Licensed destruction of forest in Elbasan, municipalities extend the concession contracts

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  • Dozens of companies that have concession contracts for the forests in Elbasan district continue logging even though the moratorium has been in effect since 2016. The vast majority of these companies have applied for the extension of the concession beyond the 10-year term, a right that the law recognizes if they “behave well”. INA MEDIA brings evidence of how the forests of Elbasan go for export, while the companies are cutting down the forests and escaping sanctions.

    Author: Fatbardha Nergjoni

    At the turn of the Dardhë village in Librazhd, there is a large timber collection point. Considerable amounts of wood come down every day from the forests of Dardhë-Xhyrë, accumulating at this end point. This is where the distribution begins.

    With an area of about 400 ha, with virgin forests dominated by beech, the village of Dardhë is located on the border of the “Dardë-Xhyrë Nature Reserve”, a status that gives it special protection. The natural reserves protected by law in Librazhd are the Polis, Stravaj, Sopot and Qarrishtë forest economies.

    But neither this status nor the moratorium that entered into force in 2016, have saved the forests of this district from logging.

    Residents of the area testify that it is not only about firewood, but also large trunks of trees. As we climb to Dardha, on the way we come across two or three large vehicles that transport wood.

    “The situation is very bad, as if you have opened new land,” says Hajdar Duka, a resident of the Dardha area. – “No one has reacted to the use of the forest without criteria these 30 years,” he complains.

    A vehicle transporting timber from the area of Dardha, Librazhd
    photo: Bardha Nergjoni

    A vehicle that transports timber from the area of Dardha, Librazhd photo: Bardha Nergjoni

    “I don’t want to say my name because here everyone faces the pressure of “why did you speak, why did you say that?”. They are powerful people, who have warm arms. We can only watch and do nothing”, – says Arjan, another resident of the area.

    Even the Librazhd-Përrenjas national road is full of timber sales points. The most sought after is wood for heating, which currently has a price of 7,000 ALL/m3. But behind the firewood, large bodies of ash, oak and other species are “hidden” inside the point of sale, violating the forest moratorium.


    Licensed deforestation

    In the district of Elbasan, forest cutting is performed with a license. Dozens of concession contracts signed a decade ago are in force in this area, which have been amended with several annex contracts.

    To save forests from massive deforestation, in 2016, the government imposed a 10-year moratorium, assuming a total ban on deforestation. But Article 3 excludes from the moratorium the cases of “the use of timber to meet the needs of the residents of the municipalities for firewood”. Thus, escaping from this ban, the companies that had received a concession for the use of forests for a 10-year period, were amended with annex contracts. As a result of this “trick”, the concession companies, but also the municipalities themselves, continue the cutting of forests unconcerned.

    Mass cutting of young trees, Dardha, Librazhd

    More specifically, the Librazhd municipality clarifies that there are 5 concession contracts, concluded from 2012 to 2015. The paradox is that the concession area is not specified, but the amount of timber that these companies have the right to use. And in this area, the 5 concession companies have the right to cut 284,813 m3 of timber.


    The year of Contract


    The Forestry Economy

    Almex Wood dhe Sinani sh.p.k.


    Arbër Zaimi


    Alcani sh.p.k.


    Shaqir Alcani


    2A & Z2AK sh.p.k.


    Agim Sula Arben Shkalla


    Sinani & Durazzo Legnami sh.p.k. 2014


    Kolë Sinani


    Almex Wood & Pisha sh.p.k.


    Agim Pisha


    Concession companies, with which the Municipality of Librazhd has a contract

    After the entry into force of the moratorium, the municipality of Librazhd declares that it has concluded annex-contracts with the relevant plots of these concessions.

    Only in the Dardhë-Xhyrë forest economy, three concession contracts have been signed and have been in operation for years. The contracts stipulate that these companies have the right to use the forests not only for firewood, nullifying the moratorium that prohibits cutting down forests.

    The first concession, signed in 2012 with the merger of the companies Almex Wood and Sinani sh.p.k. ended following November of this year. According to this contract, the company has the right to use 173 thousand m3 of timber, of which 152 thousand m3 are processing material and only 21 thousand m3 are firewood.

    Until 2015, when the forests had not even been administered by the municipalities, this company had harvested about 99,000 m3 of timber, of which 41,000 m3 were processing material and 58,000 were firewood. In the future, according to the annex-contracts, the merger of the above companies will have collected about 11 thousand m3 of processing wood and 16 thousand m3 of firewood.

