[Update] On Friday July 28 the European Court of Justice ordered that the logging of Białowieża Forest must stop immediately.
The interim decision comes after the European Commission sued the government of Poland on July 13 for proceeding with the logging despite previous warnings, as well as statements from UNESCO and other environmental lobby groups to stop the logging. The case is still in progress, and if Poland loses, it may face severe penalties.
In March 2016 the Polish government, however, decided to triple the quota for logging in the forest, including areas not planted within the frameworks of forest management – meaning that trees more than a hundred years old are being cut down every day. The government refers to a bark beetle outbreak as an excuse for the logging, but environmentalists claim the reason is much more prosaic: state corporations and local foresters are turning a fat profit from selling the logged wood.
In May 2017, activists set up a permanent camp in the village of Białowieża, to protest the logging through direct action and engagement with the local community. Political Critique interviewed two of them about life in the camp and the possibilities of resistance.
You’ve been living in a camp in the Białowieża Forest for some time. How long has it been, exactly?
Jakub Rok: I came there at the end of May, during the first blockade – and the official opening of the camp followed a few days after. So, with minor breaks, I have been there ever since, all in all around 4 weeks.
Joanna Pawluśkiewicz: I’ve also been there since the beginning, and saw how the camp was being built, when people weren’t able to live there yet. I’ve also had some breaks, but the longest I’ve stayed there was a whole month.
How has the camp evolved since you set it up?
JP: When I first saw it, it was all covered in tall grass and there were only a few buildings here and there. Then, within two weeks, it was already well prepared for taking people in – and now it’s very well organised. I think everybody did a great job: it’s not only environmentally friendly and in harmony with the local residents, but it is also well equipped with facilities. It’s all set up and functioning well. I consider it a huge success.
At the beginning the camp was just a plot of land. Now it’s a real activist camp with a lot of energy.
JR: It’s also great to see how it’s becoming more and more settled. At the beginning it was just a raw space, which was later filled with the ideas and creativity of the people who passed through. It grows and grows. At the beginning it was just a plot of land with some sheds and barns. Now it’s a real activist camp with a lot of energy. It’s great to see this.
JP: The people who come bring their ideas to the camp. Since it’s run by the whole group together, people can express their creativity and do things independently. I haven’t been there for 3 days, and I must say, I really miss it: not only the work and the atmosphere – it really has something special. I’ve seen it before how an idea can connect so many people, and of course there are some problems from time to time, but to see how everyone brings their ideas and respects the rules of the camp is very special.
I come from Hungary, where the democratic culture is similarly developing – and I can really relate that whenever I took part in similar events, it can be of such educational value for the participants themselves, to have an “experience” of democracy, too.
Self-organisation, DIY, and direct democracy were the founding principles of the camp.
JR: This was one of the founding ideas of the camp, that it should be organised bottom-up, according to the principles of self-organisation, DIY, and direct democracy. It’s interesting to see how these develop over time and how the democratic institutions in the camp are becoming more and more established. For instance, every day we have a meeting for the whole collective where we discuss all the important issues of the day and the plans for the next day – it’s interesting to see how people are entering this way of decision-making. For some of them it’s new, others have more experience in this, but everyone is included, and hopefully everyone can find their place.
How many people are at the camp now and what kind of people join?
JP: It depends on the day (more people come during the weekend), but I’d say approximately 40 at any given time, on average. The camp is very open, which can be difficult at times, as we cannot easily accommodate children or pets. But the camp is very diverse: we have not only the experienced activists who are ready to chain themselves to the harvesters, but also short-time visitors who just come for a short time to bring food or supplies, biology teachers from 400 hundred kilometres away, professional activists from the Czech Republic, students from different cities, and entire families. Some of them know less about the forest, others know more.
JR: As Joanna said, the fact that there are so many less experienced activists here is really changing the atmosphere of the camp, which is very important. This is a protest camp, and it could easily be overwhelmed by an atmosphere of seeing ourselves as warriors and “fighting like men”, and so on. And the fact that the majority of those taking responsibility and coordinating projects at the camp are women, I think, is also the reason why it’s easier not to adapt a very gender-specific way of creating tension and thinking through the macho perspectives of muscles and power or wanting to be like the Warsaw Uprising.
