Croatian Forests – Victim and Accomplice in Illegal Exploitation
Croatian Forests – Victim and Accomplice in Illegal Exploitation
As a result of illegal exploitation of quarries, logging and artificially turning woodlands into construction sites, Slavonian forests are being destroyed with impunity. Authorities, including the Croatian Government, instead of putting a stop to this, are allowing and even stimulating it. This is the most thorough story so far on the issue, with documented results of a journalist’s investigation.
By Ljiljanka Mitoš-Svoboda, freelance journalist, Osijek
Croatia has two million hectares of forests and 400,000 hectares of woodlands, or 43.5% of Croatia’s total territory. The owner of almost 90% of the forests is the state, and the state-owned company Hrvatske šume (Croatian Forests) manages the woodlands. The Forest Act practically allows forest directorates to turn woodlands into construction areas, opening the possibility for manipulation with spatial plans upon request of local communes and governments. Woodlands are diminishing by being turned into construction land and so-called entrepreneurship zones, including new quarries.
Prior to a quarry opening, it is necessary to clean up the area and remove the wood. If the quarry area is planned to be five hectares, at least another 50% of the planned area disappears, because a quarry needs an access road and forest roads are widened to accommodate heavy trucks. During the construction of the Zagreb – Split highway, 16,000 hectares of forest disappeared. The wood that is cut down is intended for the market, from sale of unprocessed logs to sawmills, to individual sale of firewood. That logging is a profitable business is indicated by the fact that the Hrvatske šume company generated 1.92 billion kunas in total revenue in 2005. Public opinion in general is that officials at the Hrvatske šume Directorate do not have a clue as to what is really going on “in the field.” The State Audit Report for 2003 also shows this: “Although the Directorate prescribed record keeping of individual business activities by forest managements, in certain areas omissions were observed in internal control systems… Procedures that are not harmonized were observed in keeping record of public procurement processes… and also in city and municipal reports on the amount of calculated forest tax.” The report states that irregularities were established in sale of wood, rent and leases, changing prices and other kinds of financial errors, as well as lack of logbooks on work carried out in forests.
A big problem created by some of the Forest Units, in Slavonia specifically by the Našice Forest Directorate, are quarries.
An adviser to the head of the Mining Administration of the Ministry of Economy explained that until 2002 a commission had operated within the Ministry which defined annual stone reserves in areas managed by the Hrvatske šume company. Under certain conditions, it allowed individual forestry units to dig out stone for its own needs. The Forest Act revoked this procedure. Željko Prce, State Mining Inspector, confirmed this. The Hrvatske šume must now submit a request for forest exploitation to state administrations at county level, since the advantage they had in “exploiting for their own needs” was legally revoked. But, due to negligence of the decision-makers, old permits for stone exploitation were not revoked, so forest directorates are taking advantage of this. This is the case with the Našice Forest Directorate, which uses three quarries in Krndija and Papuk, based on permits issued back in 1995.
The price of technical/construction stone from some of the quarries in Našice, Voćin, etc., depends on the cost of transportation, which is determined by private haulage companies. Foresters negotiate with them trying to compensate for use of their services, signing agreements and contracts. Stone from 13 illegal quarries is dug out without being measured and weighed and is used to supplement the 6 million tons needed for the construction of Corridor 5C.
Gazije Village: stoned future
The story of the quarries in Slavonia pieces together a peculiar mosaic of the real picture in the hilly part of Slavonia. But this is only a small part of the reality in which local inhabitants live in three or four eastern Croatian counties. Taking a lay look at figures, cubic meters, hectares and amounts of money pulled out of this region over the last five or six years, the question of where the earned money went remains open.
A similar question was raised by the inhabitants of the village of Gazije, watching a quarry growing nearby and Ivan Ergović, Director of NEXE Group – Našicecement, walking around the village.
