The Polish government began logging in Białowieża last May claiming that the deforestation was necessary in order to contain the damage caused by a spruce bark beetle infestation. A thinly veiled disguise, campaigners and scientists claim, for increasing the commercial logging of UNESCO-protected woodland. Government-led logging operations in Białowieża have tripled in the last year causing UNESCO to consider adding the forest to its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. In return, the Polish government called for the removal of Białowieża’s UNESCO World Heritage status. The EU concern is that the logging is causing irreversible damage to biodiversity including wolf, lynx and otter populations as well as Europe’s largest bison population.
Environmental activists, supported by organisations including Greenpeace and Dzika Polska (Wild Poland), that have been chaining themselves to logging and tree-clearing equipment to campaign against the destruction of Białowieża, loudly applaud the EU call. The EU intervention comes after policing of the Białowieża became increasingly unsavoury, inciting the use of force against activists and carrying out armed patrols dressed in camouflage, stopping and searching young people in the nearby area. This is particularly troubling as ‘environmental defenders’ are being killed in record numbers according to reports in the Guardian which claims that such deaths occur at an estimated rate of four a week. A 2016 Global Witness report revealed that the logging industry accounted for the second greatest number of activist deaths. Greenpeace Polska activists have been demonstrating and collecting evidence against the Polish government to support the claim that their practices defy EU rules and the UNESCO World Heritage agreement.
It’s a start, but in large cases such as this, it could take years for a judgement to be reached, particularly after Poland’s minister of the environment, Jan Szsysko, tweeted his delight at the prospect of the court case. The Forests Management Plan was the result of the European Commission placing the Polish government under pressure to protect the region. The plan split the forest in to three districts, one of which must cease logging. Evidently, there was little by way of compliance with this plan and the overall ten-year harvesting target was reached in only four years. In the wake of the proposed immediate suspension, there are concerns that logging may increase in the two other districts of the old-growth forest, as this ban would be contained to a single area of Białowieża.