The ruling is just on paper for now - we need to see concrete action.
The Polish government broke European Union law by logging the ancient forest of Białowieża, judges from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) have ruled.
The judgment is the final say on the case, which began in 2016 when then Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko tripled the logging limits in the forest.
The forest is one of Europe’s last primeval forests, a Natura 2000 site, and a World Heritage Site. Located on the border between Poland and Belarus, it covers around 140,000 hectares and is home to the European bison.
Chainsaws and harvesters
Szyszko, who lost his post earlier this year, claimed that the logging was necessary to protect the forest from a bark beetle infestation.
Lawyers at ClientEarth alongside six other organisations made a formal complaint to the European Commission, which took the case to the ECJ.
The campaigners’ case was backed by scientists, who argued that bark beetles are not a threat to the forest, and that the dead trees that are also being removed are extremely important for the biodiversity of the forest. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee also urged Poland to stop the logging.
The case was fast-tracked at every stage. In July 2017, the ECJ ordered all chainsaws and harvesters to be stopped immediately while it considered the case. The logging finally ended in November.
James Thornton, the chief executive of ClientEarth, said: “This is a huge victory for all defenders of Białowieża Forest. Hundreds of people were heavily engaged in saving this unique, ancient woodland from unthinkable destruction.”
Conflict of interest
However, this was not the end of the fight, he warned. “The ruling is just on paper for now - we need to see concrete action.
"First, the decisions that allowed logging must be withdrawn. Then, the Polish government should also consider enlarging the national park so it encompasses the whole of Białowieża Forest. This is the only way to guarantee that devastation of the forest will not happen again.”
Greenpeace Poland, which had also campaigned against the logging, said that the ECJ’s ruling confirmed that its protection of the forest was “not just necessary, but just”.
Katarzyna Jagiełło, a forest campaigner with the campaign group, said: “But the struggle to protect this forest doesn't end here. This unique natural treasure is still not protected properly, with more than two-thirds of the Polish part of the forest administered by the state’s forest holding office who are responsible for logging the forest.”
The only way to secure the protection of the forest for the environment minister to make it a national park, and end the conflict of interest caused by the state holding office, which carried out the logging, administering an EU and UNESCO protected area.
No appeal possible
Environment minister Henryk Kowalczyk, who has replaced Szyszko, told Reuters in March that it should be up to Poland to decide the forest’s future.
If the ECJ made any specific recommendations about the forest’s future management, particularly if it banned any logging, then the government would have to discuss it, he said.
Today’s judgment is final and the Polish government cannot appeal it. The verdict is valid from today, so the government needs to take immediate action.
If it does not, the commission will launch a legal case over non-compliance, which could result in hefty fines. The minimum penalty is €4.3 million, but usually in such cases the fines are much higher, potentially reaching tens of millions of euros, according to ClientEarth.
The Polish Ministry of Environment said that it would study the judgment in detail, but added that it would respect the verdict.
“The Białowieża Forest is our national heritage. All the activities have been undertaken with its preservation in the best possible condition for present and future generations in mind,” Kowalczyk said.
He added that the ministry would soon present the commission with proposals for “compromise solutions” for the Białowieża Forest, which would take into account the work of an expert team preparing a long-term plan for protecting the forest.
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.