A Bosnian grove is timber poachers’ sweet home: The value of illegally cut forest is at least 300 million Convertible Marks 

Non-existence of a Federation Law on Forests, challenges in managing structures of the forestry companies, and favoritism are just some of the extenuating circumstances for frenzied logging on the territory of the Federation of BiH. While the Laws on Forests exist in nine cantons, Herzegovina-Neretva Canton is the only one without the law due to the fear of whose cadre will be recruited to the forestry company. 

Photo: Tačno.net

Both residents of Borci settlement near Boračko Lake and the vacation home owners in that area were alarmed in mid-March by the arrival of machines that started cutting down the forest.

“They have cut down a third of the forest surrounding water source, we have called forest ranger, and he just stared at blankly”, said Šefik (author’s note: identity known to the newsroom), one of the owners of a vacation home in this area.

“Everyone protects this forest more than the forest ranges whose job it really is, it is all interconnected crime”, said our interlocutor, adding that the natural resources are being destroyed without any repercussions.

They have also made a report to the police, which came to the scene, but failed to do anything.

“The police told us: ‘C’mon, he has paid for it’, the man who bought that forest likely exerts some pressure over the police”, said Šefik.

Photo: Tačno.net

The land, which encompasses approximately 15 dunams of forest, belongs to the farming cooperative “Neretva” from Konjic. This cooperative had in June of 2018 published an announcement for sale of real estate. The real estate in question consisted of two land parcels: one called “Lopare”, with surface area of 6.700 m2, covered by class four forest. Second parcel, called “Boračko Lake”, with surface area of 7.690 m2 is a meadow.

Both parcels are located at Borci settlement.

The cooperative “Nertva” answered that the Decision on sale of firewood was passed at the session of the cooperative’s assembly held on June 15, 2022. The commission for sale of firewood was thus established based on the Assembly’s decision and the conclusion of the Supervisory Board.

As evident from the sales announcement, the starting price for the forest was BAM 4 per square meter, while the meadow parcel was sold at BAM 12 per square meter.

A copy of the sales announcement/Tačno.net

The forest was sold to the legal entity “FOREST M” from Mostar, as stated in the Cooperative’s response. Logging operations commenced on March 20, 2024.

“We were not warned on time that cutting of the forest in this area could endanger supply of potable water to the local population. If we had known that before, we would not have sold the firewood”, read the response of the Cooperative.

The forest and water inspection of Herzegovina-Neretva Canton visited the site following residents’ unrest and suspended all logging.

“All has been abandoned like that, and inspection hasn’t done anything. I don’t know what will happen further”, said Šefik.

Inspection of Herzegovina-Neretva Canton did not respond to our inquiries, and Šefik told us that they have also contacted the Federation inspections, whose visit they are expecting soon.

No Law, no responsibility

It is interesting to note that in their response, the Cooperative ignored our question about the law under which they sold the forest for logging. Their primary concern seems to be the revelation that they were unaware of the potential impact on the water source resulting from the forest’s sale. They don’t see any issue in the fact that Herzegovina-Neretva Canton is the only canton in the Federation of BiH without a Law on Forests, and based on that, every forest logging is considered illegal.

Regarding the sale of forests, everyone, including cooperatives, is authorized to sell what they own. However, if a private individual owns the forest, it does not mean that actions can be taken contrary to regulations

“While it certainly doesn’t imply that anyone can dispose of forests at their discretion, it’s crucial to recognize that they must adhere to the law, which Herzegovina-Neretva Canton doesn’t have, and that complicates the situation further. Inspections should prohibit all forms of forest management in this Canton until a law is adopted. Otherwise, we risk facing clearcutting and the total devastation of the abundant forest resources in this area”, said Nina Kreševljaković from Aarhaus center BiH.

Photo: Government of Herzegovina-Neretva Canton

For almost 15 years, the non-existence of a Law on Forest in Herzegovina-Neretva Canton has allowed vast areas of forest in this location to be ravaged without any repercussions. The new Government of this canton has prioritize adoption of the Law on Forests, but as shared by the councilor in the Assembly of this canton, Arman Zalihić, the process is at a standstill because the ruling parties cannot agree on who will manage the new company Forests of Herzegovina-Neretva Canton.