The necessity to protect “nature” or “primeval forests” is pretty abstract for a lot of people. What makes this particular forest (which, according to your material is only 0,7% of Polish forests) so important?
It’s hard to find a common ground, because the difference is rooted in fundamentally different principles and values.
JR: This is a long story, but one thing I’d like to highlight, is that I see an ontological divide between two groups who are in struggle over the forest’s future and how it should be managed. One perspective is rooted in an exploitative view of managing environmental resources to be used by people. This is, typically, the approach of the foresters. According to the second perspective, what is taking place in the forest are all natural processes, which are valuable in themselves, and are worth protecting because this forest is one of the last spots where human intervention has not yet been strong enough to interfere with these natural processes. According to this approach, the forest does not have to be useful for humans in order to have value: it is valuable in itself. This is why it is so hard to find a common ground between the two perspectives, because the basic difference in understanding is rooted in fundamentally different principles and values.
As to why this particular forest is so unique, there are a couple of basic facts worth repeating. It is the only remaining natural forest in the European Lowlands. Personally, I find it very important and even majestic that there is a place here in Europe which was not created by and for humans and which has its own organising forces.
It’s like killing a huge organism, like the Great Barrier Reef, or Mount Everest.
JP: I have seen many forests in my life, but this one is completely different. This forest was organically created by itself, and it has been here for thousands of years. It used to be huge but now it’s tiny and if we kill it there will be no connection between us and “nature as it is” in Europe anymore. People often get very emotional about this forest, or even feel about it spiritually, because it’s so different from other forests. You can see it easily: it has very different colours, different plants. I find it unbelievable that someone doesn’t recognise this – this conflict sometimes seems plainly absurd. It’s like killing a huge organism, and it is invaluable, just like the Great Barrier Reef, or Mount Everest.
JR: Another important issue that motivates me, is that there are certain points of no return: if we cut down the forest which wasn’t planted by humans, it cannot be reversed – even if we plant new seedlings. And this is what’s happening there: there are many natural parts of the forest which are being razed in order to plant new trees. But these processes cannot be reversed.
JP: I find it unbelievable. It’s like destroying one of the most valuable things we have here in Poland. Therefore, I don’t think it’s an economic struggle: it’s an ideological one.
JR: Exactly. There is a lot of ideology at the basis of this – but on the other hand, financial and economic interests also play a significant role. The government earns real money for what they are doing there. For many people involved in the logging, it is not only their source of income but also of power. It is also very much connected with the power relations in the local communities; and this is also why the exploitative logic of the foresters’ narrative is so prevalent among them. They are the privileged ones in these communities and have a lot of influence, therefore it is easy for them to spread their own narrative of the forest.
Was it always so clear to you that you had to be there and resist the logging?
JP: I went to Białowieża for the first time exactly a year ago and as soon as I learnt about the situation I knew immediately that I had to do something about it. I felt like it was the most important issue happening at that time. I dropped everything in Warsaw and moved there – and I think it was a very good decision.
JR: For me it started already before the elections. When I realised that Law and Justice (PiS) would win, and I was most worried about how the environment would be treated – including the Białowieża forest. You could already see before the elections that they would change how the forest was being managed. I watched how one after another they passed laws which shouldn’t have been passed, and how other forms of protest – such as demonstrations in Warsaw or lobbying – proved ineffective. It became clear that direct action and actual presence at the forest was what was needed.
But the logging didn’t start this year, right? It’s been happening for at least a couple of years by now.
The struggle to protect the forest started 23-24 years ago.
JP: Even longer. In our contemporary era, this struggle to protect the forest started 23-24 years ago – the history of logging in Białowieża and protecting it has a much longer history. Now all the red lines have been crossed and the situation is much worse.
And what’s exactly the difference?
JR: It’s the first time that harvesters are being used to cut the trees. The quantity they’re cutting is less than twenty years ago, but it is a radical change of direction anyhow: as Joanna said, the modern campaign for the forest’s protection started in 1994. Those were admittedly small steps, but in a good direction: it was expected that in a few years the forest would have been turned into a national park. But then the new minister completely overturned the previous plans and now they are cutting more than three years ago – and, at the same time, much more than they planned themselves. And crucially, they are also logging parts of the forest which are over 100 years old – which in the case of Białowieża means that they were not planted as part of modern foresters’ work. Modern foresting in Białowieża began during World War I, so if a part of the forest is older than 100 years, it means that it is still predominantly natural.