    The second contract, concluded on September 25, 2014 with the merger of Sinani & Durazzo Legniami companies, is for the use of 4 plots in Dardhë – Xhyrë. The company has the right to use 51 thousand m3, of which 45 thousand processing materials and only 6 thousand firewood. This company has signed several contracts with the former directorates of the forestry service and Librazhd municipality. For the period 2016-2021, it turns out to have used about 13 thousand m3, of which 5 thousand processing materials and the rest firewood. In total, this entity is documented to have harvested 15.5 thousand m3 of timber.

    Concession contracts in this forest economy continued to be signed in 2015, with ALMEX WOOD & Pisha in two plots, while this company has two other plots in Polis. According to the data of the municipality, in the period 2016-2021, it has harvested about 15,400 m3 of timber, of which 5,900 are processing materials. In the 2020 balance sheet, the company declares good profits from the export of pellet material, which is a wood derivative.

    The Alcani company, which ends the 10-year contract in 2023, has taken over the concession of the Neshtë-Prevallë area. According to the contract, it must use 61 thousand m3 of timber, but until 2021 it has harvested only 16 thousand m3.

    These contracts confirm that in fact the cutting of forests for processing purposes has not been stopped even though the moratorium has been in force for 6 years.

    The company 2A & Z2AK, which has the concession of the forests of Polis, ends the contract in July 2023. It has the right to use 112 thousand m3, of which 100 thousand m3 are processing materials and 12 thousand firewood. This company has managed to harvest, until 2021, about 19 thousand m3 of timber, of which only 8 thousand are processing material.

    Despite the fact that the forests of their village have been cut for decades, sometimes with a license and sometimes without a license, the residents of Dardhë village do not benefit from anything.

    Like all residents of the area, Arjan manages heating with firewood. But unlike the company, he does not have the right to cut not even a single tree for heating. The law strictly forbids this. As a result, Arjan and other residents of the area buy them at the collection point located at the entrance of his village.

    “We are forced to buy here, at the price they want”, – Arjan confesses.

    Photographs provided by Investigative Network Albania in the upper part of Dardha show how entire areas of forest are disappearing and being stripped.

    “The little sprouts are also waiting. The forests are being stripped and the moment will come when there will be nothing left to cut”, says Halim, another resident, who has seen up close the great damage that is being done to the forest.

    The Ministry of Environment, until the publication of this article, did not respond to a request for information regarding the progress of the concessionary contracts for the use of forests and the claims of residents for illegal logging.

    Logging in Stravaj, Librazhd


    Concession contracts are extended

    Although some of the contracts are on the verge of expiration, chances are that they will be extended. An annex to the contract gives them the right to request a postponement of the concession term until the use of the entire anticipated quantity of wood. The only condition is that they fulfill the obligation to plant seedlings according to the list of stamps of the cuts they have made.

    From the data declared by the municipalities, these companies have fulfilled this condition. But unlike the municipalities, testimonies of residents and data from specialists shows that the concessionaires are actually killing the forests. A specialist who has been part of the state administration says that it is difficult to document the violations, since the companies cut the municipality’s forests, but not in their plots.

    “We went to inspect the plots and the markings and cuts were as predicted by the specialists, but it was enough to look at a plot near the border of the concession area and you would see that it was a real butchery” – he says, with the sole request of being anonymous.

    “Thus, companies cannot be caught in violation and municipalities cannot control them” – he further explains.

    Hostage to continuous reforms, the forest sector in the district of Elbasan has suffered a drastic reduction in the number of inspectors, but the most absurd thing is the removal of available tools. Currently, there are about 9 employees of the forest sector who will have to monitor the entire large forest area of ​​the Elbasan district without available tools.

    Without technical capacities and tools, with a politicized administration, environmental expert Ahmet Mehmeti thinks that the transfer of forests to the ownership of municipalities damaged them more.

    Large tree trunks at the timber collection site of the company “Kopaci sh.p.k.”

    “You cannot protect the forest from the office, without tools and without a specialist. Half of the employees in the forests department are party people without the relevant education and cannot monitor the forests” – concludes Mehmeti, who insists that if the renewal of contracts is continued, the forests of the Librazhd district are at risk of extinction.

    Below the Bushtrica bridge there is another timber storage point that belongs to the Dardhë – Xhyrë forest economy. There is no information here either, which is the company and for what activity it has received permission.

    “If you want wood, come on Monday, as we have these for the municipality” – says one worker, while another rushes to inform the owner. A little further on, covered cars can be seen, transporting freshly cut beech and oak logs.

