Defending Europe’s largest primeval forest

Logging has always been a part of life in Bialowieza, but the increased quotas proposed last year by Poland’s new government, were too much for many to bear. The unique forest has become one of the battlegrounds for the defense of democracy.

European bison, Białowieski National Park


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Joanna Lapinska is from Bialowieza, a village that lies at the outskirts of the Bialowieza Forest on the Poland-Belarus border. A librarian-turned-charismatic leader of the Locals Against Bialowieza Forest Logging, she talks about the work she has been doing with locals to oppose deforestation in Europe’s largest primeval forest, as she warms herself with a cup of freshly-made mint tea.

“For years we have only heard the arguments for increased logging quotas – how much locals depend on logging, and how cutting down trees is good for regional development. But we do not believe these attitudes; we believe the forest needs to be protected, and that we should promote eco-tourism and alternative industries to those that use wood as a primary source,” Lapinska explains.

Logging has always been a part of life in Bialowieza, and many locals support the industry because it is a primary source of income in the region, but the increased logging quotas proposed last year by Poland’s new government, led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), were too much for many to bear.

Environment Minister Jan Szyszko wants to triple logging quotas 1 and this could seriously threaten the survival of a forest whose unique natural value made it a UNESCO-protected site. 2

Lapinska says the minister’s decision has inspired locals to come together and raise their voices against the logging industry for the first time in the region’s history. This past November, she welcomed visitors in a poorly-heated house on the banks of the Narevka River that had belong to Bialowieza legend, Janusz Korbel, before he passed away in 2015.

So the home carries the memory of its former owner, a prominent figure of the Polish environmental movement, who established the ecological NGO, Workshop for All Living Creatures, in the late 1980s. A Zen Buddhist, wanderer and organizer, Korbel moved to Bialowieza Forest in 2001 to both enjoy it, and defend it.

Today Korbel’s followers, like Lapinska, are keeping his legacy alive with their attempts to defend the forest he loved so much. Groups of volunteers calling themselves, “guardians of Bialowieza,” patrol the forest on bikes to monitor the falling of trees, and publicize illegal logging cases.

Bialowieza under threat

The Bialowieza Forest stretches over more than 300,000 hectares of land in both Poland and Belarus. About half of the total area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the Polish side of the forest is also an EU Natura 2000 conservation area. 3

Falling trees is strictly prohibited in some parts of the forest and heavily regulated by laws in others.

The forest’s core, which enjoys UNESCO protection, has historically been unaffected by human intervention. This is the only place in Europe where the ancient forest that used to cover the continent from the Urals to the Atlantic Ocean, remains untouched for such a large stretch. This forest is the home to some 800 European bison, the heaviest land animal on the continent, and to some 20,000 other animal species. It is made up of ash trees, oaks and furs as high as 40-50 meters.

In March this year, Jan Szyszko amended Poland’s National Forest Management Plan in order to triple logging in the so-called ‘Bialowieza forest district’, which constitutes about a fifth of the Polish part of the forest. 4

The plan had initially allowed for 63,000 cubic meters of wood to be cut from that part of the forest over the next 10 years. Then in March, Minister Szyszko decided that as much as 188,000 cubic meters of wood would be cut instead.

The ministry argued that Bialowieza was under serious threat of a bark beetle invasion, which posed a bug threat to the forest’s spruce trees. According to the state, the largest bark beetle infestation in decades had befallen Bialowieza, and half a million trees were already dead because of it. 5 While the bark beetles usually attack old trees, the forest authorities said the pests were now going after younger trees too, threatening the forest’s future.

However, environmentalists argue that bark beetle infestations are a natural part of forest life and that Bialowieza had lived through many of them without disappearing.

In June, environmental groups, Greenpeace, WWF and ClientEarth issued a common statement, saying that, “logging at this scale would have a significant impact on the integrity of the site, and be especially damaging for species dependent on dead wood such as rare saproxylic beetles.” The statement went on to point out that an estimated “50% of biodiversity within the Białowieża Forest is dependent on dead wood.” 6

Polish environmentalists have called for all of Bialowieza Forest to be given national park status and for all logging in the forest to be halted.

