Author: Iskra Opetceska
Employees at responsible positions in the Public Enterprise (PE) “Macedonian Forests“, branch “Babuna” Veles, break the Law on forests illegally earning thousands of Euros on the back of the state and private forest owners, says Gilbert Jacques Arsov, owner of 42 hectares of land with 700 cubic meters of trees in the area of Veles village Vetersko.
“One of the biggest problems is issue slips. Data written on the issue slip does not correspond to the real situation on the ground. So for example, on the issue slip it is written that 3 cubic meters of timber are cut and on the other, backup, 30 cubic meters of timber. All this on the grounds that there should be balance in logging because each plot is different. In some there are fewer trees for logging and some have even more. Another problem is that the authorities, to me as a seller of timber, do not give a copy of the issue slip. They have copies only in “Babuna”, the buyer and the timber transporter”, says Arsov.
Because of this and many other irregularities, he claims that annually he loses up to one million Euros of unsold timber.
“I have sold two apartments in the center of Skopje, so with my own money and the money of one of the banks and international donors, subsidized by the Government, I wanted to expand the existing orchard of 11 acres within the agreed term for the season 2009/2010. Instead, I came across lots of obstructions deliberately not issuing tree-cutting permits in appropriate term, even trials with fraudulent evidence”[keyword leading to additional documents (title document 1: Verdict in which the court found there was no evidence that Arsov had stolen state trees)], says Arsov.
Persons in charge cut down state trees and hide them in private plots
Arsov’s problems started in 2009 when he went to the branch of PE “Macedonian Forests” – forest economy (FE) “Babuna” Veles to obtain a tree cutting permit to clear the ground for planting the orchard as a project previously approved. But as he says, for incomprehensible reasons he always received the same answer that the technicians were too busy working. It happened until June 2010 when after 15 submitted requests he received a tree cutting permit [keyword that leads to additional documents (document 2: Tree cutting permit)] but stating that tree cutting can be carried out in the period between 17.11.2010 to 01.12.2010.
“Buyers choose only those plots they like, those by the road because there is no cost for putting the logs in trucks. So one of the licensed buyers from Veles, in collaboration with engineers and technicians from FE “Babuna”, forestry police and judges realized eight of 15 tree cutting permits. He forced me to submit new requirements in order to cut the rest. If I had not done it, he would not have bought the logs despite the fact that I myself had found buyers. When I asked them why they did not cut the other seven plots, the engineer who witnessed the cutting told me that it was an internal agreement and that when cutting finished of the eight selected plots others would be also realized. When I asked them to show me the document they gave me nothing. From those in charge of issuing tree cutting permits I received illogical demands that for the cost of marking and purchase of logs I should make a deal exactly with that particular buyer they had imposed, not the one I had chosen. I was imposed two such”, says Arsov.
Darko Skenderski, national coordinator of the Association of Private Forest Owners claims that those in charge in PE “Macedonian Forests” work exclusively at the expense of private businessmen.
“Determining the amount of trees for cutting down is not performed according to the forest’s condition on the ground, but they do it in the office. They know that permit issuance, in accordance with the criteria and determining the condition of the forest on the spot brings greater amount of logs so those owners that have large amounts of logs postpone it. All this in order to conclude contracts with unions and pensioners as the best and most reliable payers and to prevent us from competing on the market primarily with firewood. In addition, submission of requirements is recorded in the archive but they do not give a copy for that. They do not even give a copy of the Record card where ten year’s amount of trees which can be cut by the owner is planned. They do it consciously to prevent the appeal of disgruntled owners, because they know that they had incorrectly defined the logging”, accuses Skenderski.
Related to this issue, Arsov says in the logging all trees cut are recorded as if cut on one plot and the tree cutting permits for other plots remain empty. So illegal logging continues in state forests and the cut state trees are transferred to private property thus showing that all tree cutting permits of the private owner have been realized. Title: Illegal logging by SSO)
Because of this, on 29.08.2011 Arsov asked the Director of FE “Babuna” Goce Petrovski [keyword that leads to additional documentation (Document3: Notice] to review the situation on the ground and the work of those responsible. But rather than an answer, whether Arsov’s allegations for misrepresentation of the amount of trees and manipulations with the plots were true, six months later authorities dealing with the subject made the Report [keyword that leads to additional documents (Document 4: Report] in which the responsible concluded that during the proceedings and work on the Arsov’s subject they faced numerous problems.
“On the day of coming out on the land, Arsov did not know precisely the boundaries of his property, because of a lot of requests and approvals he mixed timber from one plot to another, there is mobbing and torture of employees through various criminal charges. The director is familiar with all events and there are records of the controls carried out. Therefore, it is stated that regarding Arsov no common working procedure can be established because it deviates from obligations that forest owners have under the Rulebook on private forests“, it is written in the report of the authorities in “Babuna”.
Common interests of individuals allow the crime
However, for Skenderski the biggest abuse of the forest wealth is made by negligent individuals including forest concessionaires. They, he says, for personal gain choose neither time nor means to exercise it. According to his testimony, every forest owner before going on the ground to mark the trees or before stamping and receipt of timber, usually treats the representative of the forest economy in a restaurant in order to be “willing” to do the job. Those poorer bring rakija and appetizer from home and make the feast on the ground in the forest. Those owners who have a larger area for marking or need to have larger quantities of trees marked should provide a vehicle, too. The fee is from five hundred to a thousand denars for the forester, maybe more depending on the route, with the excuse that they need money for petrol because every forester has his own jeep.