    Timber collection point of the company Kopaçi sh.p.k. near the Bushtrica Bridge

    The company Kopaçi sh.p.k with administrator Sokrat Kopaçi, which owns this timber point, has signed two contracts with the municipality of Përrenjas. The first contract was for one year and was concluded at the end of 2016 with the merger of the companies Ardit and Kopaçi, with the purpose of using the forests of Sopot and Stravaj. This contract was accompanied by two extensions of 6 months, postponing the end of the contract in August 2018.

    Before the first contract ended, in May 2018, the Kopaçi company concluded the second concession contract with the object “Production, transport and stacking of firewood in the area of the municipality”. The contract had an 8-month term, but this has also been postponed by a year, until the end of 2019 for the use of the Stravaj, Lëpushë and Sopot plots.


    Ridiculous court judgments on illegal logging

    Deforestation that has been going on for decades remains unpunished. Even in the few cases that end up in front of justice, the sentences are ridiculous. Some decisions of the court of Elbasan, consulted by INA MEDIA suggest that the maximum penalty received by illegal loggers is either probation or a minimum fine of 80 – 40 thousand ALL. In all cases, the offenders have obtained the facilities provided by the criminal code.

    Referring to the Criminal Code, article 205 states that “Cutting or damaging forests without permission or in prohibited times and places, when the offense does not constitute an administrative offense, constitutes a criminal offense and is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to one year”.

    In 2020, with the approval of the “Forests” law, punitive measures were increased for those who put the ax on trees without permission. “When the consequences are serious, the penalty for cutting trees without a stamp and cutting forests without permission ranges from 500,000 to 1,000,000 lek”, – it is stated in article 36, point 9/a of this law.

    But despite the tightening of the legal framework, the justice institutions have continued to hand out minimal punishments that do not scare the abusers.

    On June 5 of this year, the chief judge of Elbasan, Matilda Fetahu, decided to accept the prosecution’s request for a fine against 3 people, who were caught with a wood truck without a permit. The event was recorded in the village of Mëxixë, of the Orenjë unit, and together with the truck, the motorbikes and other tools used for cutting timber were also seized. Despite the importance of this offense, Judge Fetahu requested facilities for the three accused in terms of accepting the criminal offense. In conclusion, the 3 persons found guilty of the criminal offense “Illegal Cutting of Forests” received a fine of 80,000 ALL.

    Judge Pajtime Fetahu, on September 24, 2020 issued the decision approving a plea agreement for the defendant. On July 18, 2019, in the forests of Kostenja, between Librazhd and Tirana, the Administration of Protected Areas caught red-handed an IFA vehicle, without license plates, with 36 trees cut with a chainsaw. This was the only case where the forest moratorium was mentioned in a court decision. The defendant lived in Sauk and according to the evidence, the court has assessed that he has fully committed the criminal offense of illegal logging based on Article 205 of the Criminal Code.

    Even in this case, the defendant benefited from facilities and received the alternative punishment of public interest work

    INA MEDIA has another court decision, dated October 11, 2021. In this case, Judge Miranda Konica imposed a fine of 40,000 ALL for two beech trees with a diameter of 42 cm, cut in protected areas.

    The Prosecution Office of Elbasan tells INA MEDIA that for 2021, 16 criminal proceedings have been registered, with 2 people under investigation and 1 defendant. Inherited from other years, 7 criminal proceedings with 10 defendants were sent for trial. Even for 2022, 16 criminal proceedings have been registered, while the prosecutor’s office has appealed to the court for dismissal for 7 criminal proceedings. These numbers prove that very few cases end up in trial and even fewer with punishments, based on the law implementing the forest moratorium of 2016.

    Ahmet Mehmeti sees the impasse in the fact that the justice bodies do not accept expertise related to cutting.

    “As a result, most of the cases are dismissed before they reach the court”, – he says.


    Exports have not stopped

    The moratorium could not stop the cutting of forests, nor the export. Investigative Network Albania has been able to identify at least one case, when companies report in their balance sheets that they export timber.

    The union of operators Sinani & Durazzo Legnami, which has a 10-year contract for the use of 110 ha of forest in the Dardhë – Xhyrë area, “admit” to the export of timber. Referring to the company’s financial statements submitted for 2020, there are profits from the export of processed pellets that are created from the processing of wood.

    Financial statements of Sinani & Durazzo Legnami

    The municipality denies the responsibility and justifies itself with the ambiguities of the concession contract that was concluded by auction procedure in 2014, between the Ministry of Environment, before the forests were transferred to the local government.

    “The Union of companies Sinani & Durazzo Legnami sh.p.k. has the right until the full implementation of the final cuts, in the object “Ekonomia Pyjore Dardhë-Xhyrë”, until 24.09.2024 (with the right of renewal until the completion of the final cuts)” – is clarified in the answer of the municipality of Përrenjas.