This view is also supported by scientists familiar with the ancient forest. Entomologist Bogdan Jaroszewicz from the Bialowieza Geo-botanical Station (Bialowieska Stacja Geobotaniczna) argues that bark beetle infestations are nothing but natural occurrences in the lifecycle of spruce forests.

“For example, if you went to the boreal Taiga, 7 each 100 to 150 years, spruce forests are completely killed off by the bark beetle, but they then re-develop,” Jaroszewicz explains. He says in Bialowieza, the bark beetle attacks about once a decade.

“It is true that what we are witnessing now is one of the most serious outbreaks in the last century,” admits Jaroszewicz. “However, it does not mean it is unnatural; it is a natural process, and probably one of the ecosystem’s answers to environmental changes. Our climate is changing and due to rising temperatures, spruce will become more and more vulnerable to pathogen and insect attacks.”

The scientist also points out that the strength of the bark beetle infestation was so high precisely because of human intervention in the forest. When Polish authorities needed wood at the end of WW2, they planted spruce intensively because it grew so fast. However, they did not necessarily plant the trees in the optimal locations for them to thrive, leaving the forest more vulnerable to pest attacks today.

“Spruce were planted in new places where coniferous trees had never been; many of them did not adapt and were the first victims of the beetle,” explains João Ferro, a professional forest guide originally from Lisbon.

Ferro argues that what is happening now is a “re-naturalization of the forest.”

“Because of a changing climate, and the bark beetle affecting the spruce so much, the oaks, elms and maples are growing beautifully in the area. I call it the dance of nature. Nature is a reacting to the rhythms caused by human change and climate; plants adapt.”

EU infringement

Last year at the end of May, Minister Szyszko informed Polish media that “protective measures” against the bark beetle had begun in the forest. 8

Dried out trees were first being removed, and then later healthy trees were to be felled, because according to the minister, neglecting measures that would protect an EU Natura 2000 site from pests would break EU law. However, UNESCO demanded non-intervention, which pit the two international bodies against each other.

Szyszko indicated that it had been “a mistake” to include Bialowieza on the UNESCO heritage list for its “natural” value back in 2014, saying the forest should have instead been classified as a region of “cultural and natural” value, which would have allowed for much more human intervention in its management.

Despite the Polish Minister’s claims, both the EU and UNESCO seem to side with the environmentalists. Instead of supporting intervention against the bark beetle, the European Commission has expressed concern with the planned logging quota increase. 9

In June, representatives of the EU Commission went to Bialowieza to analyze the extent of the pest infestation, 10 and the EU found that Poland was breaching EU law and initiated infringement procedures against Poland over their deforestation plans (infringement procedures are only started against a member state when it breaches EU law). 11

“The EU started the infringement procedure because the decision to allow for a threefold increase in logging was made without a proper impact assessment, which breaks EU law,” explains Katarzyna Kosciesza of the green group, ClientEarth. “Minister Szyszko is also ignoring the voices of civil society and scientists, which have been repeating that higher logging limits would be disastrous for this unique ecosystem.”

UNESCO also expressed concern and asked Poland to put forward an “integrated management plan” for Bialowieza by February 2017. 12

This would have to show how the forest would be kept intact.

The UNESCO response was informed by a IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) visit to Bialowieza this summer. The IUCN representatives reported that they observed “sanitary cuttings (removal of trees affected by bark beetle) had been made several times in areas under Partial Protection II, in contradiction to the Management Plan Roadmap.” 13

IUCN alerted UNESCO to the fact that the Polish authorities had cut trees in UNESCO-protected areas that should have been left untouched. On their bike monitoring trips, “the guardians of Bialowieza,” had also noticed and warned about the government’s irregular cutting of the forest.

Logging bias

This October, Minister Szyszko appointed a team of experts to draft the management plan requested by UNESCO, but environmentalists argued that the expert selection process was flawed.

“The team of experts is composed exclusively of bureaucrats from the Ministry of Environment and Foresters,” ClientEarth reported. 14

“There are no representatives from Bialowieza National Park, or any scientists or NGOs that are critical of the minister’s plans for the forest,” the green group said.

