Trial & Error: The Battle for Białowieża
Back in April, we reported on the illegal logging threatening Europe’s last primeval forest in our article ‘Paradise Lost: the Devastation of Białowieża Forest’. Five months later, the battle for Białowieża continues – on one front, protestors are bravely putting their bodies between the trees and the chainsaws; and on another front, the European Commission has taken the Polish government to the European Court of Justice.
Bestride the Polish-Belarussian border lies Białowieża – a precious remnant of the sprawling deciduous forest that swathed the great European Plain before human settlement. This is the best preserved forest ecosystem and the last old-growth forest on the old continent. Several bird species, sadly rare elsewhere, are still numerous in Białowieża; warblers and corncrakes flit around the surrounding meadows, while enigmatic species of owls, flycatchers and woodpeckers thrive amongst the centuries-old Oak, Lime and Elm. And stargazers can look not just to the skies but to their feet where they may spot ‘earthstars’ amongst the many thousands of mushrooms.
© Jarosław Krogulec
Wild predators and their prey still roam freely here: lone lynx stalk the woods in search of pine-martens and hares, while wolves in packs sniff out red deer and moose. The most iconic forest-dwellers are the great European Bison to which it offers refuge. These impressive beasts – the continent’s heaviest land animals – were hunted to extinction in the wild during the early 20th century but were subsequently reintroduced from captivity in several countries. Today Białowieża is home to the largest population in the world, counting just over 1,400.
© Jarosław Krogulec
But there is trouble in paradise. Only one third of the Polish side of the forest is officially protected as a national park, and the remaining areas are being commercially logged despite holding other internationally-recognised designations: from EU Natura 2000 to UNESCO World Heritage. Since last year, a threefold increase in timber extraction has resulted in miles upon miles of logged forest. Majestic oaks, older than a century are being felled for plywood.
"Since the end of last year, over 50,000 trees spanning 80,000 cubic metres of forest have been cut down."
This chainsaw massacre – a direct breech of Article 6 of the EU’s Habitats Directive – has been authorised at the highest political level in Poland. In March 2016, the new Minister of the Environment, Jan Szyszko, personally sanctioned the increase, in violation of an agreement made the European Commission back in 2013. OTOP, BirdLife’s Polish partner, reacted immediately, joining a broad coalition of NGOs in successfully appealing to the European Commission to start a formal infringement procedure by June. Polish officials were undeterred. Since the end of last year, over 50,000 trees spanning 80,000 cubic metres of forest have been cut down. Vast stretches of this once magical forest resemble a natural disaster zone.
Amid a cacophony of civil society protest, the EU was finally compelled to act decisively. On 13 July, the European Commission referred Poland to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and requested an injunction to stop operations on the ground before the court's verdict is reached. This is only the fourth time in the 25 years of the Natura 2000 network that the European Commission has applied for 'interim measures' in defense of a protected site. Though the EU’s popular nature laws – the Birds & Habitats Directives – are inarguably some of the best pieces of nature protection legislation in the world, inadequate enforcement and insufficient penalties for infringements means that mass destruction of legally-protected sites is currently taking place in many EU countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Italy. The European Commission’s defense of Białowieża now comes, therefore, as a signal-changing stand for its environmental commitments.
"Such blatant defiance of Europe’s highest court is an unprecedented rejection of the rule of law by an EU Member State."
An encouraging victory came swiftly; within two weeks, the ECJ ordered Poland to suspend logging on an interim basis while the court examines the case. Celebrations were short-lived, however, as Minister Szyszko promptly announced that logging would continue. Citing a clause in the ECJ’s injunction permitting logging in situations posing a ‘threat to public safety’, Szyszko reasoned that the Polish Ministry of the Environment considered all forest management activities within the area covered by the Natura 2000 site to be indispensable for public safety and therefore in accordance with the court’s decision.
Such blatant defiance of Europe’s highest court is an unprecedented rejection of the rule of law by an EU Member State. Political relations between the EU and Poland were already strained, with Brussels and Warsaw at loggerheads over several key issues from migration and CO2 emissions to highly controversial judicial reforms. In September, these tensions came to a head as the battle for Białowieża moved into the courtroom.
Armed with incriminating satellite photos, the Commission demanded that financial penalties (an amount to be determined by the court) be imposed on Poland for its legal breeches. Meanwhile, Minister Szyszko himself – displaying his characteristic flair for fiction – dramatically produced a glass jar containing what he claimed to be the real culprit: Ips typographus, more commonly known as ‘bark beetle’. These beetles target sickly trees and severe infestations can result in huge areas of ‘dead forest’. The government, he explained, was not trying to destroy the forest but protect it: “Poland is being accused of commercial logging, nothing could be more mistaken”.
