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Guest Blog: Visible changes in Poland – but what about where change is less visible?

by Kasia Androsiuk and Nicole Gerard

Polish ecologists are greeting recent improvements in Poland’s political posture toward the European Union and to Białowieża forest with hope – and a measure of scepticism as to how deep Poland’s new willingness to oblige runs.

In the on-going dispute over Poland’s logging of a World Heritage-protected forest (FW 227) and alleged violations of the EU’s Habitats and Birds directives, the Commission’s request for interim protection had been met with contempt by Polish authorities. On 20 November 2017, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on interim measures, giving Poland two weeks to halt logging or begin paying daily fines of EUR 100,000.  

Large-scale logging was duly put on hold, and activists confirmed in December that heavy logging machinery was withdrawn from the forest, “at least for now.”

A new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, took over from Beata Szydło on 7 December 2017. Poland was facing possible sanctions over reforms that diminish judicial independence and undermine the rule of law. The right-wing Law and Justice party also replaced some of its more antagonistic cabinet members, although the justice minister who designed the changes to the judicial system remains in place.

Among those dismissed, Poland’s Environment Minister Jan Szyszko – known for such provocations as requesting the financial information of scientists and politicians who opposed logging, and for demanding that the EU Commission lodge an approximately EUR 757,000,000 security deposit pending the outcome of the Białowieża case – was replaced on 9 January 2018 by someone less hostile. The new environment minister, Henryk Kowalczyk, has said that the interim ban on logging will be respected until the ECJ decides on the main infringement.

The change in attitude is welcome. Indeed, on 10 January, a day after the announcement of Szyszko’s departure – the same court in Hajnówka that, in December, had found activists blocking logging machinery guilty (but refused to punish them), acquitted a new group of activists that had taken part in the same protest. This time, a judge not only found that the activists had acted in a “state of need” to prevent danger to the forest and to protect the public good, but also gave a very complete reasoning, exploring the relevant international obligations in force and noting that current Polish rules do not guarantee sufficient public participation in forest management or allow the public to challenge forest management plans.

Despite such advances, causes for unease remain.

The loophole allowing tree removal for reasons of ‘public safety’ still exists, and the new environment minister maintains that, in the case before the ECJ, Poland can demonstrate that public safety was the only motivation for the large-scale removal of trees – a variation on Poland’s previous theme that logging was merely a sanitary response to a bark beetle infestation and in the interest of public safety. (Notably, Poland is also accused of selling the trees.)

Next, despite the replacement of certain ministers, the previous defiance seems to continue at levels that are less visible to those outside Poland. Concerns include that:

  • The replacement of Poland’s “forest-killing” director of forests with Andrzej Konieczny – who is also a forester, economist and former head of the Białowieża Forest District, is superficial. Although for now Konieczny confirms that mass logging in Białowieża is halted, activists are not optimistic.
  • A regional director of environmental protection announced that she would permit logging in nature reserves and that roads would be opened to accommodate heavy machinery, backing down only in the face of a public outcry and an online petition.
  • As for Białowieża itself, Olimpia Pabian, the innovative and ecologically minded director of Bialowieza National Park, was removed from office in November 2017, and this remains the case. The lead candidate to replace her is apparently Grzegorz Bielecki, head of the Hajnówka Forest District (one of the three forest districts of Białowieża Forest). He is known for his fierce fights with ecologists over logging in old forest stands, and environmentalists have called his appointment “grotesque” and “dangerous, especially when taking into consideration [the] government’s idea that nature is first of all money and source of energy.”
  • Finally, although one lawsuit against the activists in Hajnówka was favourably resolved, various other active criminal and civil suits in which Poland’s State Forests are filing for losses caused by blocking logging in Białowieża Forest.

The Advocate General will render his opinion on the main case on 20 February and the ECJ’s final decision will come soon thereafter. After months of going head-to-head with the EU, the new environment minister’s statement that Poland will respect the verdict is timely. Polish environmentalists “embrace victories with joy.” And remain vigilant.