21/02/2024

MASSIVE TIMBER POACHING IN PRIVATE FORESTS: Croat returnees in Kotor Varoš suffered loss of hundreds of thousands of marks, poachers in cahoots with the local police

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The response of the Police administration of Banja Luka to Valter states that, while acting upon a report made by the forest owners, the police officers did not discover timber poachers at the location. It only reinforces suspicion raised by Podbrđe residents – that local policemen are in cahoots with the poachers and they are alerting them of any police action. Although two years have passed since the report was filed with the Prosecutor’s Office in Banjaluka, the case is still “in progress”.

 

Valter’s investigative team

 

“In a land not far away, there is a forest packed with poachers, who are neither running away nor hiding…”

If the situation wasn’t so serious this is how the Croat returnees in Kotor Varoš municipality could sing the old children’s song from a cartoon from the time of former Yugoslavia.

They could, but do not feel like singing. Their forest has been subject to illegal logging by a dozen of persons for many years now. And for many years now there has been no rule of the law, and the Croat returnees are powerless and cannot prevent this organized crime in their family forests. They don’t claim that it is happening because they are Croats, but they do believe it certainly “doesn’t hurt”, particularly since some of them are now living between village Podbrđe in Kotor Varoš and their homes abroad as the result of postwar circumstances.

GOOD CONNECTIONS WITH INDIVIDUALS IN THE POLICE

They have reported devastation and timber poaching in their private forests to the Kotor Varoš police department multiple times, but the reports were never taken any further. The affected residents of Podbrđe, everyone we have talked to, rightly suspect that there is a connection between timber poachers and the local police. Valter’s team visited this location twice and talked to the residents after they finally decided to go public, stating that it is the only thing left to do.

“If one of us comes while they are up there, they confront him and we are afraid to go anywhere if there is no two or three of us. You simply must not, it is all connected. There are three of them from this area, and three or four more who came from somewhere else. They don’t shy away from anything. You cannot do anything to them,” says Jakov Kljajić, one of the residents of Podbrđe, in an interview to Valter.

Jakov Kljajić: They are connected with the police, simple as that. When you go to the police they say that they are not competent to guard private forest, and when we go to the forest office they say the same, and that we must protect our own forests. (Photo: Dejan Rakita)

Village Podbrđe is half way between Čelinac and Kotor Varoš, in region of Banjaluka. There are predominantly Croat, returnee houses in the village, and the forest above the village, hundreds of dunams, mostly belongs to them; namely it is private forest and private property.

Jakov Kljaić is only one of the returnees to the village who testifies to Valter about devastation and looting of their exceptionally expensive property – which forest certain is if we know that the price of a meter of wood in this area ranges between BAM 120 – 130.

Kljaić doesn’t even find looting of their forest to be the main problem (although it inflicts immeasurable financial damage), but rather the inability to stop it, covering up of the crime, collusion between timber poachers and individuals in the local police.

“We have told the police that we have evidence, one stump wasn’t good for them so they left it completely uncut. We took pictures. When we came back it was no longer there, which means that the police has probably tipped them off. They are simply connected with the police. When you go to the police they say that they are not competent to guard private forest. When we go to the forest office they say the same, and that we must protect our own forests”, said Jakov Kljajić.

Resident Slavo Petrušić, one of the persons affected by timber poaching (Photo: Dejan Rakita)

As to substantiate these statements he mentions one of the many cases when they had called the police for the active timber poaching, but the police, which is very close to the location came an hour and a half later. Most certain they did not find anyone there.

Both he and his neighbors openly state that they have good reason to suspect certain individuals, whose names and last names they know, and that more or less everything is known, but that they cannot speak publicly about the names, partly because of fear, partly because they want the police to prove the guilt of all suspected individuals.

THE POLICE EVEN OFFERED A DEAL WITH THE TIMBER POACHERS

Jure Petrušić from Podbrđe is 82 years old. He is one of the natives to the land. He speaks of having owned 16 dunams of forest above the village back in the day, and today it has been all harvested and stolen. The locals claim that the timber poaching has been going on continuously for the last several years and that the reports yield no results.

Petrušić told Valter that several months ago he found the forest cut down, and when he tried to save what was left behind the poachers and to bring it home, the police took it all. He has the title deed proving that he is the owner of the forest, although it doesn’t help him much.

“They (poachers, author’s remark) communicated to the police that I am transporting the timber, and then they took it all from me. I pleaded with the police not to take the timber, and have said that I will pay the fine. I told them that poachers are stealing and transporting my timber, and that they should be taking the timber from them,” said Petrušić, almost on the verge of crying.

Jure Petrušić, Slavko’s cousin showing a note on confiscated timber that he attempted to save from poachers (Photo: Dejan Rakita)

The locals have on several occasions caught the poachers with tractors, all necessary equipment and loaded trucks. They have made improvised dirt roads through their forests. They leave tractors that they use to cut and transport logs parked nearby, and then the logs are transported to Čelinac.

