From Polish kings to the EU: who will protect the Białowieża Forest?
The Białowieża Forest in northeastern Poland is now one of the best preserved forest ecosystems in Europe thanks to centuries of protection.
It is home to the largest free-ranging population of European bison, as well as many other protected species, which thrive among the centuries-old trees.
But recently, this pristine landscape has turned into a construction site and a militarized zone where even basic laws no longer apply.
On Thursday 21 April, members of the European Parliament’s environment committee will discuss the implications of an anti-migrant wall that Poland is building on its border with Belarus.
The 186-kilometer-long barrier will partly cross Białowieża, which is recognized as a natural World Heritage Site by Unesco and protected by the EU’s “Natura 2000” program.
Environmental and labor law enforcement was lifted to facilitate the construction of the wall.
No impact study on the consequences of the wall was carried out before the start of construction, even if the European habitats directive stipulates that projects potentially damaging to the areas can, in principle, only be authorized “when no reasonable scientific doubt remains as to the absence of “adverse impacts.
The Polish government sees the wall as fundamental to stopping the influx of migrants, who are being sent to Poland by Belarus in retaliation for EU sanctions.
“Let’s be serious, a government must be serious. Animals are of course important, but most important are people,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said during a visit to a construction site in Kuźnica, a town in the region, earlier this month. from February. This year.
Those who are not satisfied with this explanation are now turning to the EU, hoping that Brussels can save the forest, just as it did in 2016, when the then environment minister approved a strong increased logging.
The European Court of Justice ultimately found the move to be in breach of EU environmental laws and ordered Poland to pay huge fines until it stopped 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 senior EU officials Ursula von der Leyen, Frans Timmermans and Virginijus Sinkevičius.
An appeal from 150 NGOs and a petition signed by the local community opposed to the wall were also sent to Brussels.
One of those who signed the scientists’ letter is Michał Żmihorski, director of the Mammalian Research Institute, an independent scientific research unit of the Polish Academy of Sciences, based in Białowieża.
“After that, the Polish environment minister said that we were carrying out a scenario written by the Belarusian regime,” he told EUobserver, adding that he was used to such arguments.
“It was the same when we were protesting against logging,” he said.
Żmihorski says government officials have asked the institute about ways to minimize the wall’s impact on animals. But those same officials wouldn’t answer questions on the wall, making it difficult to give advice.
“People come to us and they ask if we can prove that the wall will have harmful effects. But why should I prove anything? It was not me who proposed to build a wall,” said the scientist.
“It takes a lot of money and time to monitor the construction and we are not even allowed to be near the wall. I would rather expect my government to take an interest in these effects and initiate monitoring long term to see what happens with the wall,” he added.
Adam Wajrak, a journalist and environmentalist living near Białowieża, has also been involved in several forest protection campaigns.
He told EUobserver that Białowieża had never been in better shape than it is now, which he attributed to Polish environmentalists and their ability to influence the EU.
“I feel lucky because I’m part of that. A lot of people have died without seeing the forest in such good condition,” he said.
The uniqueness of the forest was also due to the interventions of Polish kings, who once told locals that “their heads would be cut off if they continued to hunt buffalo,” Wajrak said.
“The king had a holistic view of the situation, in relation 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 lived in a time [during the Cold War] where there were walls around Europe, and people always found ways to get through. We will always have refugees here, or at least as long as there are wars in the world. With or without a wall, they will pass,” he said.