “Our global standards are discussed and agreed by our members globally.”)
Similar problems appear up and down the supply chain. Ikea contracts with manufacturers, which have to acquire enough wood to make into furniture parts to fulfill their contracts. The manufacturers solicit sawmills, which have to come up with enough wood to supply the factories. “Once they make that commitment, they then have to find the wood for Ikea by hook or crook,” Ganesh said. “That can often result in them cutting corners on the environment or legality.”
When someone in the chain gets busted for using illicit or unsustainable sourcing—say, if a factory that makes folding chairs for Ikea is popped for sourcing timber from a legally protected forest in Poland—Ikea can simply distance itself and claim ignorance, a staple of subcontracting in any industry. The strategy makes for suitable PR, but it collapses under the slightest scrutiny. These contracted firms, at least in Romania, often sport the signature yellow and blue colors or work exclusively with the company; some even fly the Swedish flag. In 2020, the Romanian factory Plimob was caught out for using illegal timber in its chairs; it sports the blue and gold on its gate, visible even on Google street view. Plimob sells 98 percent of its goods to Ikea.
One investigation by Earthsight, the U.K. organization, found that illegal beechwood from Ukraine, harvested by the wood processing firm VGSM, was being used in the production of Ikea chairs manufactured by Plimob as well as shipped to Ikea directly. Together, Plimob and Ikea received 96 percent of VGSM’s beech, accepting shipments nearly every month between 2018 and 2020. Egger, another Romanian supplier of Ikea, has also gotten busted for importing illegal timber. An investigation found that the company’s children’s furniture line, Sundvik, was made with illegal pine from Siberian Russia. An Al Jazeera crew in Romania followed a truck full of illegal timber to a log yard that supplies Kronospan, an Ikea supplier that makes huge volumes of chipboard, a key element of Ikea furniture. All these firms—VGSM, Plimob, Egger, and Kronospan—are FSC-certified. In one infamous 2015 case, FSC-certified HS Timber (then called Schweighofer), Romania’s foremost spruce processor, was caught on hidden camera pledging not only to buy illegal timber, but to pay a bonus for it. In 2016, FSC provisionally suspended the firm’s certification, then severed ties a year later; Ikea waited until the council’s final decision to disassociate itself.
It might be easier for Ikea to patrol its intake if it used its own wood, but it claims that little of the forests it owns in Romania end up in its furniture production. Rather, the company has been selling logging concessions to companies ostensibly harvesting firewood, a separate enterprise entirely. But those holdings, too, hover in the interstice between legal and illegal.
Ikea bought its land from an unlikely source: the Harvard University endowment, which snatched up Romanian property after a post-communist land restitution law left an antic privatization system in its wake, handing over half of the country’s public forestland to private interests. Starting in 2004, the university, using various shells and nonprofit formations, began buying big with the help of a Romanian businessman, Dragos Lipan. A number of these holdings were fire sales of dubious restitution claims, and Harvard soon found itself in legal hot water. By 2015, Lipan had received a three-year suspended sentence for bribery and money laundering related to those deals, and Harvard was in court fighting for the legitimacy of its claims. The same year, the university, ready to wash its hands of the deal, found a willing buyer in Ikea. With an investment arm, the company purchased almost 34,000 hectares from Harvard. In 2016, it added another 12,800 hectares to its haul, bringing its holdings to 46,700 hectares in total. Today, the largest owner and operator of Ikea retail stores, Ingka Investments, has an estimated 50,000 hectares in its portfolio. As the holdings have changed hands, the stain of illegality has grown fainter and fainter. The company faces no serious risk of losing those holdings in court.
Ikea’s forests, too, are FSC-certified; those forests, too, have been sites of abuse. Not long before I arrived in Romania, a BBC crew found clear-cutting—not necessarily illegal but certainly not environmentally sound—in an Ikea forest in the northern province of Maramures. And despite having formally dissociated itself from HS Timber, Ikea was found to be selling concessions to that company to log its own forests as well.
I knew I had to see an Ikea-owned forest for myself; the challenge was finding one to safely visit. Any of the company’s vast holdings in Suceava seemed unwise after the attack; in neighboring Maramures county, where the forest ranger Pop had been murdered not two years prior, I was guaranteed to see clear-cutting, but it remained too dangerous on a workday.
I resolved, finally, to go to Focsani, near a lower-elevation forest where Ikea owns some 5,000 hectares, in a region where the company has also run into its greatest legal trouble. Barbu, the investigator, agreed to join me, as did Andrei, as part of his own research. Just a handful of months ago, Agent Green, the Romanian NGO, identified what it said was clear-cutting without a permit and without an environmental impact assessment in an Ikea-owned old-growth forest there, adjacent to the Valea Neagra Natura 2000 site, which held trees of 130 to 150 years old. I’d seen the photos of the Martian aftermath. The group had filed a complaint; the results had recently arrived.
On the drive in, we reviewed the auditor’s findings, compiled by Britain’s Soil Association, an FSC certifier. Despite the photographic evidence and the lack of an environmental impact assessment, the review found the company faultless. Andrei read aloud in disbelief. “They started logging here two years ago, and they still don’t have the permit. OK. And FSC doesn’t have a problem with that, doesn’t mention that they’re breaking the law. They’re just saying that they made ‘efforts’ to comply with the legislation.”
We drove through hills scarred not just with logging but with landslides. The soil here is thick with clay, which slides when its vegetation is removed, making future logging more difficult and regeneration of any sort harder still, a “nasty surprise” for Ikea’s designs on the area. Andrei laughed darkly. “They didn’t do their homework.”
