Is Belavezha Forest under threat from Poland?
Poland continues the mass logging of Belovezhskaya Pushcha (Belavezha Forest), one of the last reserves of primeval forest in Europe and a UNESCO heritage site. Despite a call from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to protect the forest, on 1 August Polish authorities stated they would continue to allow the cutting down of trees.
Belavezha Forest, the majority of which is situated in Belarus, has become a popular tourist destination in recent years. Despite this, in March 2016 Polish authorities granted logging firms the right to clear trees supposedly damaged by a bark beetle infestation.
In response, environmentalists initiated a protection campaign that continues to gain momentum on the Polish side of Belavezha Forest. Meanwhile, the Belarusian side remains ostensibly untouched. However, activists claim that Belarusian authorities have also allowed logging of the forest.
The Belarusian forest protection campaign has gone largely unnoticed—both at home and abroad. By contrast, the Polish Belavezha Forest campaign receives media attention, involves international stakeholders and pushes Polish authorities to take responsibility for logging projects.
What is going on in Belavezhskaya Pushcha?
At 140 hectares, Belavezhskaya Pushcha remains one of the largest ancient forests in Europe. The forest is famous for both its flora and fauna. In 1979 UNESCO included it on its World Heritage List. While the forest is situated on the territories of Poland and Belarus, the bulk of it sits within Belarus.
In March 2016, Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko approved a three stage logging programme in Poland’s forest territory. Later, Polish authorities also allowed the removal of trees damaged by bark beetles, insects that infest and destroy tree trunks. However, suspicions emerged that the Polish authorities might be allowing the cutting down of the forest for commercial rather than environmental reasons.
In May 2016, Polish environmental activists together with Greenpeace sent an open letter to the EU with a request to intervene and prevent further deforestation. A month after the activists’ appeal, the EU initiated an investigation into Poland’s deforestation of Belavezha Forest. UNESCO has also been following the situation closely on the Polish side of the forest.
In January 2017, both Poland and Belarus presented reports to UNESCO on Belavezha Forest. Polish authorities indicated an increasing number of bark beetle infested trees. At the same time, environmental activists argued that bark beetles are a natural part of the forest’s ecosystem and have minimal impact on the overall health of the forest.
Pending its final ruling, the ECJ has issued an interim decision in July 2017 ordering Polish authorities to halt all logging activities in the forest. The ECJ decision is in response to allegations that Poland is violating bloc wildlife protection laws and is endangering rare species of animals, birds, and plants.
Authorities in Poland have ignored the ECJ order. On 1 August 2017, minister Szyszko stated the logging would continue. If Poland loses the case in the ECJ final ruling, the country will have to pay a €4m fine and an additional €300,000 for each day of logging following the date of interim decision.
The case of Belavezhskaya Pushcha appears to be first time where Poland has so overtly violated EU law. “So far there is no case in which an interim measure of the court was not respected. If Polish authorities do not follow that decision, it will be a serious conflict with the EU law,” said a lawyer from ClientEarth, a non-profit environmental law agency, in an interview with the BBC.
The Fight for Belavezha Forest and Belarus’s Role
Immediately following the announcement of the logging programme, Polish civil society reacted with protests. Environmental activists formed human-chains and obstructed logging activities with their bodies. The largest demonstration was held on 24 May. Demonstration participants noted the logging must be commercial, rather than conservational, because scientists had been prevented from visiting Belavezha Forest to conduct tests, reports Green Belarus web site.
Despite the pressure, Polish activists continue to attract attention to the problem. US-based National Public Radio reports that activists had built a camp in the forest to keep up protest efforts and to track the progress of the logging. The activists claim that many of the trees logged have been healthy and untouched by bark beetles.
Greenpeace Poland Director Robert Cyglicki believes, “Claims by the Ministry of the Environment that only necessary logging is happening in compliance with the EU Court of Justice decision, is a lie. Our inspections clearly show that European law is being laughed at in one of Europe’s last remaining ancient forests. That’s why we’re asking the world to join our peaceful protesters who have come from all over Europe and stand against the destruction of our common heritage and demand its protection.”
All the media attention focused on the Polish side of Belavezha Forest might suggest the Belarusian side remains untouched and protected. However, the reality seems to be otherwise. In 2010, Belarusian environmentalists protested against violations of the preservation of Belavezha Forest by Belarusian authorities.
Activists have sent an open letter to the Council of Europe stating that Belarusian authorities have allowed the killing of bison in Belavezha Forest, reports Belavezhskaya Pushcha XXI vek, a webpage created to aid forest conservation efforts. Additionally, activists highlighted large-scale logging of the forest. A year earlier, environmentalists sent a letter to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka demanding the revision of logging policies in the forest. However, the letters have elicited no change in policy; Belarusian authorities have ignored the domestic campaign to protect Belavezha Forest.
By contrast, the scale of the campaign in Poland has forced the Polish government’s highest representatives to comment on logging in the forest. “We need to ensure that there is a healthy logging of trees, something that is planned. We only want to fell an area of 188,000 cubic metres. We want to protect priority habitats for the EU. We are trying to improve and correct the situation,” the Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko is cited saying in The Guardian.
Will Belavezha survive?
Belavezha Forest, which is included in Belarus’s visa-free territory, remains one of the reasons why tourists visit Belarus. In 2017 The Telegraph ranked Belavezha Forest 18th in the ranking of the best places to visit in Eastern Europe. However, Polish commercial interests, under the pretence of a bark beetle infestation, appear to be threatening one of Europe’s last ancient forests.
