Activists in Bialowieza are fighting to preserve the last primary forest in Europe from illegal logging
The Hambacher Forst in Germany is just another example of how humans destroying a precious forest, just for their profit of getting more coal. Even though the government promised to reduce the coal production, the forests are still destroyed irreversibly. The same thing happened to the forest of Bialowieza national park, which is the last remaining primary forest in Europe….
UNESCO heritage Bialowieza forest stretches from Poland to Belarus and is home to a diversity of species. The most prominent is the bison, being well protected after it nearly became extinct following World War I. Bialowieza hosts a variety of rare bird species, amongst others the white woodpecker, which populates the dead wood one finds in the untouched protected areas. Being interlaced by distinct swamp areas which are unique in Europe, where fungus, plants and insects live in symbiosis, Bialowieza with its more than hundred-year-old trees is one of the most remarkable ecosystems in Europe. In spite of being listed as a UNESCO world nature heritage, the polish government regards only a 50 km² fragment of Bialowieza worth protecting, from a total of 1500 km² and 200km² of it being protected on the Belarus side since 1990.
The Bialowieza forest saving team managed to slow down the logging a lot and succeeded as it stopped in November 2017. But many of the activists are in conflict with the law now, the court cases, with more than 300 law suits started in autumn. The most common accusation was for entering the forbidden zone and not leaving it after being asked for. The costs for lawyers and the whole process are mainly financed by donations. Hopefully, most of the accused will be exempt from punishment, as the European Court investigates Poland for acting against European law after the clearing of the forest was forced to be stopped.
With the decision of the ministry of environment to increase the logging in the forest, the wood industry began to draw timber in BIalowieza in May 2017. Since heavy machines entered the forest, Bialowieza turned into a topic of media interest and public protest, as well as the criticism of experts, subsequently founding initiatives to save the forest. Different NGO`s came together with scientists, but also many people knowing about the importance of the forest participated in the topic and created the Camp for the Forest.
We talked to Kinga, a woman who joined the activist camp one month after it was founded. She followed the open call of the camp to gather activists and came with friends and her dog to Bialowieza. When she arrived, there were already 100 people at the camp. “It was just booming, and more and more people got involved.” It was not easy in the beginning, because there were a lot of different people with different points of views that came together. “We had a big diversity, some anarchistic groups which don’t like organisations for example”.
In fact, the self-organisation of the camp went surprisingly well by setting up some rules at the beginning. They were about the non-hierarchy structure, a discrimination free zone and finding decisions democratically. After a while, they noticed that the gatherings, which were held every night, became too crowded, as sometimes more than 150 people were sitting together. “We brought together what was happening that day by collecting data and think about what will happen tomorrow. And with so many people it was taking ages and was not very effective in the beginning. Than we got the idea creating working groups. Groups for different subjects like coordination actions, food and media. First of all, every seperate group worked on their topics and then what they brought together was introduced to the camp at the gatherings. Every decision was made together in a democratic way.”, Kinga told us.
In the beginning, the camp of the initiative was located in the forest village Pogorzelce, where old farm buildings where transformed into office, storage, workshop and sleeping areas. The people, who didn’t participate in direct action in the forest, like blockades or patrolling, kept up the structure of the camp. Most important was cooking for the whole community in the improvised outdoor kitchen, building the infrastructure of the camp with pipes for water and repairing the bikes for patrolling. Every person who wants to act in the forest, has to go through a few hours workshop. The idea behind this was to have a nonviolent environment, so all the blockades and protests are directed in a nonviolent way. Kinga, who was also active in the forest, says “We were exercising how to behave in dangerous situations and only resisting in a passive way. Dangerous means when the forest guards or the rangers where taking us out of the forest. You should not use any offensive language and don’t get provoked.”
” Only selected people were supposed to talk to the newspapers to spread the right message, so there was even a group taking care about how to face the media and coordinate with the NGO`s. The collected data about how many trees where logged and the location of the logging was sent to scientists and to the commission of the European Tribunal, who investigate the case of this forest.
We asked Kasia, who is from Greenpeace and is staying permanently at the forest camp, which parties were involved in the case of the Bialowieza forest. She explained to us: “I don’t want to talk about sides but actually there is on the one hand Greenpeace Poland, Wild Poland Foundation, the Camp for the Forest and also many different NGO’s, which are in the coallision “I love Puszcza” – I love the forest.
