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The battle for the Bialoweiza Forest

The battle for the Bialoweiza Forest

By Humra Laeeq

Puszcza Nasza Jest”, Polish for “The Forest is Ours”, was written across banners carried by protesters who chained themselves to forest harvesters threatening to bring down the Bialoweiza Forest in Poland. Bialoweiza is the oldest surviving patch of the forest that once covered Europe. In mainland Warsaw, hundreds marched on the streets to oppose its widespread logging. After usurping its public media, politicising its judiciary, and ultimately violating its constitution, Poland’s 2015-elected ultra-conservative government has located its newest target: a hairy brown beetle, feeding on a 10,000 thousand-year old tree.

Poland under EU Court scrutiny

Last year, the Polish Ministry of the Environment permitted a threefold increase in the amount of timber logging for a ten-year period, arguing that the logging is needed to protect against the infestation of bark beetles. The state argued that these beetles could kill thousands of spruce trees.

Regardless, citizens, the European Union, UNESCO, and environmental activists have heavily questioned the decision. The European Commission has referred Poland to the European Court of Justice and asked the court to impose measures to stop logging until a final judgment could be made. If proved guilty, Poland’s voting rights in the EU could be suspended. As these issues typically take two years to be solved, immediate halt orders on Thursday were issued until further notice. Whether this is a commercial move under the garb of ecological concern, is what’s driving the country’s ongoing debate.

The world’s antique

The Bialoweiza Forest borders on northeast Poland and Belarus, and is the last remaining forest patch from the behemoth that covered Europe 10,000 years ago. It is a World Heritage site designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Due to threats posed by commercial activity, UNESCO is considering adding the forest to the List of World Heritage in Danger. The Bialowieza forest is home to a plethora of rare flora and fauna, including a herd of some 900 European bison, the continent’s largest mammal. The population in Bialoweiza makes up a quarter of the global bison population.

Another striking feature of the forest that contributes to its current woes is that it is rich in dead wood, both standing and fallen.  Fungi and wood-eating lower organisms thrive on the dead wood, constituting a unique ecosystem within itself. However, this dead wood has been the host site for the bark beetle, which causes and spreads infection. But will the Polish government’s move to curb the infection prove beneficial? 

The scientific counter-evidence & consequences

Greenpeace activists remind us that the insect has always existed and that the forest survived through natural recovery. Polish scientists and NGOs have also released several open letters and reports arguing that natural beetle outbreaks are common and the affected spruce trees recover quickly. To maintain the ecological balance, nature has its own defence mechanisms.  Predatory beetles thrive in an environment full of dead spruces.  Eradicating dead trees—the habitat of bark beetles—would threaten the survival of these predatory beetles whose food chain gets disrupted. As common knowledge has it, disturbance at any stage of the complex food web the world is woven into can adversely affect the whole system.

Moreover, scientists say that the current outbreak is not particularly dangerous—up to 90% of the spruce trees are predicted to survive it. To contain the minimal attack, up to 80% of the forest would need to be logged, meaning a violation of 35% of the current protected forest area, as stated by Przemysław Chylarecki of the Polish Academy of Sciences with expertise in zoology and ecology.

The removal of these century-old trees also poses a major threat to the Natura 2000. The Natura 2000 is the world’s largest network of naturally protected areas under the European Union. It protects species and habitats dependent on old-growth forests—including the availability of dead wood. For some of these species, the Bialowieza Forest is the most important or the last remaining site in Poland.

Motivated by money?

Popular sentiment is that the decision of the government is more commercially than environmentally oriented. Poland is the world’s fourth largest exporter of furniture in the world after China, Italy, and Germany, and the biggest EU producer of fiberboards. Average wood industry sales value amounts up to US $23 billion per year. When the government saw the potential for its economic hold to be slackened due to natural recovery, it naturally tried to fight against the odds. It betrayed the calls from genuine ecological threats. The only bright side is the employment generated for the loggers. However, this comes at a price far too great.

Emerging anti-global politics

Since the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power in Warsaw in 2015, it has been conflict ridden. In a country which derives over 80% of its energy from high-polluting, coal-fired plants, the PiS pledged to defend the coal industry. In February 2017, it attempted to slow down an EU campaign against global warming it saw as a threat to its coal industry. It seems that Poland is at odds with the 28-nation bloc of the European Union fighting against climate change. In June, US President Trump formally backed away from the Paris Climate Accord, saying he wants to “renegotiate” a fairer deal that would not disadvantage US businesses and workers. A discernable pattern seems to be emerging. With the rise of right-wing populist governments, commercial interests seem to overlap global issues that need more attention.

Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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