Paradise lost: the devastation of Białowieża Forest
Jarosław Krogulec, Head of Conservation at OTOP (BirdLife Poland) recounts the tragic devastation Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the Narewka road took its travellers on a journey to what felt like a whole other world, to a whole other age – for the road leads you deep into the heart of Białowieża Forest. Here, straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, lies a living, breathing relic of antiquity – the largest surviving remnant of the vast primeval forest that once swathed the Great European Plain in a sea of lush greenness from the Atlantic to the Urals.
This is Europe’s ‘Yellowstone’. The forest has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an EU Natura 2000 Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area; under its protective canopy is the best preserved forest ecosystem and the last deciduous, old-growth forest in all of Europe. It is a haven for biodiversity – unparalleled on this continent – hosting a rich panoply of fauna and flora, notably including Europe’s largest bison population.
"Białowieża Forest....under its protective canopy is the best preserved forest ecosystem and the last deciduous, old-growth forest in all of Europe."
But as John Milton wrote in ‘Paradise Lost’, the minds of men can make ‘a hell of heaven’ and today the Narewka trail feels more like a road to perdition. The scale of man-made devastation that has been wreaked here in recent years is spine-chilling. Miles upon miles of forest have been logged, leaving a trail of environmental destruction as far as the eye can see.
In some areas, it seems like nothing has been considered too ecologically important to escape the executioner’s chainsaw. At one spot, a majestic 150 year old giant spruce has been recently reduced to a stump. If it had been left as deadwood, it would have found ‘life after death’ and provided biodiversity for forest wildlife for up to a century to come. A little further on, you can count each ring on the stump of a felled 80 year old oak tree. And what is left is simply on borrowed time – the trunks of the trees that line the forest roads are nearly all branded with ominous red symbols, cruelly marking them out for death.
For centuries, what ensured the richness of Białowieża were natural processes that had seen very little human intervention, particularly in comparison with other European forests. However, only one-third of the Polish area of the forest is officially protected as a national park, while the remaining two-thirds are subject to forest management, and increasingly mismanagement.
150 year old Spruce © Ariel Brunner
OTOP (BirdLife Poland) is doing everything we can to stop this state-sponsored vandalism. It is a battle we have been fighting for over a decade. Back in 2008, intensive wood extraction from the forest spurred the European Commission to officially open a ‘structured dialogue’ (EU pilot) with Poland. Following negotiations, a compromise was found: the logging limit was lowered and set at the level needed to fulfil local community demand for wood. By 2013, the Commission felt reassured enough to close proceedings.
However, in March 2016, Pandora’s Box was reopened. Following a change in government, the new Polish Ministry of the Environment accepted an amendment to the Forest Management Plan (FMP) for Białowieża Forest District approving a threefold increase of timber extraction. This increase – a clear breach of the 2013 agreement – was heavily criticized by the most important scientific bodies and institutions responsible for nature protection in Poland. It also prompted public outcry with more than 160,000 people signing the appeal to protect the site. OTOP – as part of a coalition of seven national and international NGOs – reacted swiftly, submitting a legal complaint to the European Commission to warn that Poland had breached Article 6 of the Habitats Directive.
"The scale of man-made devastation that has been wreaked here in recent years is spine-chilling. Miles upon miles of forest have been logged..."
Though the European Commission started a formal infringement procedure in June, Polish officials were undeterred. Only five months later, in September, the Polish Directorate General of State Forests, an authority under the Minister of the Environment, issued a decision to increase the logging limits and commence wood extraction according to the amended Forest Management Plan. Since the end of last year, intensive logging – on a scale that truly begs belief – is destroying the unique integrity of Białowieża forest. It is impossible to exaggerate the degree of biodiversity that we are losing each and every single day.
80 year old Oak © Ariel Brunner
Effectively, we are in a state of ecological emergency. Vast stretches of this once magical forest resemble a natural disaster zone – but there is nothing ‘natural’ about this. This is human vandalism. In the past weeks, our e-NGO coalition has updated UNESCO about the destruction and we call urgently on the Commission to immediately start the second step of the infringement procedure and issue an official reasoned opinion without further delay. The situation on the ground clearly shows that Poland is not taking the concerns of the Commission into account and the case should be taken to court if necessary.
The tragedy of Białowieża is more than just the devastation of nature, it is the destruction of memory and the eradication of hope. While the official ‘national park’ is protected, logging is taking place in areas that have been given every other special recognition there is available – Natura 2000, UNESCO World Heritage, UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB). If the world can stand by and watch these areas disappear in silence, then what chance is left for the rest of our planet? Indeed, John Milton, if he were writing ‘Paradise Lose’ today, would surely lament the destruction of Białowieża and the loss of Eden.
Jarosław Krogulec is Head of Conservation at OTOP (BirdLife Poland).
Gui-Xi Young is News Editor at BirdLife Europe & Central Asia.
 Article 6 of the Habitats Directive requires Member States to conduct an appropriate assessment on all activities that can impact the Natura 2000 sites, including logging plans.
Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.