This claim is compatible with the modus operandi of Law and Justice (PiS), the nationalist party in control of the Polish government since fall of 2015. Since the PiS has come into power, they’ve amputated the Constitutional Court, seized control of state media, purged public administration of their political enemies, and seated their political allies. Konrad Tomaszewski, a relative of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of PiS and de facto leader of Poland, was appointed as the head of the state body managing Polish forests, National Forests (Lasy Panstwowe) right after PiS came to power.

Whether hygienic logging is the better solution, as the government claims, or letting the forest handle the pests on its own is, it will be hard to trust that Polish institutions will evaluate the options objectively.

A July investigation by the private website, okopress, revealed links between one of the few environmental NGOs that has spoken favorably of Szyszko’s increased logging scheme. 15

The Association to Protect Bialowieza (or SANTA) had campaigned for Minister Szyszko’s election and taken part in events co-sponsored by the powerful Catholic media empire, Radio Maryja, which has close ties to Szyszko and PiS. The same investigation found that SANTA, which often participates in public and international events benefitting Bialowieza, presents itself as an independent voice on the matter, but has been receiving funds from National Forests.

A separate investigation published in October by the national magazine, Newsweek, reported another example of public money being directed to PiS allies to promote logging in Bialowieza Forest. 16

A foundation called Independent Media was set to get 1.5 million euros (six million zloty) from the National Fund for Environmental Protection in order to create a TV station that would promote “sustainable development” in Bialowieza Forest. The Foundation is run by another relative of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Tomasz Sakiewicz, one of the leading right-wing media figures in Poland and a notorious supporter of PiS. The money was the largest amount granted by the fund, which was otherwise cutting payments to established green NGOs. And once again, a long-term ally of Szyszko, Artur Michalski, serves as the fund’s vice president. 17

In December 2016, Greenpeace Poland revealed that the Ministry of Environment was preparing legislative changes that would do away with regional environmental protection directorates (reputable state institutions that staff experts in charge of assessing the environmental impact of infrastructural projects), limit civil society’s say on decisions impacting the environment, and reduce the number of external checks on the National Forests (Lasy Panstwowe). Greenpeace dubbed the proposed changes “the end of environmental protection in Poland.” 18

Ever since PiS took power and started its assault on state institutions, massive protests have been organized across Poland to defend the rule of law. The anti-government mood has benefited environmental causes, like Bialowieza’s protection: a January 2016 demonstration to defend Bialowieza organized by the Green Party gathered thousands, a large number for a Polish green protest. Bialowieza has become one of the Poland’s battlegrounds for the defense of democracy.

A future in tourism

Back in the forest, locals like Joanna Lapiska argue that Bialowieza provides a livelihood for people living in the area, especially if it stays untouched.

Rafał Kowalczyk, head of Mammal Research Institute – Polish Academy of Sciences agrees that Bialowieza is not only a forest for the eye-glassed scientists. “To know the value of it, people need to see it, and then they realize that this forest is different than anything they’ve known,” Kowalczyk says. “Here you see biodiversity, from grass and insects to big mammals like the bison – all in the wild,” he continues.

The social value of the primeval forest also translates into the small business it creates, most notably from tourism. “I’ve lived here for 20 years and I’ve observed the change. More and more people’s main business is tourism: bed and breakfasts, hotels, shops, local produce, horse carriages and so on,” Kowalczyk explains. On top of that there are research institutes that are linked to the protection of forests.

“People will not come here to see a managed forest; conservation and protection bring about good sustainable businesses for locals,” argues the scientist.

In a primeval forest one cannot even see the effects of the bark beetles. Spruce are just a part of the whole mix, and a dead tree also offers life, and provides food and shelter for hundreds of other species. Kowalczyk then concludes, “if you cut and remove a tree, you are literally left with nothing.”

