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By Naomi Larsson
Gabriel Paun has been living in hiding for three years. It took the environmental defender a year to prepare for a new existence that would, he hoped, save his life. For weeks, he was effectively on the run, using only cash so he could not be traced.
Five years ago, he had been investigating the construction of a hydropower plant and alleged illegal logging on the protected Raul Alb river when he says he was attacked by a group of men sent by a private forestry company.
“A group of six guys came and started to punch me, really hard kicks with the intention to kill,” he tells The Independent.
He managed to escape but was severely injured, with broken ribs. “It’s something that I try really hard to forget. After this attack I had nightmares that I was living in the mountains, and they would come every morning at the same time, while I was enjoying my coffee, and they would kill me.”
Paun, 43, is a leading Romanian environmentalist and land defender. One of his earliest and fondest memories is going on a trip with his father to the country’s vast, idyllic forests to hear the sound of wolves.
“The wolf howling did not scare me, but made me very excited,” he says. “I can’t describe in words what kind of feeling goes through your body and how you get shivers under your skin when you hear that. This was an experience my father offered to me, but then he passed away when I was six. So I was alone in this journey.”
Paun has been involved in environmental activism since he was a child, setting up the NGO Agent Green in 2009 to protect the country’s vast virgin forest from destructive logging.
Romania contains half of Europe’s remaining old-growth and primeval forests, home to endangered brown bear and wolf populations. The forests are also vital carbon sinks and are more resilient to stresses caused by climate change.
But logging – both legal and illegal – is decimating them. Although most of the old-growth forests are in protected areas, 72 per cent of the destruction takes place in areas with that status.
Greenpeace Romania estimates that three hectares of forest are lost every hour, amounting to some 349,000 hectares over the last two decades.
Half of the wood taken from Romania’s forests comes from unaccounted sources, according to the National Forestry Inventory, in an illegal logging trade that’s worth an estimated €1bn. Organised crime syndicates are at the heart of it, but timber theft is common in rural areas, the logging business being one of the main sources of income for much of the population. The trade makes it an international issue – Romania’s biggest wood processor is Austrian, the Schweighofer Group, which is under suspicion of involvement in illegal logging.
In February, the European Commission launched legal action against Romania for its continuous failure to protect its natural forests.
Paun suggests the lines between legal and illegal have become increasingly blurred.
“I wouldn’t even call it illegal logging any more because there is plenty of legal logging which is so aggressive, so destructive, that we are losing the last primary and old-growth forests,” he says.
But for those on the front line, the fight has become deadly.
Last autumn, two park rangers were murdered in Romania. Raducu Gorcioaia, 50, was found dead in his car, close to an illegal logging site in the Pascani forest district in September. A month later, Liviu Pop was responding to a tip-off about illegal logging when he was shot dead.
The Romanian forestry union has recorded the deaths of four other rangers and over 650 incidents of physical assaults and death threats against rangers in the last few years.
Paun says he fears for his life and was forced to go into hiding.
Intimidation comes from all sides. In 2016 he was the victim of a targeted cyberattack that wiped seven years of work and personal data. Then, a woman came into his life who was “too good to be true”, and she was found to be taking on a fake identity, targeting Paun because of his work. He has discovered cameras and listening devices in his home. His mother has also been intimidated. “I’m facing threats in all possible ways.”
Paun is single and says he can’t have a family of his own. They would be too much at risk.
It is an increasingly volatile time for Romania’s environmental activists. This year is the first time that Romania has featured on the Global Witness database, an annual record of the killings of land activists and wildlife defenders around the world.
The number of murders of people defending the environment reached its highest yet in 2019, with a global total of 212, up from 164 deaths in 2018. On average, four were killed a week. Countless more have been threatened, detained and silenced in attempts by illegal organisations, industry and governments to stop communities from protecting their land.
“This is the highest figure ever at a time when we’re facing increasing climate breakdown,” says Chris Madden, a spokesperson at Global Witness. “These are people on the spine of the climate crisis who need to be protected and listened to if we have the hope of addressing it.”
In 2019, Colombia topped the Philippines with the highest death rate of land defenders, with 64 activists killed. Half of all reported killings took place in these two countries. Global Witness expects the true death toll to be much higher, with many incidents going unreported. In the first two weeks of this year alone, at least 10 human rights and environmental defenders were killed in Colombia.
Angelica Ortiz is from a Wayuu indigenous community in La Guajira, northern Colombia. She is part of the local activist group, Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu, leading protests against mining and agribusiness projects.
Ortiz and the other activists in Fuerza de Mujeres have faced ongoing intimidation – six death threats in 2019 alone – for their work defending their community and land. She believes the threats come from paramilitary groups that continue to control rural areas.
“Colombia is in a crisis for defenders and social leaders. We thought that the peace process would be a solution for Colombia, but unfortunately it hasn’t been like that,” she says.
Angelica Ortiz, activist
One of the major fights for the group is the coal-mining project El Cerrejon. The largest open-pit coal mine in Latin America diverted water from a stream that the Wayuu indigenous communities relied on for clean water, and displaced many communities. When the Fuerza de Mujeres began campaigning nationally and internationally for greater protections of their land and rights, they started receiving death threats. For a time, Ortiz was forced to leave her community, and her children.
“That was frightening and I still don’t feel safe. Being a protector requires that sacrifice.”
She is aware of her own vulnerability as a woman – the number of female defenders killed almost doubled in 2019 compared with the year before.
“The difference is men are killed, women are violated. Women are castigated for their bodies. They are violated sexually for defending their rights.”
Many of Ortiz’s colleagues have suffered sexual violence, and says they were told by their attackers that the violation was to shut them up, to stop them defending their land and rights.
“I know various cases,” she says. She is far beyond shock at the commonality of these violent acts. “These are the risks women face in daily life.”
Women are also more likely than men to face verbal abuse, smear campaigns and surveillance, according to Global Witness. Globally, mining and agribusiness were the biggest industries driving attacks against defenders and activists. The logging industry saw a steep rise, with 85 per cent more attacks worldwide recorded since 2018 against defenders opposing the industry.
Chris Madden, Global Witness
Yet activists fear that the global pandemic has had severe repercussions for the protection of the environment.
Since curfews were imposed in Colombia in March, six defenders have been killed in separate attacks. Quarantine measures have made it difficult for those facing threats to file complaints to the authorities.
Meanwhile, lockdowns have allowed organisations to use this time to continue exploiting the land. In June, Paun hired a helicopter to monitor the Bucova forest in the southwest of the country. “I went to this area where there have been some threats before. I discovered that a lot of new forest roads have been built during the lockdown in places where there has never been a forest road before.”
Quarantines certainly did not lessen the dangers that activists face. And as the world begins to open up, these threats will become more visible again.
“It is scary,” says Paun, “but I have to tell you that I have never thought for a second to stop what I’m doing, because I would be already dead inside if I did that.”