The Polish Government is claiming the trees must be felled to protect the forest from infestation by spruce bark beetle
Bialowieza Forest is Poland's only natural UNESCO world heritage site - a Natura 2000 protected area and a rare remnant of the primeval forest that used to stretch across the European Plain.
The Polish government's claim that to protect the forest, it must cut it down infuriates scientists, NGOs and the European Commission alike. The latter told the Polish government on April 27 that it had a last 30 days to call a halt to the logging or face prosecution for breaching EU conservation regulations. And whilst that deadline has now expired, Poland's environment ministry, led by Jan Szyszko, has shown no sign of backing down.
Piotr Barczak from the European Environmental Bureau says: "The Commission's ultimatum has just been breached by the Polish government. Axes are still chopping down trees in Bialowieza and the public is still being manipulated. Environmental law infringement is clear. Bialowieza is not a commercial plantation and will never be."
Bialowieza Forest is home to giant spruce trees, oaks and ash trees, and more than 20,000 animal species. The most famous of these is the European bison. The forest stretches over parts of Poland and Belarus.
Since Polish Environment Minister Jan Szyszko approved the proposal from State Forests Service to expand the planned logging areas in the Bialowieza forest district, the forest in now threatened by irreversible degradation of natural habitats.
In the new 10-year plan, the logging volume tripled to 188,000 m³. This is supposed to 'protect' the remaining forest from spruce bark beetles that threaten spruce trees and protect tourists and rangers from falling dead trees. However, these justifications are heavily criticized by scientists and Environmental Justice Organisations (EJOs) who claim instead that the spruce bark beetle outbreak is a natural process that occurs in periods of 8-10 years.
The on the ground reality suggests that the Polish government has other motivations. Almost half of the trees marked for logging are not even trees of those species affected by the spruce bark beetle. Commercial interests are the real reason. The State Forests Service is now required to be financially self-sufficient, and selling logged wood generates profits.
The State Council for Nature Conservation in Poland and a large part of the public is against the new logging plans, with protests in larger Polish cities and on logging locations ongoing.
Seven Environmental Justice Organisations together with ClientEarth have lodged a complaint against the plans to the EU commission, asking it to intervene.
According to the lodged complaint, the logging plans go against several EU directives. For example, the approval of the environment minister was given despite not having carried out an assessment to determine whether the increased logging would have an adverse effect on the integrity of the Natura 2000 site.
The EJOs want the EU Commission to quickly intervene to halt the irreversible loss that would be caused by intense logging and to ensure the protection of the Bialowieza Forest in compliance with the Habitats Directive. Both the European Commission and UNESCO have since then strongly advised the Polish government against continuing with the expanded logging project.
Protests against the logging have been aired by Professor Mikael Marder in Al Jazeera and Arthur Neslen in The Guardian. The conflict is now likely to move to many places at the same time: the European court, the streets, a petition, in media and, not least, in the forests themselves.
Maps, images and more detail on this conflict can be found in the Atlas of Environmental Justice.
Nick Meynen works at the EnvJustice project in the European Environment Bureau but he is also a freelance journalist, a regular contributor to the Ecologist and an author. Additional contributions to this article were made by Joel Tillgren, Philipp Kuhn and Emma Brodén from Lund University