Pressure is mounting on the Polish government, as the UN and the European Commission are very worried about a huge, illegal increase of logging in Europe’s oldest forest.
Polish authorities are currently waiting for a decision from the European Commission on an infringement procedure that could lead to a case in the Court of Justice of the EU. And in July, Poland will likely come under more pressure from UNESCO, as its annual conference will look closely at the illegal logging in the World Heritage site.
Why is the logging illegal and so dangerous?
Because tree cutting in Europe’s oldest forest, home to hundreds of protected animals and planets, has significantly increased over the past few months. This poses a serious threat to its precious ecosystem and abundant biodiversity.
Bialowieza Forest was added to the World Heritage list as the best preserved primeval forest in Europe, home to a large number of rare and valuable species, including wolves and one-quarter of the world’s bison.
However, this old-growth forest is at risk due to increased logging and removal of dead wood, despite UNESCO underlining the importance of dead and dying trees for the forest’s ecosystem.
The Polish government says logging and wood removal is needed to fight a beetle outbreak. But environmental organisations and leading scientists say the bark beetle outbreak is a natural, regular phenomenon in this ancient forest. It is part of interconnected processes which guarantee the right dynamics of the forest, and make sure all species are represented in right proportions. Dead trees are an essential source of food and shelter for many rare species. They are important too for water retention, so are crucial for the forest’s health.
Many argue that fighting bark beetle is a good excuse for the Polish government to increase the timber trade.
World Heritage in Danger?
During the annual World Heritage Committee sessions, UNESCO takes the most important decisions regarding World Heritage Sites. The Committee can also decide whether a site should be moved to the “list of World Heritage in Danger”.
Firm pressure from UNESCO has proved successful before, for example, with Spain’s Doñana National Park.
Doñana National Park
The Doñana wetlands are one of the most unique and rich environments in Europe, and became a World Heritage Site in 1994. Its diverse habitats like marshes, forests, pristine beaches, dunes and lagoons, as well as its exceptional biodiversity (75% of Europe’s bird species and the endangered Iberian lynx can be found there), are under threat. It is estimated that due to excessive water extraction for farming, plus the dredging of the Guadalquivir River, Doñana only receives 20% of its natural water input. A possible reopening of the Aznalcollar mine, plus four gas extraction projects, put the wetlands and its fauna and flora even more at risk.
If the Spanish government had failed to take adequate measures to protect Doñana by 1st December 2016, Doñana could have become the second European World Heritage site to be put on the list of World Heritage in Danger.
However, in December 2016, to many campaigners’ relief, Spain announced its intention to withdraw from its dredging project. It also reassured the Committee that of the four gas extraction projects, only two would be carried out.
Although major threats remain, UNESCO pressure has clearly been able to draw the attention of the Spanish government, as well as campaign groups, to work towards a better conservation of this rare wetland and its biodiversity.
Hope for Bialowieza?
In July, the next World Heritage Committee session will take place in Krakow, Poland. Given the intense logging and the risk of collapse of the entire ecosystem, the Committee needs to take decisive steps to save this unique and priceless place. We hope that this will add to the pressure already exerted by the European Commission, forcing the Polish government to stop its highly damaging logging in Bialowieza Forest.