Environmentalists insist the Polish government is allowing the logging of Belavezha Forest for commercial reasons. Activists from inside and outside Poland continue to work together to protect the primeval forest. Although the Polish government states they will continue to allow logging, the combined influence of the EU and civil society makes it likely that Poland’s Belavezha Forest will continue to survive.
A government’s commercial ambitions often conflict with ideals of conservation and environmental protection. Such a conflict arose in Belarus when citizens raised their concerns about the construction of a new nuclear power plant. The construction of the plant in Belarus caused heated debates and safety concerns for Lithuania and the EU.
Belarusian citizens failed to instil much change in either the construction of the nuclear power plant or Belarusian official Belavezha Forest policies. Polish activists may have better chances of success influencing their government by having international stakeholders and the EU involved.
Is Belarus Willing to Help People with Disabilities?
On 15 June, Belarus ratified a National Plan for the protection of people with disabilities. The document is a big step for Belarus towards achieving a more compassionate society. Nevertheless, the conditions under which most people with disabilities in Belarus live remain difficult.
NGOs and initiatives created by disabled people themselves are having greater success in changing infrastructure. For instance, the first beach for people with disabilities in Belarus appeared thanks to the initiative of a single person, Alexandr Audzevich.
In contrast, the state’s approach is somewhat more ‘formal’: although it signals its intention to improve disability policy by signing international documents, it generally fails to actually implement the programmes, as it proved in 2011-2015.
The status of people with disabilities in Belarus
In 2015, Belarus became the last country in Europe to sign the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons, ratifying it in November 2016. The ratification guaranteed the creation of an additional monitoring body to oversee reforms associated with the rights of the disabled.
Officially, 556,000 people in Belarus receive a disability pension. This is about 6% of the total population. At the moment, the pension ranges from $12 to $112 per month, depending on the degree of disability. This amount is several times less than the average salary of Belarus as of May 2017.
On top of small pensions, the situation is complicated by the lack of appropriate infrastructure for people with limited mobility capabilities.
According to unofficial data, about 70% of wheelchair users never leave the house. Therefore, a barrier-free environment is becoming one of the central focuses of campaigns involved in protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.
The first step towards improving the conditions for disabled people in Belarus, announced in June of this year, has been the introduction of free assistance to those with severe disabilities and disabled children. The state will now provide persons with disabilities with necessary medicines and equipment.
However, despite certain positive changes, Belarus is already proving that it cannot follow through on its promises. For example, in 2011-2015, the Belarusian authorities pledged to make local environments more barrier-free. However, in reality, structures meant to make life easier for people with disabilities are not functioning as they should. It is not clear whether the signing of the National Plan will lead towards measurable improvement of the situation of disabled people in Belarus, or if it’s just another formality.
Civil society as an engine of change
Today, those most actively promoting implementation of the provisions of the Convention are not the state, but NGOs and individual activists. Thus, the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, which is actively engaged in advocacy of the rights of persons with disabilities, presented a detailed plan at the end of 2016 for reform of disability policy. The reforms have yet to take effect.
The state seems to have few intentions of protecting people with disabilities. Even the Head of the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, Siarhei Drazdouski, has encountered problems with the authorities. He and his wife were threatened with eviction from the dorm where they live. Thus, instead of providing social support, the authorities are putting Drazdouski at risk of ending up on the street, writes radio Svaboda.
In 2014 in Hrodna, a small group of people, both with and without disabilities, tested access to various city facilities for wheelchair users. During their investigation, they revealed many violations and were able to pressure certain public institutions into improving their accessibility. However, it is often up to activists to fix accessibility problems themselves.
Some Belarusian organisations receive international support because they lack the protection of the state. For example, USAID has financed the activities of BelAPDIiMI, an organisation advocating for the right of young people with disabilities.
One campaign in particular, which aimed to draw attention to the plight of people with disabilities, attracted a significant amount of attention both at home and abroad. Alexander Audzevich, a wheelchair user from Lida who initiated the campaign, began his activism in 2013, after a motorcycle accident in 2011 left him partially paralysed. This prompted Audzevich to begin advocating for disabled rights.
In 2016, he cycled around Europe in a handbike; his aim was to raise funds for the construction of a multi-purpose centre for wheelchair users in Lida. During his journey, Audzevich was able to raise awareness not only among the Belarusian media but also in the foreign press.
This year, Audzevich won the television show The City, which broadcasts interesting projects aimed at improving infrastructure. Due to his activism, the authorities built the first inclusive beach in Belarus, located in Lida.
Activists of the Republican Wheelchair Association have been independently arranging integration camps for people in wheelchairs for many years now. The state is not doing enough to rehabilitate these people or ensure they can participate in society. At the camps, people learn to serve themselves, to swim, to engage in other types of physical activity, and even the basics of sex life.
Is there any real improvement?
Many projects for the rehabilitation, integration, and socialisation of people with disabilities are carried out in Belarus using money from international donor organisations. This support amounts to several million dollars a year. However, an 18% tax is levied on the cost of office rent, utilities, and staff salaries.
On 31 August 2015, the authorities further complicated the rules for obtaining foreign sponsor money. Many donors are finding it difficult to fund projects in Belarus. For instance, the foundation Errinnerung, Verantwortung and Zukunft has frozen the finances for the large project ‘The venue is dialogue’. The donors explained that there were too many obstacles to transferring money to Belarus, according to the organisation Vzaimoponimanije.
Belarus has signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but people with disabilities still have to rely on themselves to fight for their rights. The issue of accessibility is just one step on the way to a tolerant and convenient society.