As Polish authorities disregard national protests and international pressure to stop logging, activists face increasing hostility in order to protect Białowieża, Europe’s last primeval forest. Activists estimate that 600-900 trees are felled daily.
When the authorities recently tripled the logging allowed in Białowieża forest – despite the protests of scientists and citizens – international reaction was strong. Białowieża is protected under the UN’s World Heritage Convention, and noting reports of clearcutting and culling bison with ‘utmost concern,’ UNESCO asked Poland to maintain the integrity of protected old-growth forest. It strongly urged Poland to put an immediate halt to all logging and wood extraction.
Białowieża is also a Natura 2000 site, home to more than 150 bird, animal and plant species protected under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. The European Commission initiated infringement proceedings in June 2016. Failing to obtain redress, it referred the matter to the European Court of Justice on 13 July 2017, asking for interim measures to halt the destruction while the issue works its way through the judicial process.
Despite these positive policy steps, there has been no change on the ground.
Indeed, Polish authorities’ response has been belligerent and dismissive of international authority.
Activists attempting to monitor logging activities report that the forest resembles a war zone: harvesters are accompanied by an “an army of forest guards and police – this is no exaggeration. It really is risky, and the guards have become increasingly aggressive.” Protesters’ license plates have been noted and their cars are followed by guards and police. Some 80 individuals have been sent letters by the State Forest Unit that owns the harvesters, holding them personally liable for losses due to blockades, which it places at 65,000 Polish Złoty (Euro 15,000).
Poland’s Minister of Environment Jan Szyszko issued a declaration in which he invokes wounded nationalism, objecting “to insults directed against Poland and the Poles” by external efforts to ensure respect for legal obligations. He dismisses the dispute in Białowieża as a difference of opinion concerning methods of conservation, and portrays Polish authorities merely as engaging in a more “active” form of protection.
His threats take the form of an invitation to those who would halt the logging – under the influence of “neoliberal organisations” spreading “false information” through a “press with leftist and liberal leanings” – to provide their personal information so that they can be held financially responsible when conservation methods are compared, noting that a 2016 inventory of protected species cost approximately Euro 1.2 million. Scientists, UNESCO representatives, European ministers of environment, and European Commission officials received letters with a similar message.
Beyond the destruction of future generations’ natural heritage, Poland’s antagonistic stance threatens the rule of law. Both chambers of Parliament recently approved a law that hands control of the nation’s Supreme Court to the Minister of Justice by allowing him to dismiss its judges at will.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council and former Polish Prime Minister, sounded the alarm about the ruling Law and Justice Party’s march toward authoritarianism. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President Lech Wałęsa condemned the move, urging a crowd in Gdańsk to “use all means to take back what we achieved for you.” Borys Budka, former Polish Minister of Justice, called the ‘reform’ the “biggest fraud in the history of the Polish Parliament.” President Duda has vetoed portions of this ‘reform’ but announced that he will approve the aspect that allows the Minister of Justice to dismiss heads of lower courts and influence their decisions.
The future is uncertain on many levels. The EU is weighing use of Article Seven, an unprecedented move that could lead Poland to lose its voting rights in the Council of Ministers. As for Białowieża, an annex to the management plan is being prepared that would allow still more logging, and given Polish authorities disdain for both national and external legal processes, the effect of any European Court of Justice ruling is uncertain. Chillingly, the extreme-right National Radical Camp has just launched a call for youth to patrol the forests searching for what they call ‘terrorists’ – the activists brave enough to uphold the law on the ground.