05 Oct 2017

Ancient forest on sale to pay for social policy

The Białowieża Forest is being hacked away tree by tree by a minister eager to deliver his quota to a national budget strained by social benefits that PiS promised to get elected. With it goes a priceless relic of a Europe long developed away.

Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
Source: Gazeta Wyborcza
Ancient forest on sale to pay for social policy - NewsMavens
Trees. Crusier/Wikicommons

Why this story matters:

One of the perks of having been on the sidelines of Europe for the duration of the Soviet era is that Poland was able to avoid some of the pitfalls of capitalism.

While widespread devastation of natural habitats and wilderness areas was common in Western Europe, much of rural Poland was left intact.

So the highway system connecting one end of the country to the other is still patchy and under construction, but our rivers are largely unregulated, our forests are dense and home to animal species long unseen in other parts of Europe, and many places on our Baltic coastline are still undeveloped.

Enter Jan Szyszko, the nefarious environment minister and member of the ruling populist PiS party. In March 2016, Szyszko agreed to change the forest management plan for the protected Białowieża forest to allow for a 300% increase in logging.

Though environment protection organizations and the European Commission have tried to intervene, a huge scale logging operation launched there in May continues amid blockades and protests staged by an international community of activists.

Readers would do well to note that Białowieża is not just any forest. It is a UN World Heritage Site and one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. The Bialowieża Forest is home to 800 European bisons, Europe's heaviest land animals and countless species of wildlife, including packs of wild wolves [Wiki]. That makes Białowieża not just a nice patch of protected wilderness, but a priceless relic of a Europe long developed away.

For those of you who have never gone wild mushroom picking on an early morning in fall, or seen traces of a den recently abandoned by a mother wolf and her cubs, or watched a herd of bisons lazily grazing in a forest clearing, Białowieża may be one of the last places in Europe where you can still have that experience.

That forest from Grimm's fairy tales? Sherwood? Very little remains of these legendary tree lands in the UK and on continental Europe, but one is still standing in Poland.

For now.

Białowieża is being hacked away tree by tree by a minister eager to deliver his quota to a national budget strained by social benefits that PiS promised to get elected (including a monthly handout for parents of two or more children called "500+").

A group of activists is upping its efforts to stop the operation, but it is being met by a brutal response. They are environmentalists, nature lovers, students and concerned citizens from Poland, France, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. As the weather turns, they have staged ever more daring feats to stop the harvesters, prompting increasingly violent reactions from the forest guard. And none from Jan Szyszko.

As the anti-environment minister continues to deny that his operation is illegal despite clear evidence that it is, it looks as if Białowieża’s fate is sealed. And that forests are one of those priceless valuables that powerful people in politics appreciate only long after they are gone.

Details from the story:

  • Last Friday, Environment Minister Jan Szyszko undermined the credibility of the documentation of logging in Poland's part of the Białowieża Forest provided by the European Commission to the Court of Justice. The ministry denies intensive, commercial logging.
  • The environment ministry maintains that the removal of any trees in the Białowieża Forest is aimed at improving public safety.
  • Wilderness activists began a blockade of the woodcutting area and harvester bay at dawn on Wednesday (4.10).
  • Nearly 50 activists from Poland, France, the Czech Republic and Slovakia participated in the blockades.
  • "We want to draw attention to the huge scale of destruction - this year they have already cut three times as many trees as they did in previous 12 month periods. About 40% of the trees cut are over 100 years old. In accordance with the order of the Court of Justice, these [trees] are protected," said Adam Bohdan of the Wild Poland Foundation.
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