"the Polish government has found a very convenient scapegoat"
The bark beetle is menacing Białowieża – this much is true. But in this tiny trickle of truth, the Polish government has found a very convenient scapegoat for its environmental crimes. Such outbreaks are a natural ecological phenomenon, though their frequency has multiplied due to climate change. Foresters and conservationists are diametrically opposed on how to manage the problem. For the former, the priority is to ensure a rapid return to ‘business as usual’; they log the affected trees and a belt of healthy trees surrounding them, supplemented with chemical treatments and replanting. While this can stop the immediate outbreak, it sets off a vicious cycle – as seen on Bulgaria’s Vitosha Mountain following an outbreak in 2001. While the Vitosha nature reserve was left to recover naturally, the area outside the protected zone was logged, cleared and replanted – to mixed success. Clear-cutting exposes neighboring trees to the elements and when damaged by storms, these originally healthy trees become more susceptible to further, and more serious, outbreaks.
© Obóz dla Puszczy
But there is life after death. Conservationists argue that nature should be allowed to show its true power. Czechia has suffered several outbreaks since 1990, including a massive infestation in Šumava Forest following Hurricane Kyrill in 2007. Here both active and passive management methods have been tried in different areas, and there is good evidence to support the ecological value of the latter. When left as deadwood, the grey, ‘dead’ forests remained healthy habitats for birds, insects and other wildlife. In due course, green shoots emerged, proving the forest’s natural ability to regenerate itself and become more resistant to future outbreaks.
© Jarosław Krogulec
The unparalleled ecological value of Białowieża, should by rights determine a non-interventionist approach. For centuries, what ensured its unique richness were natural processes that had seen very little human intervention, particularly in comparison with other European forests. But the lure of profits has incited foul play. Crying wolf (or in this case ‘beetle’) as a pretext to increase logging is one of the oldest tricks in the book – foresters are felling magnificent old oaks and other varieties of tree that are not affected by bark beetle which targets spruce. Similarly, in neighbouring Slovakia, huge clear-cuts – supposedly to combat outbreaks – have devastated Slovak mountain forests over the last decade, leading to the disappearance of Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus from some mountains entirely.
© Jarosław Krogulec
As the courtroom drama unfolds, another fierce stand-off is taking place in Białowieża itself. Protestors, camped out in the forest for weeks on end, are standing firm as the forest’s last line of defense. Wearing t-shirts emblazoned with ‘I ♥ Puszcza’ (‘I ♥ Forest’), they are blocking roads and disrupting the logging by literally putting their own bodies between the trees and the harvesters and police. On a daily basis, they stoically maintain their watch in the face of harassment and the threat of fines, arrest and even physical violence – their bravery brings true meaning to the old expression “to have a heart of oak”. In solidarity with Obóz dla Puszczy (the ‘Protectors of the Forest Camp’), BirdLife proudly put its name behind the ‘Defend the Forest’ campaign launched by the citizens’ movement platform WeMove.EU at the end of August.
© Obóz dla Puszczy
The fate of Białowieża will continue to be deliberated by the ECJ into the end of September, or possibly longer. While the jury is still out – and for as long as Poland continues to defy the court’s injunction – BirdLife will continue to call for fines that reflect the scale of the environmental destruction and outweigh the potential profits of the illegal logging. The sentence should show, as the saying goes, that ‘crime doesn’t pay’. Meanwhile, the court of public opinion has already delivered a guilty verdict. The ‘Defend the Forest’ petition rapidly accumulated over 150,000 online signatories (and still counting…) and the high level of public interest has ensured a degree of international media coverage well above the norm for so-called ‘green’ news.
"the forest has become a metaphor for our times"
"Between the machinations of high politics and the intensity of direct action on the ground, it is unsurprising that the battle for Białowieża has stoked strong emotions all across the continent. The tragedy of Białowieża is not just the devastation of nature and it is not just the spine-chilling destruction of memory – it is an impenitent affront to democracy and the rule of law at a time when these values are coming increasingly under attack. And in so being, the forest has become a metaphor for our times: what started as a struggle to save the last, precious remnants of an evocative, living symbol of Europe’s shared past, has descended into a struggle to maintain hope for Europe’s shared future.
Gui Xi Young - Editor & Campaigns Officer, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia
Jarosław Krogulec - Head of Conservation, OTOP (BirdLife Poland)