The other side is quite complicated and starts with the governmental decision of Jan Szyszko, the minister of environment, to increase the logging in the forest. The foresters form the state forest company moved in with big harvesters, additionally they were doing this during the time when the birds are mating. And it’s actually forbidden as it is a UNESCO protected area. It was illegal, at least that is what we know now. But at the time being, they didn’t want to say that they were wrong and the government was supported by the state forest which also belongs to them.“
Because the forest is unique for Europe, the government already considered to make the forest 100% national park. “Lech Kaczynska”, who tragically died in a plane accident, consulted scientists to change the situation of the forest. They created different projects, which went through various scenarios. From changing the whole forest into a national park to expanding the strictly protected areas and also about changing the strategy of raising money, achieving economical growth everything connecting with the forest. “Those where very good projects and programs and we are still reading them. They already gave us the answers to many questions. But the government didn’t accept them. And after Kaczynska nobody tried it again.” Kasia said. With the stop of the harvesters, many people think this topic is closed, as it disappeared out of the media. “But the current situation is that there is no national park, we need to continue the campaign and our work for the forest. It is still a long way in front of us.” The municipality government and local authorities have the final say when it’s about creating the national park. The state forest has a great influence in the villages, because they invest money for building roads for example and they are well established. Every family is somehow related to the state forest company because they employ the people form the villages. “We hope that at one point the local authorities and the people will understand that tourism can be a future solution and because of that its good to beware the forest.
Of course, the locals have the right to decide about the forest, but the forest doesn’t only belong to them, it belongs to the country. There could be a bigger group of specialist or scientists making decisions about the forest, not only the state forest, as they are a logging company. Finally, the state forest understood about the importance of leaving some dead woods, which is the requirement of a healthy forest. The fight against the bark beetle was just an excuse for the logging, as it’s a natural process.”
The villages and the locals are really depending on the logging and don’t understand how tourism can be profitable for them. Bialowieza for example is using tourism, they have bikes and apartments to rent. Among these, locals formed a group called Locals Against Logging, most of them are working as guides in the forest or are businessmen who owns apartments and they advocate for creating a national park.
“We experienced a lot of local support and became friends with some local people. Some of them were even taking part in protecting, or bringing food to the camp. The majority however doesn’t want to be involved in that conflict. It’s a very polarized topic and its in fact this group we want to reach by making educational workshops. We want to show that the world is changing and you can’t just log trees which are more than 100 years old.”
We met a group of beautiful and well-educated people in the forest camp giving up a lot to protect this precious piece of land. They are very well organized and welcomed us warmly. Kinga brought us to the wolf track not far from the camp. Here the government started the logging because of the bark beetle and after that because of safety reasons like they said. Meanwhile a group of wild bisons are passing.
“There was a big logging here and we counted how old the trees have been and marked them, if they are over 100 years old. When they are brought out of the forest, we record this with the date and GPS code. The state forest is selling the wood and this is legal to the polish law but not to the European law, so we are still collecting data here.”
It was easy to follow the bison group for a little while. They were slow and loud because of the cracking woods under their weight, but also because there should be more trees at this place. On one side you have an intact forest, on the other side just some bushes are left, which makes it look like a tree cemetery.
The camp is now in Teramiski in a wooden house, which was given to the group by a polish writer, who supports the idea of saving the forest. In that house they have the opportunity to work on projects and programs to protect the forest. “We know this forest so well and we want to share our knowledge about it. The info point should provide scientific information about the national park and shows the people some solutions and benefits of creating it into a national park with descriptions and all the reasons why it`s so special in Europe and worth to protect it.”, explains Kinga. “We are still here, and we are transforming. We want to show that we want to stay here and participate in the local community. We want to be a point on the map that people can visit and meet. Now is the time to speak and educate.” They work in Warsaw on different kinds of levels about the national park. „We all have similar ways of seeing the world, so we try to live here as zero waste as possible. Therefore, the camp has its own compost and tries to buy things locally. Food will be produced seasonally in the garden and every week people bring us food from food sharing initiatives in Warsaw.
It’s not easy to take care of everything because the people are changing all the time. At one point we are a quite similar group of people and we want to spread this way of living. We give workshops, make meetings for the people and speak with newspapers. And doing whatever we can to spread the message.” “The forest shows us what happened if we not treat the environment well, taking care of the environment is the important thing.”
After a while we crossed a small bridge where we took a small rest. Kinga explained us how she got to the camp and what her tasks have been in the group.
“I have been a feminist activist for many years, but it`s mostly connected to my work for and with NGOS. I never got involved into eco activist groups until I came here. When they started the logging I got so mad, because the government did so many things wrong at the time. Things happened with refugees which I don’t agree with. It came to this point when you have to decide in your life to do something for yourself, maybe career or you go and join the others who want to make a change for something. I heard from people about the camp and I followed the open call, so I moved here with the dog and some friends. And as I was entering the camp I knew it that I`m going to stay here. Things are happening here are really having an impact. And it`s very different to the activism I knew before, because its more advouse working. I worked a lot with social education and anti-discrimination education. Thanks to all the blockades we could save so many trees and the thing which was very motivating, was that you can see the impact right away. The power which was coming from all the people was just amazing. I`m still active at some other fields and earn a bit of money for giving workshops, but my free time I spend here for the forest. And with all the knowledge I have got about the forest it changed my live.
Forest-Protection Camp in Bialowieza
Bialowieza is one of the last primary forests in Europe. Many rare species having their natural habitats in this forest. Since the Government started with the logging, activists gathered and y builded a Protection-Camp to defend this beauty of nature…
We Love Puszczy!