JP: And listening to all the “patriotism” from the government these days, I really can’t understand how they can at the same time destroy this forest which has absolutely unique value for Poland. I would’ve expected that PiS, being a nationalistic party, would be more keen to protect it.
It’s a symbolic conflict, and the forest is a symbol for both sides.
JR: It’s a symbolic conflict, and the forest is a symbol for both sides. I don’t particularly like dichotomous explanations, but in this case it can be a useful generalisation: one side is represented by the foresters and their exploitative logic, and the other side by those who prefer to protect forests and the so-called natural values. From the financial point of view, for State Forests (a governmental corporation) it wouldn’t be a big financial loss if they would have to let this go and make Białowieża into a national park. But it would be a very high, symbolic loss as it would mean that the environmentalists and the social movement was right. I think this is the reason why they are so stubborn, and they’re using the bug beetle infestation as an excuse for intensified logging. Perhaps they feel that in a few years the forest might become a national park, so they have to cut as fast as possible; or they do it in order to be able to say – in a couple of years – that the intervention has been so great that it is impossible to turn it into a national park anymore.
How does the logging of Białowieża fit into the wider context of PiS’s power grab?
JP: The whole situation became strongly connected to the political events of the past weeks, the Supreme Court and all that. A couple of days ago the Ministry of Environment officially stated that organisations and individuals who participate in the protest in Białowieża will be treated as a so-called “total opposition.” In other words, this is not an ecological conflict anymore, but a political one and the protesters will be seen as political opposition. I got involved in this protest from the environmental side and not the political one, but now it is all becoming very politicised. I think they want to scare us.
PiS is derailing the debate from environmental issues to their favourite narrative: them being true patriotic Poles against the EU.
JR: This is part of their strategy. They’re trying to change the scope of the debate to derail it from environmental issues to their favourite narrative: them being true patriotic Poles against the EU and the traitors; this narrative also conveniently overlaps with PiS versus PO [the previous governing party], and so on. I think this conflict transcends all traditional divides in Polish politics. This is why I also don’t want to focus on the Ministry of Environment or the government, because I think it’s already been 24 years of campaigning and none of the governments have done what they should’ve done. Several ministers have followed one other, but none of them decided to turn the entire Białowieża forest into a national park.
JP: If you want to treat this issue politically, you certainly can. Our camp is a no-logo camp and we are trying to distance ourselves from party political conflicts.
JR: The conflict is definitely political, but not party political: in Polish you would say it is polityczne but not partyjne. It’s very much about the vision of what our central values should be and how they should be handled. But I wouldn’t want it to get involved in party politics, and I’m a bit afraid that it will be co-opted by oppositional politicians to use for their purposes against the Ministry and the government.
Most coverage of the protests in Białowieża is concerned with activists physically preventing the harvesters from cutting the trees, as I suppose it is the easiest to report on. What other possibilities do you have to protest at the camp?
JP: We have several projects at the camp, all of which are important for the protest, especially for educational reasons for the local communities. For example, every weekend or so there’s a biologist who organises walks in the forest to teach anyone interested about the forest’s particular trees, plants, and biodiversity. There are regular meetings with experts and specialists. It’s very important that our camp is in the middle of the village, where we try to cooperate with the locals and not to invade their territory. This is important in order to act against the stereotype of “ecoterrorists,” who just chain themselves to the trees and don’t do anything else. We are working on creating a dialogue and now more and more locals are concerned about the forest and are not afraid to speak out about it.
JR: During the campaign the last 24 years, you could often see that there were no dialogues, only monologues over the head of the local community. It was easy to create the mystifying image of “the environmentalist” and make a demon out of them. They were rarely present and when they were they kept their distance from the locals. Now we are trying to deconstruct this distance and connect not only in the camp and in the village, but also at the protests. Similarly, with the forest guards and foresters it is the first opportunity both for them and for us to talk directly with one another and to try to find a common ground. The most important thing is to demystify what we do: there are so many clichés about who environmentalists are and what they do, and they’re all negative. We are trying to bring this image closer to reality.
