Illustration by Kadna Anda
An Ethnography of Disappearing Forests. On Power, Politics, and Scapegoats in a Village of Argeș County, Romania
This piece looks at how Romania’s forests were destroyed by illegal logging after the Revolution of 1989. Based on my book Disrupted Landscapes. State, Peasants and the Politics of Land in Postsocialist Romania (2016)*, this piece sheds light on the actors involved in illegal logging activities, the political and economic mechanisms at work, and the devastating effects on the forests.
Rudari, a traditionally poor, marginal minority population that is becoming increasingly so in the postsocialist context, take on the role of scapegoats for large-scale logging done by Romanians. The majority Romanian population—the owners of the disappearing forests—fail to acknowledge that the true economic beneficiaries of deforestation are the local bureaucrats and politicians. The piece draws on extensive research in the village of Dragomirești, Argeș County (the names of the village and the interlocutors quoted were changed to ensure their protection), from 2014 to 2016—over twelve months of fieldwork in total—and a research methodology that combines ethnography, archival research, and satellite imagery.
Ştefan Dorondel is a researcher working for Francisc I. Rainer Institute of Anthropology and affiliated with the Romanian Academy’s Institute for Southeast European Studies. He holds a PhD in History with a specialization in Ethnology from Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu and a PhD in Agricultural Economics and Social Sciences at Humboldt University of Berlin. He was a fellow of various research institutions and universities, such as Yale, Cambridge, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, University of Jena, University of Regensburg, or Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Halle, and New Europe College. Having previously studied Romanian rural funerary rituals, representations of the world beyond, and witchcraft and published the book Moartea şi apa. Ritualuri funerare, simbolism acvatic şi structura lumii de dincolo în imaginarul ţărănesc (Bucharest: Paidea, 2004), his current research interests are environmental changes in postsocialism and the effects of these changes on rural communities, the anthropology of infrastructure, as well as environmental history and anthropology. He is the author of the book Disrupted Landscapes. State, Peasants and the Politics of Land in Postsocialist Romania (Berghahn, Oxford & New York, 2016) and co-author with Thomas Sikor, Johannes Stahl, and Phuc Xuan To of the book When Things Become Property. Land Reform, Authority and Value in Postsocialist Europe and Asia (Oxford & New York: Berghahn, 2017). He co-edited with Stelu Serban the book Planners, Experts, Bureaucrats. The Transformation of Economy and Nature in European Peripheries (forthcoming at Pittsburgh University Press). He published studies in journals, such as Development and Change, Citizenship Studies, Social Analysis, Environment and History, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, or Nature and Culture. He works on several international research projects with researchers from the University of Stavanger (Norway), Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg (Germany), and the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium).
Kadna Anda is an illustrator currently based in Bucharest, Romania. With a background in illustration and advertising, she graduated with an MA in Graphic Communication Design from Central Saint Martins, UAL. Her work often reflects and questions her culture and identity as a young Romanian woman influenced by the digital globalization.
Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.
Ioana Miruna Voiculescu
fotografie de Laura Papadiuc
The first night I arrived in Dragomirești, Argeș County, I heard the roar of the chainsaws running continuously in the forests surrounding the village. When I asked the host I was going to stay with for the next six months who was cutting down trees in the forest at night, they answered: “It’s the Rudari from Costești.” When I had written my field research proposal, which I later presented before the entire teaching staff of the Institute for Economics and Social Sciences at Humboldt University Berlin, as required there, Rudari did not feature as a variable in my research on the exploitation of natural resources in rural Romania. After panicking at first, as I knew very little about this population, I went on with my research and included this ethnic group in it. Among the salient characteristics of the Rudari group is that they refuse to be assimilated with the larger ethnic group of Roma, traditionally self-identifying as wood carvers. This specific group lived on the periphery of a third village which was administratively part of the commune of Dragomirești, close to the edge of the forested area. Hated by the Romanian majority population on account that they were “the ones cutting down the forests,” socially marginalized and excluded from land and forest restitutions, Rudari made, as we will see further, the perfect “scapegoats.
Located at 800 meters above sea level, on the hill slopes that overlook Argeșel River, the village had a long history in forest exploitation, with forested land accounting for 2.553 hectares, while arable land for only 306 hectares along the river bank. Under Laws No.18 of 2019 and No. 1 of 2000, the forest was restituted to its former owners or their heirs. Rudari were excluded from the post-1989 property restitution process because none among them had owned any forested land before 1945, despite the fact that their entire economic culture was based on crafting various wooden objects, from peasant furniture to brooms, forks, woven baskets, and kitchen utensils and dishes.