Gazije is a village in Feričanci Municipality, located on the mountain of Krndija, some 80 km southwest of Osijek – the administrative and business center of the Osijek-Baranja County. Feričanci Municipality enjoys the status of a region of special state concern. Until 1991, 250 people lived in Gazije, two-thirds of them Serbs. The village had a school, shop and large community house, which was rebuilt in 1981 for the celebration of Uprising Day (in World War II). During the recent Homeland War, the village was not destroyed, but part of the population moved out. Now, without the school, shop and regular bus line, some 70 people live here, most of them Serbs who did not leave their homes after 1991.
The last asphalt road ends three or four kilometers from Gazije, in the village of Valenovac. At the beginning of the village there is an Orthodox Church of the Holy Three, built in 1750, a cultural and sacred object without state protection, functioning regularly for the 33 local Orthodox inhabitants. Two linden-trees, more than 300 years old, are in its yard. Gazije Village is one of “those” villages which had been administratively moved back and forth from one county to another, depending on pre-election political activities in 2001.
The Našice Directorate of the Hrvatske šume company manages Gazije forests. During the summer of 1995, then responsible Požega County allowed the Našice Directorate to exploit stone (quarry without a production plant) on Jovac hill for its own needs. Ten years later, Našice foresters opened a large and illegal quarry called Jovac, based on an old and invalid permit. Only a few months later, a village dirt road became a transport corridor for 20-ton trucks.
According to the local people, trucks were driving 20 times a day in both directions. Clouds of dust, unbearable noise of trucks and danger while moving around the village brought anxiety to the villagers. The village dirt road became full of mud pools and pot holes. The people were not complaining to the local authorities, because the mayor of the village was employed as head of Jovac quarry and was also working for the Forest Unit. Vibrations caused by heavy trucks damaged the Church of the Holy Three. The Orthodox priest Jovan Čaulić showed 2 cm fresh cracks in the church walls and complained that no one had responded to his warnings of the damage, not even head of Feričani Municipality Ivica Tomić who said the church “had not been repaired for centuries and was crumbling from old age”. Jovac quarry will be the biggest one!
Forester Antun Rap, head of the production unit of the Našice Forest Directorate, provided clear answers to questions about the quarries operating on Krndija and Papuk. He denied allegations of their illegal operation explaining that the Našice Forest Directorate has stone exploitation permits, that a “special person” was taking care of this at the Ministry of Economy, that Našice foresters had four quarries, among which was Jovac above the village of Gazije. “We are planning to organize Jovac quarry as the biggest of these four. Recently, Jovac quarry was checked out by the mining inspector Katana from the State Inspectorate Osijek Department! We need 50,000 cubic meters of stone a year to maintain our own forest roads, which must be provided from the nearest quarries. We pay an annual “ecological rent” to municipalities, which was 2.58 million kunas in 2005 for 15 municipalities, averaging 172,000 kunas per municipality”, Rap concluded.
The Spatial Planning Department of Osijek-Baranja County provided data about Jovac quarry stone reserves in the quantity of 156,400 m3 (approx. 230,000 tons). The data is denied by haulage companies which transport an average of 20 trucks of 20 tons each, or 600 cubic meters of stone a day, from the quarry. At this rate, Jovac will be exhausted by the end of the year and will need to be expanded. The average price of construction/technical stone in the market is around 100 kunas per m3. Foresters from Našice already could have made a profit of eight million kunas from Jovac quarry, since they do not pay for a concession or any state tax and are not even considering the quarry’s recovery. This amount is seven times higher than the Feričanci Municipality annual budget. In this illegal quarry operation only, the state is damaged by 900,000 kunas in tax, i.e. 1.23% of the turnover, which is the fee in regions of special state concern. Blaženko Rendulić, head of the Našice branch of the State Administration Office of Economy, knows about the Jovac quarry and the mining plans of the Našice Forest Directorate. “I know about five quarries in Osijek-Baranja County, four of which are exploited by the Hrvatske šume company and one by a private company called Scating from Našice. Only the Scating company quarry Gradac meets the legal requirements and procedures for the allocation of a concession for exploitation of mineral resources, carried out through this office. He says that for the four quarries operated by the Hrvatske šume, there is no valid documentation issued by the Našice branch of the State Administration. “But we have mining inspection, so let them check them,” said Rendulić at the end.