“The authorities are evidently catering to individuals who are enriching themselves through illegal logging, as such activity would not be occurring if there were a law in place”, said Zalihić.

Zalihić believes that SDA and HDZ must reach an agreement.

“The key issue revolves around whose cadre will be represented in the forest management company. There are also nuances that we must address through the law. The partners in the new government must understand that our priority should be to protect the forest through the new law, and not just to pass it for the sake of someone gaining political power or some political positions as to manage the forests,” said Zalihić.

Photo: Arman Zalihić/Avaz

Namely, the Constitutional Court of the Federation of BiH found the Law on Forest of FBiH to be unconstitutional back in 2009, and there hasn’t been a Federation Law on forests since then. All cantons, except for Herzegovina-Neretva canton, had then adopted the cantonal Laws on Forests.

A fishing expedition 

Forests and forest lands in the Federation of BiH comprise approximately 58% of the total living space, covering 1.518.466 hectares, whereof 1.241.336,1 hectare or 82% is state owned, while around 277.130 hectares or 18% is either owned by the individuals or legal entities.

Federation Ministry of agriculture, water management and forestry is wrapping up public discussion on the proposed text of the Law on Forests in FBiH and Law on Reproductive Material of Forest and Ornamental Trees and Shrubs in FBiH.

During the marking of the Forest Day minister Kemal Hrnjić underlined the need of urgent adoption of the Law on Forests in the Federation of BiH.

“There are 1.5 million hectares of forests on the territory of the Federation of BiH and they are one of the biggest natural resources we own. They are the lungs of our citizens. The forests have irreplaceable role in combating climate change and preserving biodiversity, and it is our task and responsibility to protect them at the national, Federation and cantonal level from all abuses and excessive exploitation, for all future generations”, said Hrnjić.

Kemal Hrnjić/Photo: Oslobodjenje.ba

The Federation Ministry stated that the harvesting plans are executed almost to a maximum, and that the execution of reforestation plans is dropping.

Kemo Kadrić, head of the Forest Management and Hunting Department of the Federation Ministry of agriculture, water management and forestry, also warned of problems in the forest sector, stating that these problems are the reflection of the non-existence of the law at the Federation level.

“Illegal forest harvesting and illegal occupation of the state forest land, selective application of cantonal laws, failure to execute planned and obligatory investments in forest restoration, as well as inability to use the funds for protection, improvement and afforestation, including rural development, are just some of identified problems that indicate the necessity of an urgent adoption of a law to eliminate identified shortcomings and problems,” said Kadrić.

According to information from the Aarhus Center, approximately five and a half million cubic meters of forests are cut down per year. However, illegal harvesting accounts for at least an additional two cubic meters.

Herzegovina-Neretva Canton is in the forefront of this because of non-existence of the Law. There has been a chaos in the forestry sector of this canton for decades, and forest exploitation is done by multiple companies instead of just one, as it is the case in other cantons.

There are three forest management enterprises in the territory of Herzegovina-Neretva Canton. These are Public Enterprise “Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske d.o.o.” Mostar, Forest enterprise “Prenj” d. d. Konjic and Forest enterprise “Srednje neretvansko” d. d. Mostar. Although the enterprise Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske was established in 2005 with the aim of consolidating forest management at the cantonal level, it never happened in the practice.

Harun Dinarević/Photo: Buka

Harun Dinarević, journalist of portal Naratorium and one of the members of the international team that investigates where the wood from BiH ends, says that illegal harvesting i.e. the way in which quotas are used for harvesting plan by the forest enterprises within the ministries represents the biggest problem in BiH.

“Illegal harvesting is often done in a way that deviates from planned procedures that include deforestation and no clearcutting”, explained Dinarević.

He elaborates that forest management in the territory of Konjic is overseen by the Forest Enterprise “Prenj”, which operates not as a public enterprise but as a joint-stock company. According to information from the FBiH Securities Register, the city of Konjic holds a 51% ownership stake in this company, with the remainder of the stocks being owned by private enterprises or individual.