Over the next months after my arrival in the village, I spent many hours among Rudari trying to explain that I was neither a journalist in search of scoops, nor an undercover cop, but a PhD candidate at a foreign university who wanted to understand their long-term relationship with the forest. Researching illegal forest exploitation is not easy wherever you might attempt it. By building trust via small gifts, frequent invitations to have a drink and a chat, and most of all convincing them that I wasn’t there to report to others what was happening in their community, I was finally allowed to make interviews, to observe the relationships inside the community, as well as their relationships with the local authorities, the most important among these being the mayor, the police officer, and the forest ranger.
They were surprised when I asked them to pinpoint the places where “they go to cut down trees” on a transparent sheet placed on top of the satellite image of the entire village, the forested areas included. This way I learnt that the Romanian and Rudari villagers use different names for the same parts of the forest: the Romanian owners of forested land, with whom I had used the same research method, would refer to the topography or the name of a villager who used to own that part of forest a few centuries back maybe, while Rudari would use incidents that had had happened to them while cutting wood in the forest to refer the same places.
Political mechanisms, local bureaucrats, and scapegoats
After being in the village for two months uninterruptedly, during which I talked to all the local officials, the forest owners, and other locals, it became obvious that one of the leitmotifs of the Romanian population’s hostile attitude towards Rudari was the illegal logging on private forested land. The following three short episodes will show that Rudari are indeed cutting down the forests owned by Romanians. But this is by no means the whole picture. The ones who have the most economic and political benefits are local employees of the Romanian state, i.e., employees of the mayor’s office, police officers, and the forest ranger.
During my first month staying in the village, I developed trust-based relationships with three local police officers: two enthusiastic young men who had been assigned to the commune of Dragomirești fresh from the police academy and the local chief of police, a battle-scarred police officer approaching retirement, who had previously worked in several other commune precincts. Given the number of official complaints—some by forested land owners living in Pitești or other counties—it was decided to make a raid of the forest during the night, when the chainsaws usually roared unabated. But when we reached the meeting place, together with police officers from Pitești, there was nothing for us to do. Whereas previously the sound of chainsaws had reached the village every night, on that particular one, the forest was as silent as a cemetery. With no logging activity going on in the forest, the raid was obviously devoid of its object. Talking about the police failed attempt with my host the next day, he told me that Rudari had most likely been warned by the older police officer not to go out to the forest that night.
The second event occurred one morning, around 4 a.m., when I heard my hosts’ frantic voices in the kitchen. Preparing for the worst, I got out of bed and went into the kitchen. Already dressed, the man told me that he had just gotten a call from the cowherd warning him that Rudari were at it cutting down trees from his forest. Nea Ion, the cowherd, had just passed them by as he took the cows uphill. My host and I agreed to go together to the forest and surprise these people. While I was getting dressed, he called the local police. When we reached the crime scene in the forest, around 6 a.m., the sight was one of tree trunks cut down one meter above ground, a mess of branches everywhere, with the smell of resin still strong in the air. It was obvious that only minutes earlier there had been people there working to fell seven or eight trees. Some of the cut down trunks were lying around as if the perpetrators had left the scene in a hurry. On our way back home, my host told me angrily that only the police officer could have let Rudari know that we were coming. “Why [do you suspect] Rudari? Couldn’t it have been a forestless Romanian from the village that couldn’t afford firewood?” I asked him skeptically. “Only Rudari can drive their carts and horses up these steep hillsides and then down full of logs,” was his laconic answer. As an urbanite, I had indeed been terrified by the idea that heavy carts, full to the brim with logs, could go up but especially come down those steep slopes, the ground sodden from the previous day and night’s rain (see Photos 1 and 2).
Photo 1: Towards the scene, on narrow muddy footpaths; Photos 2&3: Evidence of logging activities
Finally, the last episode centered on the accountant of the mayor’s office who would be elected mayor of Dragomirești before long. A respected mathematician working for one of the Romanian Academy’s institutes in Bucharest and heir of a wealthy family of interbellum Dragomirești took the necessary steps to have his ten hectares of forest—nationalized by the former socialist regime—restituted under Law No. 1 of 2000. A few visits to Dragomirești and to the mayor’s office, but also the accountant of the mayor’s office himself, convinced him that he had to hurry to sell the forest before Rudari would have a chance to cut it down. He agreed to sell it over to the company that the accountant had suggested, and the company agreed to transfer part of the sale price quickly. But before the company could start logging, the forest fell under the chainsaws of Rudari who lived in the area and in only a few weeks was gone. When the logging company arrived, the only evidence left that there was once a forest there were the stumps. After a while, the complaint filed by the mathematician in Bucharest paid off. The accountant who, as it turned out, had sent his Rudari godchildren to cut down those trees was charged. By then he had become mayor of Dragomirești. Both employees of the mayor’s office and other government officials that I spoke to told me the same thing: the then-accountant now-mayor got greedy. You don’t mess with an educated person who has so many strong connections to Bucharest officials.
