Poland

Is the Primeval Forest Only Wood?

Plans to increase wood mining and to shoot the endangered bison population in the Polish Białowieża Forest is a textbook example of the failure of the state to protect nature.
Białowieża_ Forest_Poland

Public opinion was recently stirred up by the news that the new Polish Minister of the Environment, Jan Szyszko, a forester by trade, allowed a threefold increase in the volume of wood mining from the Białowieża Forest and plans to authorize the shooting of the endangered European bison. To achieve this, he removed the majority (32 out of 39) of experts from the Committee for Nature Protection who opposed his policies for multiple (eco)logical reasons. He then appointed the Dean of the Warsaw Agricultural University who likewise supports his unacceptable opinion.

Unchanging, simple, and effective methods of government; Szyszko’s predecessor, Maciej Grabowski, together with the then Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, did something possibly even worse. Under the pressure of the Unites States, he sacrificed about forty percent of Poland for explorations of fracking shale gas mining, which, if the fracking indeed commences, will spoil water in most of the country. Recently, the former Czech Minister Tomáš Chalupa (Civic Democratic Party) attempted the same thing, which only goes to show that the state system can be abused anywhere.

State in tow of the mining lobby

As far as the primeval forest is concerned, the Polish minister offers two ridiculous arguments: a bark beetle calamity and an alleged overpopulation of the European bison. If the minister cared to review any high school textbook on ecology, he would realize that he is wrong. The bark beetle is a natural occurrence in forests – it breeds during drought and the forest copes with it on its own as is evidenced throughout the history of the planet. Forests have never needed – and do not need – humans to look after them. An overpopulation of critically endangered species, especially endangered species worldwide, is sheer nonsense. The European bison has been all but annihilated in the wild and only miraculously saved by a few enthusiasts who returned several bison from private breeding into the wild. A story worthy of an Oscar movie.

In Poland, the mining lobby has managed to become part of the government.

It is worth noting that twice in history the death penalty has been instituted for poaching the European bison – the first time by Sigismund I the Old in 1538; the second time, surprisingly, during World War II by both the Nazis and the Russians. The minister must have been absent from history classes as well. But idiotic times roll on and we forget more and more that we cannot survive without the wild – meaning as varied as possible – nature.

The Polish bark beetle is – just like in the case of the Czech Šumava (Bohemian Forest) – only an excuse for uncontrolled wood mining. In Poland, the mining lobby has managed to become part of the government. The “overpopulated” European bison does not fare much better – just like the wood, it too will be monetized. Both the shale gas case and the attempts to mine the primeval forest show a lot more than the proverbial tip of the iceberg that uncovers the failure of the state system. The existing protection of nature as well as nation states’ individual legislation tends to be too fragile and poorly enforceable; often it is only an intent. State power is easily manipulated and corrupted (morally and financially), especially by corporations – hiding behind phrases about sustainable or economic development. An overwhelming majority of politicians and state officials/authorities defend the interests of corporations and, of course, their own wallets, thus overlooking laws and articles that could prevent them from doing that.

Endangered World Treasure

But the Białowieża Forest is not just another old forest. It is a world rarity; a treasure chest of biodiversity; one of the last remaining islands of primeval forest that existed prior to the beginning of agriculture all over Europe. It is not only a Polish but a world treasure that has stood thousands of years until today, and it is even under UNESCO protection. It is therefore incomprehensible that one country’s government, an economist who has just become a minister, should decide the forest’s fate.

According to Szyszko, the UNESCO protection is far too conservative. He probably does not realize that this is at the core of nature protection in most countries, if they practice nature protection at all. As a trained forester, he should be aware of this. Island ecology tells us that the larger the island, the more species there are. This should be the prime national interest of each country; not the GDP. It is nature that feeds us; we cannot eat money. Nature lives on diversity, we live on diversity and without it we die. Without the wild, we will die.

By expanding wood mining in the Białowieża Forest, Minister Szyszko is cutting a branch under all of us. Click to Tweet

Imagine that the Polish minister is indeed what he is supposed to be – an expert trained in the field, working in accordance with knowledge and legislation. If that was the case, he should leave the forest be; or attempt to expand it. The same goes for the European bison, but also for the existence of wolves that will keep the bison population within control. An expansion of the forest would then saturate the increase in the numbers of European bison.

Is it even possible to convert a primeval forest or nature into money? The value of a primeval forest – and life more generally – is indispensable. When something has evolved for tens of thousands of years, it is not within human power to carry out something similar – in other words to pay for it. Try paying for the “production” of the rain forest on a single square meter. Of course this is impossible. It points to the fact that a system based primarily on money, if applied en masse, becomes a new totality of evil that goes against humanity, people, and especially nature – any division between humans and nature is senseless. By expanding wood mining in the Białowieża Forest, Minister Szyszko is cutting a branch under all of us.

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The author is an environmentalist and leader of the nationwide campaign Koalice STOP HF.

This text originally appeared in A2 13/2016.

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