The second important thing we do at the camp and at the forest is patrolling and monitoring. The protest is at the moment the most visible – but behind the protest, a lot of effort is being put into gathering data. Where is the logging taking place? How exactly is it being done? This data is then also used as evidence in media about the current state of the logging and also in lawsuits against the government. When the European Commission or UNESCO are interested in what is going on in the forest, they need reliable information and our work is an important source for it.
You mentioned that you would like to be even more connected with the local community, but you also referred to the rigid top-down power structures. What are you able to do in these circumstances?
It sounds cynical, but often people need economic incentives to realise what’s right in front of them.
JP: The community is, of course, very affected by what’s happening in the forest. For example, in May entrance to the forest was banned. This is a very popular time for people to visit, there is a long weekend in Poland and the forest itself is very beautiful and full of life. Therefore, the restaurants, hotels, and private houses who support themselves from tourism lost a lot of money and even more later when people did not realise the ban was over and didn’t come for several weeks after. It sounds cynical, but often people need economic incentives to realise what’s right in front of them – so the people involved in tourism started to connect with each other. By now even the expensive hotels and restaurants have joined the cooperation. I think this is a really good direction and there is a lot of possibility for later cooperation between the entrepreneurs and the camp.
JR: This informal group is called Locals Against Logging and they were established even before the ban began, but the ban gave them a stronger incentive to grow. Many of them are employed in tourism, which is now the main income alternative to logging; but many are just moved by what is happening in the forest.
But when we talk about the top-down power structures which affect how local people think, it is true that the majority still think about the forest within the exploitative management-logic and are prejudiced against the environmentalists – which is why it is difficult to invite everyone to a discussion. We still have to overcome a lot of barriers; and it’s also easier for us to communicate with those locals who depend on tourism, we are “natural” allies because they are also worried about the devastation of the forest. Now we are planning to have an open meeting on “neutral ground” somewhere in the village, the cultural centre for example, to invite the locals and present our arguments, as many people don’t know what we want and what’s behind the idea of a national park.
Greenpeace also had a camp at the forest during the blockade. How are your aims or methods different?
JR: Yes, during the first months of the blockade there were two centres of protests: one was our camp, without any organisational affiliation and open to everyone, and then the camp by Greenpeace – but theirs was only for their specially trained volunteers. So theirs had a somewhat different formula, but our aims were the same. They have a limited number of volunteers and could not stay very long, so they left a couple of weeks ago. We still cooperate with them, but currently our camp is the only base for protest.
Beyond stopping the logging now, what do you want the future of Białowieża to be like?
JP: I think there is only one option: the whole forest should become a national park, as soon as possible.
JR: There is already a comprehensive proposal, made by a group of representatives of academia and the local communities in 2006, with the support of Lech Kaczynski, the President of Poland at the time. It is a very good proposal, because although it would protect the whole forest as a national park it is well balanced with the needs of the local community. There are a couple of things in it which are worth mentioning. Many parts of the forest would be open for hiking, berry- and mushroom-picking, and small amounts of logging to the extent which is necessary to support the local needs. This amount is well calculated – and actually, now the amount of extraction is way higher than the necessary, but the communities are still not receiving enough, because the foresters prefer to sell it for higher prices to someone else. It is very important to take the needs of the villages into consideration and not to “protect” the forest only. If it would become a big national park, and if the funds for tourism infrastructure would be accepted and not rejected as they are now, it would also attract more people. Not only to Białowieża which is in the middle of the forest, but also to other neighbouring municipalities. This would mean a great developmental push – but in a more sustainable direction than it is currently done.
Even if we don’t reach our goal, the new social movement will change the dominant mind-set about environmental issues.
It is also great to see how a social movement is being formed right here before our eyes. I hope we can reach our goal soon, but even if we don’t, the potential, which is created here by all the new connections established at the camp, will be used in other fields. Apart from the forest, there are plenty of environmental issues in Poland now and by starting to change the dominant mind-set about them, a social movement can really push it into the mainstream – and I would consider that a real success of our action, as well.