The first question that came to mind on hearing these stories was: How on earth do you work in the forest at night and manage to fell trees along a blurry border without ever cutting down one tree in the state-owned part of the forest? However well one might know the forest, it is nearly impossible to tell where the state-owned forest begins and the privately owned forest ends. The two areas are separated by an imaginary border, marked here and there by a red dot painted on a tree. Both satellite imagery and participative maps showed a logging pattern where only the private forest had been cut down, while the state-owned one had been left untouched.
On the map drawn by the actors involved in the events, you can see clearly how the restituted private forested area that was illegally cleared is adjacent to the state-owned forest that was entirely spared. This is explained by what anthropologists call a patron-client relationship between local bureaucrats and Rudari. The patron is usually a person in a power position who protects her client in exchange for political (such as help with being reelected) or economic services (the patron receives money and other benefits from her client). The client, here Rudari, is protected by local officials from police raids and receives information exactly where to cut so as not to cross into the state-owned area. Further, several villagers confirmed that the police car was seen heading a convoy of trucks transporting illegally logged wood to various sawmills or to brokers who then go on to sell it in Romania or even abroad. Without the protection of the police car, rich Rudari—who own the trucks used to transport the logs and buy the wood off the poor Rudari who face all the risks working in the forest (accidents, being caught by the owners and beaten, etc.) for petty sums—couldn’t act with impunity. Sometimes, the Rudari godchildren of the local forest ranger take up the role of ranger guarding the state-owned forest against forays of Rudari from neighboring communes, thus providing protection to their godfather and patron. If the forestry inspection comes in and finds evidence of illegal logging, the forest ranger is accountable and must pay for the damages. The patron-client relationship can use the language of kinship—here the godfather-godchild relationship—to establish an unequal power relation between patron and client. In turn, the local patrons have their own patrons in higher political positions at regional or even national level. So the local patrons become clients who make sure that county-level politicians are elected, shamelessly campaigning for them and organizing for poor and old villagers or Rudari to be transported by bus to the polling stations on the day of the election. While it is forbidden for the secretary of the mayor’s office and local police officers to be members of a political party, during both 2004 and 2008 elections I saw how they actually campaigned, along with the other local bureaucrats, for the mayor in office. While the elections are national, the voters ultimately cast their ballot at the local level under the close scrutiny of bureaucrats who, although not politically engaged, have powerful mechanisms to punish all those under their control who might oppose them. In the absence of this type of protection, none of the people featured in this piece could get away without legal punishment.
Unregulated and unsustainable exploitation of Romanian forests is not exclusively the work of international companies, as one might conclude from the latest news in Romanian mass media. There are many ways in which Romanians in power positions illegally log the forests, in close collaboration with the Romanian state, only to pass the blame on various groups as scapegoats. The case I presented here (and in much more detail in my book Disrupted Landscapes) is but an example of poor populations, such as Rudari, who are consistently denied access to the local labor market, discriminated and disrespected, but who are instead used as scapegoats to enable a small number of people to get very rich. The houses of those involved in the scheme, some of them as big as three- or four-story high, with vast courtyards where expensive cars are parked, show just how lucrative this type of patron-client relationship is. Rudari loggers, on the other hand, live in shabby, one or two-room houses, with cramped courtyards where they park one or two horses and their cart at most (see Photos 4 and 5).
Photo 4: A poor Rudari household. Photo 5: Trucks of rich Rudari.
On my first visit to the village, in April 2004, the hills surrounding it were covered in thick forests. On finishing my field research, in November 2010, the muddy slopes held only the odd tree too young to be cut down. The moral: the disenfranchised and the forest are losing while the powerful officials of the Romanian state are winning.
TRANSALATED FROM ROMANIAN BY IOANA MIRUNA VOICULESCU
 Neither this piece nor the book that it is based on do not discuss Law 247 of 2005.
 Ion Chelcea, Țiganii din România. Monografie etnografică, (Bucharest: Editura Institutului Central de Statistică, 1944).
 For details on this research method and what it requires, see Greg Brown, Marketta Kyttä, “Key Issues and Priorities in Participatory Mapping: Towards Integration or Increased Specialization?,” Applied Geography 95 (2018): 1–8.
 For a more in-depth understanding of patron-client relationships and illegal logging, see Ștefan Dorondel, “‘They Should be Killed!’ Forest Restitution, Ethnic Groups and Patronage in Post-socialist Romania,” in Derick Fay and Deborah James (eds.), The Rights and Wrongs of Land Restitution. ‘Restoring What Was Ours,’ (New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 2009), pp. 43–66.
 For details, see Tatjana Thelen, Stefan Dorondel, Alexandra Szöke, Larissa Vetters, “‘The Slip has Been Rubbed from Their Eyes’: Social Citizenship and the Reproduction of Local Hierarchies in Rural Hungary and Romania,” Citizenship Studies 15(3–4): 513–527.