The European Commission has been called on to investigate an illegal plan to log Poland’s Białowieża forest. Seven Polish and international NGOs today complained to the Commission, after permission for a threefold increase of logging in the UNESCO heritage forest was given by Polish Environment Minister Jan Szyszko. ClientEarth lawyers said Szyszko’s decision breached Article 6 of the Habitats Directive. This could result in the Polish government being taken to the European Court of Justice, and hefty fines.
ClientEarth lawyer and author of the complaint, Agata Szafraniuk, said: “The whole forest is protected by Natura 2000, which defends Europe’s most vulnerable species and habitats. We told the Minister his action was illegal, but he didn’t listen. We cannot challenge this decision under Polish law, so a Commission complaint is our last resort. We urge the Minister to reconsider before this irreplaceable forest is lost forever.”
What happens when a Commission complaint is lodged?
The Commission will review the complaint and may decide to take the issue all the way to the European Court of Justice. In 1999, the Netherlands issued a licence to catch cockles in the Wadden Sea, which is a protected area. The case went to the EU Court and based on the judges’ ruling, mechanical dredging was banned.
Białowieża has UNESCO world heritage status because it is such a unique site, home to around 150 protected species, including rare three-toed woodpeckers. It is the only UNESCO nature site in Poland and illegal logging could result in this status being withdrawn, as happened in Germany.
Ministers say logging is the only way to protect Białowieża from a bark beetle outbreak. But most scientists, including the State Council for the Protection of Nature and the Polish Academy of Science, agree that cutting more trees would not benefit the forest. In fact, increased logging would devastate this delicate ecosystem.
130,000 Polish people have also called on the government not to increase logging. Removing more of these ancient trees weakens Białowieża and endangers the many plants, animals, insects and birds that rely on it. This Commission complaint is a last resort after attempts to reason with the Environment Minister failed.
Update: The Commission has said it was concerned about Poland’s decision and was looking into it.
In response to the groups’ letter, spokeswoman for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Iris Petsa said: “The Commission decided to contact the Polish authorities to make sure that the proposed interventions are in line with EU law. Based on the replies received yesterday from the Polish, the Commission will decide on any further steps.”