Environment, Europe, Headlines

EUROPE: Woods Are Lovely, Dark and Disappearing

WARSAW, Oct 14 2010 (IPS) - Surprising how dark it is here, even on a clear summer day. Centuries-old trees, some as high as a 15-floor house, allow only a little light to sift down to earth. Fallen trunks bar the muddy paths, and no less than 28 species of mosquitoes can’t wait to suck your blood.

Bialowieza forest. Credit: Robert Stefanicki

Bialowieza forest. Credit: Robert Stefanicki

But for pristine nature lovers there is no place like this. The last primeval forest in the European lowlands that covers parts of both Poland and Belarus is home to wolves, lynx, red deers, wild boars, elks, birds and, not least, the European bison. Today 450 of these massive creatures, reintroduced after World War I, freely roam the area.

Last month one of the bisons was illegally shot dead by a hunter, who said he mistook the beast for a wild boar.

For those long engaged in a fight to save the forest, this was a telling incident and one more impulse to act. Thirty volunteers from Pracownia na Rzecz Wszystkich Istot (Workshop for All Beings) broke up deer hunting, and demanded the local administration make an environmental assessment of hunting. They asked the central government to decree a hunt-free zone along National Park borders.

“There is one simple way to avoid such incidents: enlarge the National Park to cover the entire complex of Bialowieza Forest,” Robert Cyglicki, head of Greenpeace Poland told IPS.

The problem is not just hunting. According to environmental NGOs and scientists, the forest is on the verge of ultimate devastation at the hands of the state foresters and the timber industry.

State protection is patchy. Bialowieza National Park was established in 1921, and since 1992 has been on the World Heritage List. But today the park protects only 103 of 600 sq km of the local forest. Most is still logged. Inside the reserves, where tourists are not allowed, lumbermen cut trees under the pretext of fighting bark beetles.

Exploitative timber extraction has had a dramatic effect, and the share of old growth has dropped to less than 20 percent.

“Claims that logging has anything to do with protection is a lie,” says Adam Wajrak, journalist, who 14 years ago abandoned capital Warsaw to live a simple life in a small village inside the Bialowieza Forest.

“Even the ‘sanitary’ cut, good for commercial wood, in a unique place like this means extermination of rare animals, mushrooms and lichens bounded with dead trees,” says Wajrak.

The Polish government has resisted calls for the cut to be reduced from 100,000 to 30,000 sq metres per year, and to enlarge Bialowieza National Park to cover the entire area of the forest.

The main opposition comes from local councils, where foresters, hunters and timber industry representatives have influence. The local councils can veto any project aimed at making or enlarging national parks — even when on solely state-owned grounds. Since the councils got this privilege ten years ago, the area covered by national parks in Poland has not expanded by a single hectare.

There is more than one solution, experts say. The Ministry of Environment has proposed a new Bialowieza Development Programme that provides for the National Park to double its current size at the first stage to 35 percent of all forest. The government is prepared to pay 18 million euros to gain local communities’ consent. That is much more than the annual budget of all these poor villages. The money would go for green investments like solar panels or sewage purification plants, and for tourism development.

Critics say the plan is simply bribery. “This is very bad precedence,” says Cyglicki of Greenpeace. “The investments are needed, but communities of Bialowieza Forest should compete for available funds on equal basis with all others. They were once given 7.5 million euro, but later they withdrew their consent to enlarge the park. We don’t want to play that again.”

The ministry’s project looks good on paper, but in fact means nothing more than joining the existing reserves with the existing park. The enlarged park would consist of three separate parts, a solution hard to accept from the environmental point of view.

The Ministry of Environment did not respond to an IPS request for comment.

Greenpeace wants the Bialowieza Development Programme to be scrapped. The group hung a banner declaring “I Love the Forest” on the front of the Ministry of Environment in Warsaw, and set off a campaign to gather 100,000 signatures needed to file a draft bill in parliament. The bill stipulates that local councils give up their veto power for non-binding consultations.

“The response is huge, we believe we can gather all the signatures by the end of October,” said Cyglicki.

“I live in the forest, so I can tell you that only a small, influential group wants the forest to be logged,” says journalist Wajrak. “Most people see that protection of their environment does not collide with their interests. The career of a lumberjack is no longer the peak of their aspirations.

“All other temperate forests in Europe and America have already been cut and replaced by artificial tree plantations,” says Wajrak. “Bialowieza Forest is like the last coral reef — we need to protect it, not log it like barbarians.”

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – – Inter Press Service, and IFEJ — the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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