Białowieża is one of Europe’s last primeval forests, with many rare species and hundred year-old trees. In 2017, the Polish Ministry of the Environment was criticized for allowing an increase in logging, protests and a court case in the European Court of Justice followed. In February, the court published an opinion which is good news for all opponents of logging.
The fight over logging rights
On 25 March 2016, Jan Szyszko, Poland’s former Minister of Environment adopted a decision allowing for a three-fold increase in logging operations in the Białowieża Forest district. At this time there was a bark beetle outbreak in the forests and it was argued that logging would help the fight against this outbreak. Bark beetles in the forest may kill thousands of trees, but many biologists are sure that the bark beetles are a completely natural phenomenon., Though they will kill a certain number of trees, cutting down more trees in addition to this could harm the forest far more.
In 2017, almost 190 000 cubic meters of wood was logged, which is four times the average annual harvest. Additionally, this was the first time that heavy-duty machinery had been used in this forest, threatening the forest’s natural ground and the habitat of many smaller species.
Both the increased logging and the use of heavy machinery was criticized by Greenpeace Poland and UNESCO, for example. Many demonstrations were held, in the forest as well as in major Polish cities. While the government did not change its opinion, and many of the protests were suppressed, both the protests and the logging were hotly debated in Poland and Europe.
Białowieża and the EU
Eventually, the European Commission decided to refer Poland to the ECJ in July 2017, requesting interim measures to stop the logging. However, the Polish government still argued for continuing the logging, as cutting down the forest would save it by reducing the impact of the bark beetles.
The ECJ ordered Poland to stop the logging immediately
The case was brought to court and although the final judgement has not yet been delivered, the court has ordered Poland to stop the logging immediately as of November 2017, even announcing a penalty of €100,000 per in case of any infringement upon this order. There has not been any logging in the forest since. The final judgement is expected soon and there are many reasons to believe it will be in accordance with this order. On the 20th of February the court published an opinion which states that the logging was unlawful. Although this has no legal impact, the judgements are quite often consistent with the opinions published. The Polish Minister of Environment has changed since then and the new minister Henryk Kowalczyk is taking a different approach towards the forest. Although he wants the logging to go on, he has announced that Poland will follow the ECJ’s decision.
Why is this important?
The Białowieża Forest is one of Europe’s last primeval forests, its ecosystem is still shaped by natural factors, almost as it was thousands of years ago. There are many old trees and many rare species, the European bison, for example, and these natural factors make it an invaluable hotspot of species and genetic diversity.
Industrial logging in Białowieża Forest is not a recent phenomenon. It started in 1915 and the 100 years of intensive wood cutting, as well as removing dying trees and other forms of combatting ‘pests’, led to major changes in the natural processes and impoverished the biodiversity of the forest. Nevertheless, the more the forest shrinks, the more important it becomes to protect the what remains.
Only 17% of the Polish part of the forest belongs to the protected Białowieża National Park
Only 17% of the Polish part of the forest belongs to the protected Białowieża National Park, the other 83 percent of the forest lies under the administration of State Forest (Lasy Państwowe) and its foresters. Their goal is also to protect the forests and the living species there, but their priority is not the preservation of the forest’s inherent value, but its long-term production capabilities, both of wood and of other goods. This is why the foresters responded to the bark beetle outbreak with logging; the foresters reasoned that a lot of wood would remain unused, and that the forest wouldn’t reach its full economic potential. In their logic, cutting the trees down and planting new ones is the best solution to the outbreak. However, if the priority is not productivity, but the forest’s inherent natural value, logging can never be a solution. This is why many people demand that the whole forest should be a protected national park.
Shortly after the announcement of the opinion on logging issued by the European Court of Justice Political Critique interviewed Krzysztof Cibor of Greenpeace Poland.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) published an opinion about the Białowieża Forest in February. What does it say?
Generally speaking, the ECJ’s General Advocate’s Opinion confirms what we have said for two years now – the decisions taken by Mr. Szyszko (Former Minister of Environment) were unlawful, they are not based on scientific evidence and were destructive for the forest’s wild nature. This was not a judgement, but the ECJ’s final sentences are often in line with their published opinions.
What reaction do you expect from the institutions involved in logging Białowieża forest?
Henryk Kowalczyk, the current Minister of Environment, has said that Poland will follow the decision of the ECJ. However, at the same time, he praises his predecessor and claims that all of the logging activity last year was carried out to protect the forest. We expect the minister to decide whether he will follow in Szyszko’s footsteps or begin to actually protect the Białowieża Forest from destruction.
Do you think it will change the forest’s future?
It is hard to say. Both Greenpeace and the hundreds of thousands of people involved in the protection of the Białowieża Forest will continue to hold the government accountable for their actions.
What exactly is happening right now in the forest? Are the machines still working and cutting down trees?
No. The heavy machinery was withdrawn from the forest as a consequence of ECJ decision issued in November 2017.
What does this mean for your future activism in the forest?
Our activists are still in the forest. We are providing patrols, and observing to ensure that the logging really has been stopped.