When we arrived at the site, it was greener than I expected. Weeds and brush had broken up the most barren parts of the plot. A solitary surviving tree loomed. We counted a handful of oak saplings, none taller than shin-high. The most impressive growth came in the form of a tomato plant that had begun fruiting, likely a vestige of a logger’s lunch.
Because of the complaint, there had been plenty of public attention to the area, which, I was told, meant the site would be dormant. But as we walked around, we heard the distant, familiar warble of chain saws. More alarmingly, when the saws ceased, we heard the thump of trees meeting the forest floor, harder evidence of active logging somewhere nearby. Andrei launched the drone and spotted the operation just across the road from where we’d parked. “No fucking way,” Barbu said. “A lot of journalists have been covering this, and they have been coming to the area, so I think it would be foolish to, like, try something totally illegal.”
We walked around until we found phone service, and ran our coordinates through SUMAL, the online database, for active logging permits. One permit surfaced: for rarituri—the Romanian word for “thinning”—issued to Ingka Investments, Ikea’s retail ownership arm. The permit would allow loggers to remove small saplings, growth that might impede the overall well-being of the forest, as well as sick or dead trees. But even from hundreds of feet above ground, we could tell that that was not what was coming out. “These are also big, big logs. These are good commercial logs. This is not stuff you would take from rarituri,” Barbu said.
Deliberating, we came to a decision: We would enter the site, record the activity, and confront the loggers, with Barbu filming. Andrei texted our location to a colleague off-site as part of a safety protocol. To protect his undercover status, and to help facilitate a faster exit in case of emergency, he would stay in the car; Barbu—and by process of elimination I, too—would handle the confrontation. Getting footage of illegal logging like this would bolster a future case against Ikea’s forest management practices, but at some risk. “Fuck,” Barbu muttered, loading memory cards into his camera. “I don’t feel like getting beaten up.”
We loaded into the car and drove down to the clearing where the felled logs were being piled up. A rock was blocking the path. I got out of the car and threw it off the road.
Outside, Barbu began to film, narrating in Romanian and explaining in English for my benefit. Large, recently cut logs were piled behind a trailer. “Cut hours ago,” he added. On the far side of the clearing, we found a station where those logs were being split into cords for firewood. At the entrance to the forest, a large plaque announced the operation. Just as the database had indicated, it read RARITURI and INGKA INVESTMENTS. Nowhere did we see sickened-looking logs or saplings; putting some grade school wisdom to use, I counted rings that put the trees somewhere in the 80- to 100-year range. Absent, too, were the loggers we’d seen on the drone and expected to encounter.
Then I heard an engine coming not from the direction of the forest, but from the road behind us. A silver SUV pulled into the clearing, and Barbu went over to speak with the driver. The man claimed not to be associated with the logging operation, Barbu told me. But, troublingly, he also refused to move his car when Barbu pointed out that he was obstructing the only path from the logging site to the road. From that point on, we were blocked in.
A few minutes later, a red tractor emerged from the forest, dragging three large logs. “You ready for this?” Barbu asked me. We followed the logger on foot to the pile, where he idled the engine, exited the cab, and began to unchain the new logs. Camera rolling, Barbu gestured to the permit, the firewood cutting station, and the logs that had just been brought down. The logger yelled back. The villager got out of his Toyota and came over to film the conversation, too. I scanned for a rock to grab in case things turned. But numbers were on our side—the rest of the logging outfit remained in the forest—and the conversation never got violent. After a few minutes, the logger clambered back into the tractor and left. We, too, made our way back to the car.
“He was trying to tell me that even for thinning, you can still cut large, healthy trees accidentally,” Barbu recounted for me. “And I said, ‘Look, but this is a big pile of accidents.’ He said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s allowed. And if you need more answers, go to the management office.’” “Which is fair,” Andrei added, “because he only cuts what’s marked.” The management office, of course, is the Ingka regional office.
On my last day in Romania, I stopped by Ikea’s store in Bucharest, curious if there would be any indication of the company’s investment in the local environment, any display of its sustainability pledges in a country where they might actually be visible. Armed with the Google translate app, I skulked around the showroom floor, finding beechwood dining sets, spruce particleboard, and more, but no mention of the furniture’s hometown heritage. In the lobby, a display read, WE USE WOOD RESPONSIBLY. I left empty-handed, with no intention to return.
Ikea makes it difficult to trace the provenance of its furniture. Often an Ikea box will claim a country of origin that indicates only the last link in the manufacturing chain: MADE IN VIETNAM, for example. Sometimes it will tell you even less: MADE IN THE EUROPEAN UNION. Internally, however, the company closely tracks points of origin. A string of numbers on the box, inscrutable to the layperson, can indicate a particular manufacturer or contract within a country. Those codes remain fiercely guarded and are often changed, but in the course of my reporting, I was tipped off with the cipher for Plimob, the Ikea manufacturer in Romania that was recently exposed for using illegally logged wood in a number of Ikea’s low-cost, flagship chairs. I decided to return to Ikea once more, this time back in New York, in search of something that might fit the profile.
The loading bay of the Brooklyn warehouse was sparse by the time I got there. Particularly for popular, low-price items, inventory is often tough to come by at this store, which serves much of New York City. It was late November, and the snarls of the supply-chain crisis were still evident in the empty shelves.
Still, I found furniture made in Bulgaria and Poland and, finally, Romania. On a picked-over stack of green Rönninge chairs, one of the fancier makes, I spotted the Plimob code. The chair cost $95.
This article appeared in the March 2022 print edition with the headline “Crime and Forestry.”