Individuals versus legal entities

The citizens are the ones who most frequently defend and protect the natural resources of BiH, including the forests. One of the biggest battles was fought in the Prozor-Rama area at the end of last year. Namely, the citizens of Orašac community in this municipality blocked the forest road to Osojnica, which is a forest rich in spruce, birch and fir above Rama, so that trucks of PE “Šume Herzegovačko-neretvanske” could not access the forest.

As we were reminded by Harun Dinarević, the blockage lasted 20 days, until this enterprise abandoned the intention to exploit this untouched forest.

“The enterprise requested the police to deblock the road, but their request was rejected as they did not have a decision on harvesting”, recalls Dinarević.

Although this area is not too rich in forest potential, it holds valuable forest units such as Bosnian Pine, which is an endemic species.

Photo: Anes Podić/Klix

“Bosnian pine is also being frantically harvested both by the enterprises and the individuals, and there is no control. The forests on the southern slopes of Treskavica have also been cleared by the enterprise from Konjic. It is not just about the volume; it is about the rarity and value of the forests being destroyed”, said Anes Podić from Eco Action.

Podić further notes that illegal forest exploitation has increased in recent years, driven by the fact that the market price of firewood is now twice as high.

The price of a meter of chopped logs was between BAM 40-60 ten years ago, and now it ranges between BAM 100-200.

“It has all led to the existence of organized criminal groups dedicated to illegal forest harvesting,” said Podić, adding that it is easy to estimate given that more than two-thirds of BiH citizens use wood for heating.

It means that approximately 700.000 citizens are using wood for heading. If we take that the average price of chopped wood is BAM 120 per m2 and that a single household spends at least three meters of wood, we arrive at a figure of BAM 252 million.  To whom is that money going?

Auditors assessed that four cantons are not properly fulfilling responsibilities

In its reports on forest resource management for year 2022 the FBiH Audit Office has identified numerous instances of malfeasance in Sarajevo Canton, Tuzla Canton, Herzegovina-Neretva Canton, and Zenica-Doboj Canton.

In the four reports the auditors listed a series of elements indicating potential crimes, but let us start from the beginning.

The most significant irregularities were identified in Sarajevo Canton, with an assessment that the Cantonal public enterprise “Sarajevo-šume” had made minimal or virtually no efforts toward reforestation in 2021

“Biological reproduction of forest wasn’t done in minimum volume set forth by the forest management plans in line with the Sarajevo Canton Law on Forests and the Agreement on transferring responsibilities for management of state forest on the territory of Sarajevo Canton. Silviculture in 2021 was conducted in the amount of BAM 94.444, namely 7% of the planned amount (BAM 1.249.709)”, reads the report.

According to the auditors’ report, reforestation was planned for 212 hectares, valued at BAM 717.945. However, only 7.95 hectares (BAM 23.879) were actually completed.

The auditors also determined that sale of timber assortments wasn’t done transparently and in a market-based manner in line with the Decision on the manner of sale of timber assortments originating from the state forests on the territory of FBiH.

“Quantities larger (150,709 m³) than those contracted through a tender (137,466 m³) were delivered, and no increased prices were applied to additional deliveries in accordance with the tender. The enterprise failed to offer the required 20% of classified timber assortments through subsequent sales, as only 13.027 m³ were agreed upon through an auction, representing 8.64% of the achieved realization. We have determined that the sale of timber assortments was not conducted successively through auctions and direct negotiations. The contracted sale volume through these procedures was 137.466 m³, but it has been realized in a significantly greater volume (150.709 m³), resulting in revenues amounting to BAM 15.934.857”, reads the report.

Ilustration/Deposit photos

The audit of the enterprise “Šume Tuzlanskog kantona” d.d. Kladanj revealed that during the year, a minimum of 20% of classified timber assortments were offered through subsequent sale, i.e., an auction, in accordance with the Decision on the manner of sale of timber assortments originating from the state forests on the territory of FBiH.