Photo: The locals found the truck loaded with poached timber

One of forest owners, Zlatko Bujdo, said that he had brought police, a forester and expert witness to the crime scene last year. A memo and a complaint were drawn up, but Bujdo has never received any report.

“I didn’t get a report or the minutes for a year now. I did not catch the poachers myself, but we were doing façade coating at that time and we saw a tractor going into my forest. I didn’t give the names of the poachers. I told the police whom I suspect, but that the police needs to verify that. They have made roads though the forest and have designated a place to store the timber “, said Bujdo.

As an evidence of the connection between individuals in the police and the poachers, he mentions the fact that the police even offered to bring the poachers so that the residents could make a deal with them, which they refused.

Photo: Zlatko Bujdo with an excerpt from the land registry, and in his forest (Photo: Dejan Rakita)

“They cut the oak trees, about twenty of them, and took them away. We called the police and they came after two hours. They had transported everything by tractor before the police came. The tractors are parked near Vrbanja. The government is doing this, they are only pawns”, said Bujdo.

The police administration of Banjaluka confirmed to our portal that the police officers in Kotor Varoš are acting on the reports made by the citizens and forest rangers of Forest estate Vrbanja. They also said that five cases of timber pouching have been recorded since the beginning of this year.

“A report was made to the police station Kotor Varoš on November 9, 2023 that persons A.S. and S.S. both from Kotor Varoš, are extracting timber by tractor from a forest owned by several persons in Crna Rijeka. The police officers went to the location, where they did not find the persons reported, means of transport or wood assortments. The police officers have continued undertaking operative measures and actions with regards to this report.”

Photo: A response of Banjaluka police sent to Valter

So, the response of the Banjaluka police to Valter states that, while acting upon a reports made by the forest owners, the police officers did not discover timber poachers at the location. It only reinforces suspicion raised by Podbrđe residents– that local policemen are in cahoots with the poachers and they are alerting them of any police action.

The Banjaluka District Public Prosecutor’s Office confirmed receiving the report on committed crime – timber poaching in case of two “injured parties” on April 22, 2021, in which S.S. was incriminated on grounds of reasonable suspicion of having committed a criminal offence of “timber poaching” to the detriment of Jure Petrušić.

“The mentioned case is being processed by the acting prosecutor”, briefly answered the Banjaluka prosecutor’s office.

Thus, more than two and a half years have passed since the report was filed. The case is still “in progress”, and timber pouching still hasn’t been stopped.

THE PROSECUTOR’S OFFICE HAS BEEN “CONDUCTING INVESTIGATION” FOR TWO YEARS ALREADY

A bit over a year ago, on October 6, 2022, the same prosecutor’s office received a report on committed criminal offense from the police station Kotor Varoš against John Does on grounds of “reasonable suspicion” that the crime of timber poaching has been committed to the detriment of Zlatko Bujdo.  Although more than two years have pass since the report was filed, there are also no major breakthroughs in this investigation, which can be also concluded from the response of the Banjaluka Prosecutor’s Office.

“The Prosecutor’s office has passed the order on conduct of an investigation against John Does in the case mentioned and the order was forwarded to the competent police station aimed at identification of the perpetrators and evidence collection,” read the answer of the District Public Prosecutor’s Office in Banjaluka.

Photo: Answer from the District Public Prosecutor’s Office in Banjaluka

However, the Prosecutor’s Office in Banjaluka hasn’t yet interviewed the injured parties in these cases. Zlatko Bujdo told our portal that he was never interviewed in the capacity of an injured party by the prosecutor, and that he has learned about the submission of the report on committed criminal offense to the prosecutor’s office through his private channels. He also has video evidence of damaged caused and clearcutting in his forest.

 

The Forest Estate Vrbanja that is managing the forests on the territory of Kotor Varoš, doesn’t have too much information.

“The Forest Estate Vrbanja Kotor Varoš is at the disposal of the Ministry of Interior of Republika Srpska and the police stations to provide any assistance or professional help concerning either illegal logging or trade of wood assortments,“ said Forest Estate Vrbanja Kotor Varoš to Valter.

Zlatko Bujdo took our team through the forest and showed the scale of destruction caused by either logging or machines. He alone lost 23 oak trees.

 

The fact that, although reports of the committed crime have been submitted to the District Prosecutor’s Office of Banjaluka on two occasions, timber poaching is continuing almost smoothly and without any problems, openly raises suspicion about the connection of the people who physically poach timber in Podbrđe with the individuals from the local police in Kotor Varoš.

Everything points to an organized group, a part of which is represented by a few of those logging and transporting the logs. The second part represents protection from persecution, and the third enables distribution of and profit from stolen logs.

This crime has been going on for years and it is difficult to estimate the amount of damage i.e. profit on the other side, but it is enormous if we consider the price of a meter of wood in the recent years.

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