    Likewise, the Përrenjas Municipality declares that there is no documentation proving the export of timber.

    “From the monthly reconciliations and records of entries and exits, made between the subject and the Përrenjas Municipality, there is no documentation that the subject for this plot exports timber abroad”, – says the Përrenjas Municipality.

    INSTAT data also confirm that exports continue to be in high numbers. In the first year of the entry into force of the moratorium, i.e., in 2016, 55 thousand m3 of timber were exported from the 96 thousand that was the export of the previous year. But in 2017, INSTAT data shows an increase in exports to 78 thousand m3 of timber. This data has marked a modest decrease year after year and the export balance for 2021 was 53 thousand m3.

    The local institution clarifies that the Përrenjas municipality has exercised control over the plots of 110 hectares administered by this union of companies in the Dardhë-Xhyrë area and has not found any problems. But the photos provided by INA
    Media prove that there is not only firewood in these timber storage sites.

    The General Directorate of Customs did not respond to a request for comment regarding the export of timber processed by companies using concession forests and INSTAT data.

    As he we the Qukës – Qafë Plloçë road, about 2 kilometers inland, we discovers a giant investment complex awaiting the completion of the road. Some firewood stands in front of trucks with large stacks of boards for processing. Residents say that the company is one of the most powerful in the area and has the right to use the timber in Stravaj of Librazhd.

    “Now there is not much, but throughout the summer a large amount has moved. What our eyes have not seen come down from the mountain and we don’t know where it goes” – says a woman who has a house near the modern complex that also has part of the timber.

    Timber collection point in Stavraj of Librazhd

    The Përrenjas municipality has continued to sign annex contracts with the merger of the Sinani & Durrazzo Legniami companies, postponing the deadline for use until November 15, 2022, an addition which comes for the use of timber obtained through the concession in 2014 with the Ministry of the Environment.

    Timber collection point in Stavraj of Librazhd

    The municipality of Gramsh also continues to have active two concession contracts for the use of wood material signed in October 2008 and 2011. Although the 10-year term has ended, they continue to be active after signing 14 annex-contracts, the same as in Librazhd e Përrenjas. Beneficiaries of these contracts are Al Mex WOOD sh.p.k.

    In addition to the existing ones, for the year 2020-2021, the Gramsh Municipality has concluded 3 new contracts. The object of these contracts is the use of wood for clearing the forest or crossing electric lines, as well as plots damaged by various natural, human factors and fires.

    But despite the fact that the contracts provide only the clearing of the forest for heating, the residents claim that multipurpose timber is also logged. As the foto below proves, it is not a question of wood for heating that comes from clearing the forest, but wood of large diameter for processing.

    Timber collection point of operating companies with contracts from the Gramsh Municipality


    The Moratorium did not stop logging

    With the territorial reform of 2014, the ownership of forests and pastures also changed, passing to the local government. But they also inherited the long-term contracts for the use of forests, which the Ministry of Environment had previously signed. A DCM approved in 2017 and allowing the renegotiation of contracts determined that logging “will be done only for the health of the forests, meeting the needs of the residents of the municipalities and other entities for firewood”.

    Ahmet Mehmeti, forest engineer

    Ahmet Mehmeti, a forest engineer by profession and an environmental activist says that the moratorium has not had the expected effect.

    “A simple observation at the disposal sites, on the roads and in the forests is enough to understand that the law is not being implemented. I myself have come across large cars with timber, and I have even notified the competent authorities, but I have not seen them act”, – says Mehmeti.

    “The law and DCM only allow for heartening of forests and wood for heating needs. This thing does not work when logs and stacks of boards move without repercussion” – he accuses.

    He sees local institutions as powerless to monitor forests.

    “Municipalities cannot manage to monitor it. They don’t have experts to assess the situation and thus the abusers are given a free hand”, – says Mehmeti.

    Disappointed and with little hope for the future in the village blessed by nature, the residents of Dardha hope to cancel these contracts that are destroying their forests.

    “We hope that their contracts will not be renewed, otherwise Dardha will no longer have a forest,” -concludes one of Dardha’s residents.

    Ky shkrim është pjesë e projektit që mbështetet financiarisht nga Zyra e Mardhënieve me Publikun e Ambasadës së SH.B.A. në Tiranë. Opinionet, gjetjet, konkluzionet dhe rekomandimet e shprehura janë te autor-it/ve dhe nuk përfaqesojnë domosdoshmërisht ato të Departamentit të Shtetit. / This article is part of a project that is financially supported by the Public Relations Office of the US Embassy in Tirana. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State.