7th Jul 2022

From Polish kings to EU: Who'll protect Białowieża forest?

  • Poland sees the wall as fundamental to stopping migrants (Photo: Jędrzej Nowicki)
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The Białowieża Forest in north-east Poland is today one of the best preserved forest ecosystems in Europe because of centuries of protection.

It is the home of the largest free-roaming population of European bison, as well as many other protected species, who thrive among the hundreds-year old trees.

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  • Pristine landscape has turned into a building site (Photo: Jędrzej Nowicki)

But recently this pristine landscape has turned into a building site and militarised zone where even basic laws no longer apply.

On Thursday (21 April), members of the European Parliament committee on environment will discuss the implications of an anti-migrant wall that Poland is currently constructing on its border with Belarus.

The 186-kilometre long barrier will partly cut through Białowieża, which is recognised as a natural world heritage site by Unesco and protected by the EU's 'Natura 2000' programme.

The application of environmental and labour laws has been waived to facilitate construction of the wall.

No impact assessment of the consequences of the wall was conducted before building started, even though the EU habitats directive dictates that projects which are potentially harmful to the areas may, in principle, only be authorised "where no reasonable scientific doubt remains as to the absence" of adverse impacts.

The Polish government sees the wall as fundamental in stopping the influx of migrants, who are being sent to Poland by Belarus in retaliation for EU sanctions.

"Let's be serious, a government has to be serious. Animals are of course important, but the most important are people", said Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, while visiting a construction site in Kuźnica, a town in the region, earlier in February this year.

Those who are not happy with this explanation are now turning to the EU, hoping that Brussels can save the forest, just like it did in 2016, when the environment minister at the time approved a large increase in logging.

The European Court of Justice ultimately found that decision to have been in violation of EU environmental laws and sentenced Poland to pay huge fines until it stopped the logging.

In February, Greenpeace and the NGO coalition 'I love Puszcza' lodged a complaint with the European Commission against the wall.

In January, an open letter signed by 1,600 scientists — from Poland and abroad — was also sent to top EU official Ursula von der Leyen, Frans Timmermans, and Virginijus Sinkevičius.

An appeal by 150 NGOs and a petition signed by the local community opposing the wall was also forwarded to Brussels.

One of those who signed the scientists' letter is Michał Żmihorski, head of the Mammal Research Institute, an independent scientific research unit of the Polish Academy of Sciences, which is based in Białowieża.

"After that, the Polish minister of environment said we are realising a scenario written by the Belarusian regime," he told EUobserver, adding that he was used to such arguments.

"It was similar when we were protesting against the logging," he said.

Żmihorski says government officials asked the institute about ways to minimise the impact of the wall on animals. But those same officials wouldn't answer questions about the wall, making it difficult to provide advice.

"People are coming to us and they are asking if we can prove that the wall will have adverse effects. But why should I have to prove anything? It wasn't me who suggested building a wall," the scientist said.

"It takes a lot of money and time to monitor the construction and we are not even allowed to be close to the wall. I would rather expect from my government that they are interested in these effects and initiate long-term monitoring to see what's going on with the wall," he added.

Adam Wajrak, a journalist and environmentalist living close to Białowieża, has also been involved in several campaigns to protect the forest.

He told EUobserver Białowieża had never been in such a good shape as it was now, something he attributed to Polish environmentalists and their ability to influence the EU.

"I feel lucky because I am part of this. A lot of people died without seeing the forest in such a good state," he said.

The uniqueness of the forest was also due to the interventions of Polish kings, who told locals in times gone by that "their heads would be cut off if they kept hunting for bison", Wajrak said.

"The king had a holistic view of the situation, compared to the locals," Wajrak noted, adding: "The EU is such a modern king."

As for the wall — he shook his head.

"It makes no sense. I have lived in a time [during the Cold War] where there were walls around Europe, and people were always finding ways to cross. We will always have refugees here, or at least as long as there are wars in the world. With a wall or without a wall, they will be passing through," he said.

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