“It is usually negotiated a day earlier. Recently there was a truck from Kumanovo loaded for Berovo. The owner of the forest and the forester agreed the forester to be at a certain time on site but he did not come with the excuse that he had some emergency work. So the driver of the loaded truck had to offer the forester 500, 1000 or even 3000 denars only to reach the required destination not later than midnight the same day when the issue slip for timber loading is valid”, stated Skenderski.
Arsov agrees with the Skenderski’s assertion but believes that individuals cannot make a crime if there is no cooperation between the forest economies, forestry and regular police and the courts. As confirmation of his claim, Arsov highlights the fact that for three years he had received dozens of civil and criminal charges from the forestry police and in all cases he was convicted with highest fines or probation.
“None of the authorities has made a problem for more than 90 percent of the trees I sell to the imposed purchasers of my trees. I have a problem for selling the other trees to a buyer who I find myself. Usually it is done by the forestry police that always finds a reason to punish me”, says Arsov.
In order to protect against the pressure he felt and stop suffered losses Arsov required investigation (Document 5: Application to Forestry Police) of the case when the imposed buyer of trees, as he claims, cut 32 cubic meters of trees from other plots and on the paid licenses it was shown that trees were cut from Arsov’s plots. But instead of investigating the case, he earned a criminal complaint for defamation; so on 04.24.2014 Veles Court found him guilty and he received a fine of 100,000 denars.
“And not just in this case. In other trials the court is always convicting me based on fraudulent evidence. In one of them the witness admitted (Document 6: Witness statement) that as an authorized person he let me supply timber without a permit due to the inability to access the plot with the truck. In other case, the witness, also an authorized person, confirmed (Document 7: Witness statement) that I got threatened by a police officer that if I did not give the trees to the imposed buyer he would take them without paying. But this was not enough for the court and in both cases I was convicted. Later two judges apologized for having to convict me without saying why they had to do it and who gave such an order. That is why I say that there is cooperation between the judges, employees in PE “Macedonian Forests” and forestry police”, says Arsov.
Skenderski, at least for now, sees no way whether and how to prevent the ravages of forest wealth because, as he says, the fight against crime ends even before it starts.
“Nobody dares to report because they know that the competent authorities will do nothing. In fact they themselves are the biggest crime. I personally have reported a crime to the forest police. And when I call, I actually conclude that the police already know the case I report. The timber thief leaves, and the police tell me that they could not come with an excuse that they have no petrol. Owners of gas stations in rural areas should be encouraged and say how many trees they have received from PE “Macedonian Forests” in exchange for gasoline. And they do not receive any document for it. This is very popular nowadays”, says Skenderski.
The competent either cannot or do not want to say stop to the crime
Neither Arsov’s address to the State Inspectorate of Forestry nor the one to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) were successful. The Inspectorate declared incompetent to act on his appeals and the Ministry of Interior has not sent a response.
But the Ministry of Interior claims that the police carry out regular audits. Thus, according to the data provided for this study, in 2014 the Ministry of Interior conducted an inspection of about 1,900 passenger vehicles and 2,800 trucks. Of these, from 262 passenger vehicles and 111 trucks, a total of 2,697 cubic meters of firewood and 165 logs were seized. Most trees were taken from the area of Stip (839 m3) firewood, then the area of the Regional Centre Sever (485 m3) firewood and in the area of Tetovo (419 m3) firewood. 75 criminal charges were filed against 134 perpetrators. (Photo 3: Inspections by the Ministry of Interior)
From Forestry Police they confirm that Arsov complained of Veles police work and the then commander Goran Stojanovski but do not say whether his allegations of extortion, false reports, illegal seizure of timber are true or not.
“We called the responsible from the Forestry Police in Veles and we realized that it was about a plaintiff who is a constant offender, as seen from the judgments delivered by the Veles police. We responded to the plaintiff in a timely manner”, they say from the Forestry Police.
They also inform that complaints about the work of forestry workers are mostly related to violation of the working order and discipline or failing to fulfill their duties. In 2014 there were ten complaints, of which six received from employees in the Forestry Police.
“Of the submitted ten complaints, irregularities were identified within nine employees. There were proceedings against the reported, they were heard, facts were established and for the committed acts eleven employees were appropriately punished”, they say from the Forestry Police.
From the Judicial Council, where he complained of the work of Veles judges, he received a response that the council could not debate on his complaints unless there were final verdicts for the procedures against him. From the Primary Court Veles the responsibility of their judges has also been transferred to the Judicial Council.
Ministry of Interior: Companies that give logging permits work illegally
31 companies, licensed for issuing logging permits on private forest worked illegally, according to the data from the Ministry of Interior submitted for the purposes of this research. In the so far biggest action to prevent crime in forests, “Gora”, following the order of the Public Prosecutor the police have seized 7,262 Record cards and other supporting official documentation. Crime was often made in the issuance of logging permits for forests owned by the state, incomplete documents when issuing permits for logging on private forest and entering false data in the requirements for the type of land which required logging. Within the action, in June 2014 the Ministry carried out checks at 245 timber warehouses, after which it filed five charges of committing three criminal acts theft (taking away other’s forest trees whose quantity is greater than one cubic meter), two criminal acts “falsifying documents” and one crime of “tax evasion”. Also, in the warehouses there were 167 violations, 49 warehouses for sale of logs were closed throughout the territory of Macedonia and about 800 cubic meters of firewood were seized.
According to unofficial information from the investigation, in the action “Gora” none of the top charge has been accused yet, implicated in the desolation of the forests although in recent years the PE “Macedonian Forests” has sacked 120 people and so far the estimated damage has been 14 million Euros.
(„Сторијата е поддржана од ЦИН СКУП Македонија во рамките на НЕД проектот “Подигнување на јавната свест против корупција преку истражувачко новинарство”.)