- By ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner
In the back of an old van bumping along Ukraine’s appallingly pot holed roads I witnessed a scene more in keeping with a spy novel than a news story.
It helped to convince me that exposing the problem of illegal logging was dangerous and trying to stop it would be extremely difficult.
A man dressed in the khaki uniform of the forestry commission was waiting by the side of the road.
He exchanged a few words with our driver and jumped into our vehicle asking to sit in between two passengers on the middle row of seats so he would be concealed.
He kept glancing nervously from side to side, as he issued directions and pointed to a path running beside the river.
I was told he was a sympathiser who had agreed to help us and our guides from the environmental protection charity Forest Watch find the newest illegal logging sites.
And he must in no circumstances be seen by other villagers.
When we spotted a man standing on the path ahead gesturing us to stop a wave of panic swept through the van.
The forester ducked down, head between his legs while we covered him with jackets.
The man outside peered inside the van and we all held our breath.
Amazingly he didn’t notice the bulge on the back seat and waved us on.
In seconds the danger had passed but it made me realise just how terrified people are of the powerful business interests that control logging in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains.
To be seen as a sneak or informer working with the charity that tries to prevent the illegal destruction of the forests would have cost him his job and expulsion from the community that is his home.
We were in the villages at the base of Mount Latundur and had been warned to expect a hostile reception.
On previous trips the team from Forest Watch, a small NGO based in Lviv, had been physically blocked from entering the mountain and on one occasion had been chased back to their van as verbal abuse was hurled at them.
The loggers don’t like interference from outside as they see timber and the logging industry as the life blood of their rural community.
Four-wheel drive vehicles with blacked out windows followed our old Mercedes seven seater as we drove towards the site.
Chief forester Dymtro Verbyshchuk and the team claimed that these expensive cars were driven by the men who owned the saw mills and controlled the logging.
We didn’t dare carry our large professional camera equipment.
Instead, climbing the mountain with a small GoPro camera, we pretended to be hikers.
But our sympathetic forester had given us good information.
After two hours of walking we saw a lorry laden with timber heading towards us and after another 15 minutes climbing we found the evidence.
Here was a large area cleared of all the pine and fir trees, leaving expanses of barren hillside.
I should have felt triumphant to have found what they call “clear cuts” but instead I experienced a sense of emptiness and exhaustion as we looked at the churned up mud and land stripped of its trees.
Once the drone camera went up the scale of the forest clearance was even more obvious.
It’s impossible for Forest Watch to know how much of this logging is criminal but the efforts made by local villagers to keep them away makes them suspect much of the clearance is done using illegally obtained paperwork.
To witness how the system is supposed to work we headed up the mountains at Stanyslavske Forest with the chief forester Dymtro, who admitted that trying to combat illegal logging was a constant problem.
It was raining heavily and the journey up the steep, muddy tracks was nerve wracking.
This was a legal logging site where inspectors had agreed that at least 90 per cent of the trees had been damaged by wind and storms and therefore could be cut down.
It was, nevertheless, brutal to watch.
Healthy pines reaching 100ft into the sky brought crashing to the ground and then dragged through the forest leaving deep water-filled trenches behind them.
A system of tags and official documents demonstrated that this wood has been legally felled.
Dymtro Verbyshchuk showed us how you can trace wood from the numbers in the forest clearance right to the files in his office – proving it has been legally felled.
The problem is that much of this paperwork can be forged and we were told by many people that corruption is rife.
It’s claimed that among the staff of the forestry commission and in the police are people willing to take backhanders or bribes for the documents which allow the clearances to take place and many in the timber trade are willing to pay for these false permissions.
Getting anyone to say this on camera and on the record was impossible, hardly surprising when you think of the fear and intimidation we had felt the previous day.
With large orders waiting to be filled across the border in the European Union, there appears to be no shortage of buyers for this cheap and often illegally felled wood.
British environmental charity Earthsight carried out a two-year undercover investigation that revealed up to 40 per cent of the wood being sold to the EU to make everything from cheap furniture to garden fences is illegally cut.
On the last day of our trip around the Carpathians we became embroiled in a heated argument between the director of the National Park at Gutsulshina and the mayor of the local village which seemed to encapsulate the tension that surrounds this crisis.
We were being taken to see illegal logging officers from the National Park claim is happening here when we were intercepted.
The second group of men came from the local community and were accompanied by officers from the Forestry Commission.
They insisted the land belonged to them and they had the legal right to fell the trees on it.
Despite my best efforts to understand why they could not work together to ensure the good management and preservation of the land there appeared to be no willingness to compromise.
I left Ukraine feeling this verbal battle was a good metaphor: they are fighting over the forest and it’s future while all around them the damage continues to be done.
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Last updated Mon 12 Aug 2019