Europe's Oldest and Largest Forest Is Now A Major Political Battleground
The Puszcza Białowieska, one of Europe's oldest forests, has become a battleground, with environmentalists increasingly concerned about widespread logging in the forest, which is also ground zero for heightened tensions with neighbor Belarus and the ongoing migration crisis. And, all across Poland, increased logging with political motivations has been stirring activist tensions.
The Białowieża Forest, Puszcza Białowieska, known as the oldest and last of the remaining primeval forests in Europe, has become a battleground for activists. Environmentalists have noted the “lightning speed” with which timber is being extracted from the forest, bringing complaints from as high up as the European Commission.
The forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and the only nature site in Poland to make the list — “includes the most representative and most important natural habitats for the conservation of biodiversity, including those with endangered species," according to the NGO Puszcza Pracownia.
But to some in the Polish government, nature conservation is a step for tomorrow, to follow economic growth, and not necessary right now. “In the West, first they built their infrastructure, and then laws to protect nature began to be introduced," said ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) MP Jan Duda. “We — through no fault of our own — have been developing for only 20-odd years and we are forced to (protect the environment) now, taking into account the restrictive environmental protection law."
With a so-called “special act," PiS demolished the Białowieża Forest, dividing it in half with a fence, which was protested by several hundred scientists from Europe. The fence divides the forest, people and populations of protected species, threatening their genetic connectivity and biodiversity. The fence was built without the usual environmental, construction or tender procedures. On the basis of the same principles, the bank of the border section of the Bug River was covered with razor wire. Animals have died in agony, caught in the wire’s coils, according to a report from Gazeta Wyborcza.
Since the crisis began in 2021, at least 49 migrants have died along Poland’s border with Belarus.
© Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/ZUMA Press Wire
And it is not just wildlife who are subjected to new dangers in the forests: migrants crossing the Belarusian border, at a time of heightened tensions, are stuck in the wilderness, with advocates demanding more humane treatment.
The forest, a national park situated in Eastern Poland, near the Belarusian border, first made headlines in 2021, when the entryway became a destination for migrants trying to cross into Europe. Since the crisis began in 2021, at least 49 migrants have died along Poland’s border with Belarus.
The last two victims were found in the Narewka River, according to Gazeta Wyborcza. By the estimates of Grupa Granica (Border Group), which provides humanitarian aid, from mid-Oct. 2021 to May 31, 2023, about 15,000 people asked for help. The delivery of humanitarian aid is usually carried out in secret, because deportations back to Belarus are a mortal danger for refugees.
“We are dealing with people there who are pushed from one side of the border to the other side of the border by both formations of the Border Guards – Polish and Belarusian – for many days and weeks, in a state of extreme exhaustion and starvation," Marta Górczyńska, a lawyer from Grupa Granica, toldWyborcza.
In deportation efforts, whole groups of migrants are taken to the border and to the forest, where they are eventually pushed back to Belarus. In mid-June, Grupa Granica reported: “Between May 25 and 31,269 people came to Grupa Granica asking for humanitarian aid. Among them were 46 women (three of them in late stages of pregnancy) and as many as 33 minors, of whom at least six were traveling unaccompanied by adults."
Black lives are sent to the forest.
On Thursday, August 17, Mariusz Kurnyta, who works for the Podlaskie Volunteer Humanitarian Ambulance (POPH), made a post on Facebookshowing a young Somali refugee who had been pushed into the forest by Polish authorities. “He was unable to stand up and move," Kurtyna, who is known online as “Człowiek Lasu” (“Man of the Forest”), wrote that the young man had become sick from drinking swamp water, but was nevertheless deemed healthy by Polish authorities.
“White lives go to the hospital,” Kurtyna wrote of the situation, while “Black lives are sent to the forest."
Kurtyna has since filed a complaint with the Polish Police against the border guard, journalist Piotr Czaban reported.
More forests at risk
In Southern Poland, the Puszcza Karpacka, the Carpathian Forest, has also been subjected to significant deforestation, which has raised the attention of activists, and of the EU.
