In May 2017, logging began in Poland’s priceless Białowieża Forest. In June 2023, a Forest Movement Europe (FME) meeting in Poland co-organised by Pracownia (Workshop for All Beings) and Fern allowed us to share progress made since then. European NGOs and inspiring Polish activists met in Białowieża forest, where a few years ago ‘Camp for the Forest’ activists – myself among them – began the fight to stop Europe’s last treasure from falling to greedy machines deployed by the State. European Union legislation provided the linchpin for our dispute.
Key role of EU laws in protecting Białowieża Forest
Białowieża forest, shared by Belarus and Poland, gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2014, but only a portion was safeguarded as a national park.
In 2017, logging in Białowieża began as the Polish State Forests launched a battle against bark beetles, felling through old-growth stands – and dramatically increasing commercial logging (FW 227).
Pracownia and other Polish NGOs complained to the European Commission, which began enforcement proceedings for infringements of the Birds and Habitats Directives.
Meanwhile activists formed a camp to halt logging in the ancient forest. Forest guards and the police broke up civil society sit-ins.
In July 2017, the Commission urged a logging ban in Poland, and the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) issued an injunction ordering the Polish government to cease logging – or face daily fines. Polish authorities reacted coolly, shifting the justification for felling from pest prevention to ‘security reasons’ in an attempt to circumvent the EU rules.
Both logging and activist blockades continued.
In April 2018, the CJEU ruled (C-441/17) that these logging activities violated EU environmental laws. Unfortunately, an estimated 675 hectares of forest had already been logged, including more than 229 hectares of centuries-old stands.
What lessons does Białowieża offer?
- Legal tools played a pivotal role
Pracownia and other Polish NGOs not only filed a complaint to the European Commission, which escalated the matter to the EU Court of Justice, but also finally pursued legal action against State Forests. Using these tools, civil society nonetheless had to fight until the CJEU’s other breakthrough decision in March 2023 to have the right to a say in forest management plans (FW 283). (This decision has still not been implemented in Poland.)
- The civil society movement and media coverage served as a wakeup call for Poland
The Białowieża case received extensive international media coverage, generating nationwide civil society actions. Public opinion surged regarding the importance of preserving primeval forests.
As the Commission had neither eyes on the ground nor an enforcement body, activists had to monitor the forest themselves. When the 2017 CJEU injunction was issued, an activist filmed a logger while informing him that Poland would be fined EUR100,000 per day should he pursue his activities. After one phone call, the forester left.
The data collected through activist monitoring provided crucial evidence in the lawsuit.
What lies ahead?
No logging has occurred in the Białowieża forest since then; the Camp for the Forest has entered a hibernation state. But NGOs and environmentalists cannot afford to rest in our constant tug-of-war with Polish authorities: they constantly come up with new ideas to extract wood and reduce forest protection levels.
Currently authorities are devising a plan to alter the protection status and double the area in which wood extraction is allowed within the UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as to reduce the Natura 2000 site’s size by excluding the military area. They push and we push back, even if it seems absurd.
In coming years, Pracownia’s priorities will be to challenge and amend the Polish Forest Act to ensure its compliance with the EU biodiversity legislation. We want 20 per cent of forests in Poland, including places such as Białowieża, to be strictly protected, while advocating the implementation of close-to-nature forestry model in other Polish forests. Diverse forests are more resilient to droughts and help contain the spread of pests. In Białowieża, dead stands of infected spruces left untouched in the forest remain standing, not decomposed, serving as habitats for various species while allowing new generations of trees to grow. The forest may look different but, as history has repeatedly shown us, it can survive without human intervention.
EU environmental legislation – Habitats and Birds Directives and the Natura 2000 network protecting natural habitats and rare species, the recently revised Renewable Energy Directive prohibiting woody biomass extraction for energy from old-growth forests, the Nature Restoration Law currently under discussion – provide essential tools for national NGOs and civil society to counter their countries’ environmental misconduct.
Wood is essential in our daily lives. But it’s time to be smarter about it. We waste valuable wood by burning it for energy or using it for short-lived products such as, paper, cardboard packaging, and low-quality furniture. We must reduce harvesting and minimise wasteful wood usage.
Augustyn Mikos is a forest campaigner for Pracownia (Workshop for All Beings) and former activist of the Camp for the Forest.
For more information, see Fern’s 2019 Forests in Danger report, which outlines threats confronting EU forests, including Poland’s Białowieża Forest.