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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,...

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.

Belavezha forest map. Source: greenbelarus.info

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.

Protests in Belavezha Forest. Source: ulizaekologiczna.pl

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.”

Bison in Belavezha Forest. Source: bahna.land

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.

The camp of the environmental activists in Poland. Source: npr.org

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.

Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik – is a PhD candidate in political science at Karlstad University (Sweden) and a research fellow at the Belarusian think-tank 'Center for new ideas'.
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