In March of this year, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Poland was not doing enough to protect its forests. Less than six months later, Poland has come under fire from activists and environmentalists who claim that Poland is cutting down one of the oldest and last remaining primeval forests in Europe with “lightning speed."
The NGO ClientEarth has since filed a complaint to the European Commission about Poland’s alleged illegal harvesting of timber. This follows two previously published reports from 2017 and 2021, respectively, which tried to warn the control authorities about the marketing of illegal wood harvested in the Białowieża Forest and the Carpathian Forest.
“We want to draw the Commission's attention to the wider problem of the effectiveness of EU environmental law at national level,” Ranja Łuszczek, legal counsel at ClientEarth, told Gazeta Wyborcza. Łuszczek calls Poland’s adherence to the law “theoretical," and says its aim is solely “to demonstrate formal compliance with EU law." However, she claims that even when EU-compliant regulations are technically adopted, they are not applied in practice in Poland.
The European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) prohibits the sale of illegally harvested timber, but leaves it to the member states to make sure that this is not the case. In Poland, this is meant to be carried out by the Inspectorate for Environmental Protection, but according to ClientEarth’s report, it “does not have the people, the money or the tools” sufficient to ensure that illegally harvested timber does not make its way to the market.
The Inspectorate's jurisdiction also offers a loophole, which is charged with policing non-compliance with pollution regulations, industrial accidents and crimes against the environment. But the illegal timber trade does not fall into any of these three categories, meaning that the Inspectorate technically cannot conduct investigations into companies who may be participating in it.
“State Forests” Enter Politics
Part of the forest was once meant to be transformed into the Turnicki National Park. But according to the NGO Przyrodnicze (Nature), the deforestation and lack of environmental protections has been so great that “the last scraps of the forest are treated as commercial," rather than as a natural resource to be protected.
Lasy Państwowe, or “State Forests," the arm of the Polish government which is charged with managing state-owned forests, has also entered into politics, which some claim is at the expense of the resources they are meant to protect.
"Lasy has become a reservoir of money for pre-campaign events that are organized in their constituencies, as well as in the constituencies of PiS colleagues," Anita Dmitruczuk, Robert Jurszo and Aleksander Gurgul wrote for Wyborcza. This includes cultural matters, including planting forests in the name of former Pope John Paul II, and merging the finances of the Church with those of the state forests, largely from commercial forestry.
Protest of ecologists in front of the seat of the Regional Directorate of State Forests. They demand an end to the devastation of the Carpathian Forest, the creation of the Turnicki National Park and the release of the activists detained on July 13.
© Krzysztof Zatycki/ZUMA Press Wire
Since April 2021, environmental activists have blocked tree-cutting operations in the Puszcza Karpacka, according to a report by Gazeta Wyborcza. Their camp is located on the road leading from the Eastern city of Przemyśl to Ustrzyki Dolne. There, among other things, is a barrack on wheels attached to the ground, which is the heart of the activist base and the center of camp life.
Aside from fighting against deforestation, the activists also advocate for the creation of Turnicki National Park, which they claim “only exists on paper."
In 2017, activists in the Białowieża forest chained themselves to tree harvesters, which have been used to turn parts of the UNESCO heritage site into clear cuts, according to Polityka.pl. They also claimed that bans on entering the forest, which were supposedly implemented for safety reasons, were actually put into place to hide the scale of logging that was taking place. According to activist Adam Bohdan of the Dzika Polska (Wild Poland) Foundation, who spoke to Polityka on the scene, this included hiding the fact that “foresters also cut down century-old trees."
The War for the Forest is more than just a local brawl with ecologists.
The status and age of the forest have also led to calls for its protection by activists, scientists, and pundits. “The War for the Forest is more than just a local brawl with ecologists, who can be threatened with fines and prosecutor's charges; it is more than the protests of artists and the entire scientific world," Agnieszka Sowa wrote for Polityka. "The Białowieża Forest is also Brussels and the European Commission. Because it is (still) the last primeval forest of the European Lowlands, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List."
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