“The total advertised stock in 46 auctions held in 2021 was 6.805 m³, which accounts for 10.84% of the total technical roundwood harvesting of 62.771 m3 and is significantly lower compared to the minimum set forth by the Decision,” concluded the auditors.

Furthermore, obligations for other taxes and duties were shown in the amount BAM 720.966, and relate to unpaid fees for the use of forests in 2021. The enterprise calculated the fees for the use of state forests, but did not settle them within the prescribed deadlines in accordance with Article 48 of the Law on Forests of the Tuzla Canton

The report on the financial audit of the Public Enterprise “Forestry Company of Zenica-Doboj Canton” for the year 2021 showed that the biological restoration of forests was not carried out to the minimum extent provided for in the forest management plan, which is not in accordance with the Law on Forests of Zenica-Doboj Canton and the Agreement on transferring responsibilities for management of state forest on the territory of Zenica-Doboj canton.

“In 2021, biological restoration of forests was conducted for 995 hectares, totaling BAM 760.196. However, the plan was made for 4.797 hectares or BAM 3.977.400, representing only 20.7% of the scope determined by the forest management plan”, reads the report.

They also audited the financial statements of the Public Enterprise “Šume Hercegovačko-neretvanske” d.o.o. Mostar.

The auditors issued a qualified opinion on the financial report to this enterprise and an adverse opinion on compliance with legal regulations, along with 15 recommendations.

The report highlighted that the enterprise’s accumulated loss as of December 2021 exceeded the amount of the basic capital. Moreover, “the enterprise operates in conditions lacking an adopted Law on Forests and an adequate legal framework to transfer the authority for managing state forests”.

The auditors underline that the enterprise cannot settle its outstanding financial obligations in a timely manner.

“During 2021, the enterprise operated on the basis of the management plans for the forest management area “Srednje Neretvansko” and “Forests on the Karst”, which were approved by the Supervisory Board, which is not in accordance with the Decision on the creation, content and application of forest management plans. The last valid forest management plans expired in 2000,” stated the auditors in the rationale of the adverse opinion .

The revisors issued 88 recommendations to public enterprises, forestry companies.

First indictment 

In early April 2022, the Cantonal Court in Sarajevo raised indictments against an organized group of 15 people for illegal logging.

Photo: Cantonal Court in Sarajevo/BIRN

The Cantonal Court in Sarajevo confirmed the indictment against Elvir Husanović, Admir Čomor, Adnan Husanović, Esed Pačariz, Ermin Mujkić, Samir Bukal, Duran Mešanović, Taib Šahić, Mihret Dajdžić, Memnun Madžak, Edin Kazić, Amer Subašić, Emir Horman, Muris Maljić and Miralem Sarić. Duran Mešanović and Elvir Husanović,  employees of the Sarajevo Canton Forestry Administration, are accused of organizing a group that illegally cut state and private forest in the area of Sarajevo Canton and Konjic Municipality from the beginning of 2013 to the middle of 2017. The organizers of the group, as stated in the indictment, hired individuals whom forest guards allowed to engage in logging for payment, which they retained for themselves. This resulted in damages exceeding one million marks to the public enterprises Sarajevo Šume and Hercegovačko-neretvanske šume.

In addition, they received support during the transport of timber from indicted police officers Edin Kazić of the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Interior and Memnun Madžak from the Konjic Police Department. The acting prosecutor has proposed hearing 80 witnesses, five experts, and presenting more than 600 pieces of material evidence for the main trial.

As of now, the trial has not yet started.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that authorities responsible for safeguarding natural resources, including forests, such as prosecutor’s offices and courts, are violating the Law on the Temporary Prohibition of Disposal of State Property by failing to prosecute cases of illegal forest cutting. As defined by the Law imposed by the High Representative in BiH Christian Schmit in 2022, state property encompasses rivers, forests, and forest lands. The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina affirmed this classification in its decisions in cases no. U-9/19 (assessing the constitutionality of the Maritime Law of RS) and no. U-4/21 (regarding jurisdiction over forests in RS).

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