Notes:

  1. Anna Koper, Marcin Goettig, “Poland minister approves tripling of logging in ancient forest,” Reuters, March 25, 2016, http://reut.rs/1RNHbaP (accessed January 30, 2017).
  2. UNESCO – Białowieża Forest, http://bit.ly/2kD5JdJ (accessed January 12, 2017).
  3. Pabian O., Jaroszewicz B., “Assessing Socio-economic Benefits of Natura 2000 – a Case Study on the ecosystem service provided by Białowieża Forest. Output of the project Financing Natura 2000: Cost estimate and benefits of Natura 2000,” 2009, http://bit.ly/2jGQpgi (accessed January 12, 2017).
  4. Anna Koper, Marcin Goettig, “Poland minister approves tripling of logging in ancient forest,” Reuters, March 25, 2016, http://reut.rs/1RNHbaP (accessed January 30, 2017).
  5. “Spruce bark beetle in the Białowieża primeval forest,” Centrum informacyjne lasów państwowych, January 22, 2016, http://bit.ly/2izwBds (accessed January 12, 2017).
  6. “European Commission launches infringement case against Polish government for logging in Białowieża Forest,” June 16, 2016, http://bit.ly/2iuKH4J (accessed January 12, 2017).
  7. The Taiga is a distinct biological community located in the north of the American and Eurasian continents, the largest such community after oceans, and characterised by coniferous forests, primarily pines, spruces and larches.
  8. “Pierwsze cięcia w Puszczy Białowieskiej. Minister Szyszko: To działania ochronne,” Dziennik.pl., May 29, 2016, http://bit.ly/2jv7sAX (accessed January 30, 2017).
  9. Agnieszka Barteczko, Barbara Lewis, Alison Williams, “Activists lobby EU about logging in Poland’s ancient forest,” Reuters, April 19, 2016, http://reut.rs/2jv8kpi (accessed January 30, 2017).
  10. “European Commission visits threatened Bialowieza forest,” ClientEarth. http://bit.ly/2jKn5ru (accessed January 30, 2017)
  11. “EU to investigate Poland over logging in ancient forest,” The Guardian. June 16, 2016, http://bit.ly/21oBpTt (accessed January 30, 2017)
  12. State of conservation, Bialowieza forest, UNESCO, http://bit.ly/2kKuzwm (accessed January 30, 2017).
  13. “Poland to report on impacts of felling in Bialowieza forest in 2017, as advised by IUCN,” IUCN, http://bit.ly/2jKo9Mi (accessed January 30, 2017).
  14. “O Puszczy będą decydować zwolennicy jej wycinki / The supporters of the logging in the forest will decide about its fate,” ClientEarth, October 14, 2016, http://bit.ly/2jpoq7M (accessed January 12, 2017).
  15. Robert Kowalski, Szymon Grela, “Zielone ludziki ministra Szyszki / Green Men of the Minister Szyszko,” OKO.press, July 25, 2016, http://bit.ly/2anrZa0 (accessed January 12, 2017). See also Łukasz Rogojsz, “Organizacja SANTA, czyli kim są „ekolodzy” ministra Szyszki?,” Newsweek Polska, June 10, 2016, http://bit.ly/2kjsGpr (accessed January 30, 2017).
  16. Wojciech Cieśla, “Fundacja Niezależne Media Tomasza Sakiewicza została organizacją ekologiczną. Dostanie milionowe dofinansowanie? / The Tomasz Sakiewicz´s Foundation for Independent Media transformed into an environmental organization. Will it get millions in the funding?” Newsweek Polska, September 10, 2016, http://bit.ly/2jswwfv (accessed January 12, 2017).
  17. Bianka Mikołajewska, Konrad Szczygieł, “Fundusz ochrony środowiska Szyszko / The Szyszko´s fund for the environment protection,” OKO.press, September 1, 2016, http://bit.ly/2bYkNAM (accessed January 12, 2017).
  18. “Koniec ochrony polskiej przyrody, Organizacje pozarządowe ujawniają dokumenty Ministerstwa Środowiska / The end of the protection of the Polish nature. NGOs reveal documents of the Ministry of the Environment,” Greenpeace Polska, December 8, 2016, http://bit.ly/2gYNlh3 (accessed January 12, 2017).
Claudia Ciobanu

Claudia Ciobanu

is a Warsaw-based freelance journalist writing about Central and Eastern Europe whose articles have appeared on Reuters, The Guardian or al-Jazeera.

Raul Cazan

Raul Cazan

is communicating EU’s policies in biodiversity and climate change as Editor-in-Chief of the cross-media environmental portal, 2Celsius Network. He recently co-authored a book on ecological connectivity in the EU.