Our man who does not like bureaucracy
“We have other problems. We are a small municipality with an annual budget of approximately 1.5 million kunas a year, which is not enough for capital investements such as building a sewage system,” Ivan Tomić, Mayor of Feričanci Municipality, started his story. Every village has some investments; in Gazije the municipality repaired the local cemetary, investing 80,000 kunas, and other development projects are also discussed.
“NEXE Group is interested in expanding its activities here. The Director of NEXE group, Ivan Ergović, is our man from Feričanci, a businessman, owner of construction companies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a man who does not like bureaucracy. He will help us in measuring the Gazije municipality cadastre and defining ownership status in the area,” Mayor Tomić boasted, showing us a map with the spatial plan of the municipality, and continued: “The municipality recently sold him Mihalović Manor (a cultural monument, author’s note), and Ergović is redesigning it into an elite catering facility. President Mesić recently visited the FeraVino company (member of the NEXE group) and supported development ideas. Jovac quarry is not generating profit yet, but that will come later,” says Tomić, not realizing that the Našice Forest Directorate has taken stone from the municipality worth at least five or six annual municipality budgets.
They want to seize our land “legally”
Dušan P. from Gazije told us that the village was being damaged by the quarry, that it was not receiving anything from the alleged forestry rent, nor was the populating benefiting in any way. Villagers checked the status of ownership of land, forests and realty in Gazije, because some of the land still belongs to the Orthodox Church. “Ergović wants to take our land, to expand his vineyards at the expense of ours. Našice foresters want to take our forests, claiming they belong to them, since they need them to expand the quarry. We asked Feričanci Municipality to let us use the community house to have a place where local people can meet, read, watch TV. We wanted to furbish it as a mountain lodge or inn with local cuisine, so that villagers can earn some income from guests,” complained Dušan.
But the Mayor of Feričanci Municipality decided to give the house to a hunting society, since hunting tourism is profitable. There is no doubt that in developing hunting tourism he will be assisted by “all his men” from the future elite residence in the former Manor Mihalović, now Ergović.
NEXE group goes on…
The problem of illegal quarries in the hilly part of Slavonia, actually on Papuk and Krndija, has expanded beyond Croatian borders. When it comes to quick profit and easier access to rich European funds, the motivation of the construction political lobby is boundless. That is how it happened that while searching for cheap stone and business without the danger of having to abide by legal regulations, the Croatian construction corporation NEXE Group - Našice Cement, with its Division for Concrete and Cement, occupied part of the Fruška Gora mountain in Serbia. Unlike Croatia, which has heavy regulations on mining, environment protection and forest preservation, Serbia does not have legal regulations on mining and quarry exploitation and therefore these activities are not illegal.
But despite the fact that Našicecement, by decision of the Užice Commercial Court, did not buy a concession or right to exploit minerals, the following was published in the Belgrade daily Danas: “Since the privatization of the Jelen Dol a.d. and its entry into Nexe Group, stone aggregates production capacity increased twice and is now 500 t/h, which means that the annual capacity also doubled (maximum capacity is approx. 2,000,000 t of aggregates). As for lime production, capacities expanded by 50% and are now 220 t of lime a day. Grabovik quarry was reconstructed in 2004/2005 and will give 800,000 t of stone a year. A stone-crusher was installed at Suvi quarry with a capacity of 250 t of stone an hour; a gas pipeline is being set up, as well as a local distribution network.”
NOTE: Work on the investigative story “Croatian Forests – Victim and Accomplice in Illegal Exploitation” by the freelance journalist Ljiljanka Mitoš was financially supported by SCOOP, the Denmark-based Network for Investigative Journalists in East and Southeastern Europe (www.i-scoop.org)