Are activists’ voices heard? An example from Bialowieza Forest logging

This is a guest post by Magda Strzala for Aberdeen Climate Action


The Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and classified as of ‘outstanding universal value’. Home to wolves, lynx, bison (25% of the world’s European population), and a rich array of birds and beetles, Bialowieza is Europe’s largest remaining lowland old growth forest. In Belarus the entire woodland is recognised as a nature park, but in Poland, unfortunately, only a small part is protected (16% of Polish Bialowieza Forest).

In 2016, Jan Szyszko, then Polish Minister of the Environment, approved a tripling of industrial logging in Bialowieza, asserting that it was necessary to combat an outbreak of spruce bark beetles. Environmental groups disagreed, claiming that it wouldn’t defeat the beetle and would lead to more harm than good. WWF highlighted that bark beetle outbreaks and dying spruce trees are ’natural processes’ that have been forming the Bialowieza Forest for centuries and its biodiversity depends on richness in dead wood. The real reasoning behind the government’s decision, I believe, is more to do with financial as opposed to ecological gain: it was an excuse to allow the state-run logging regime access to pristine old growth wood and benefit the budget.

Unsurprisingly, the Polish Minister’s decision met with fierce opposition. I am so glad that citizens across the country took on the authorities – and eventually won. Unfortunately from 24th May 2016, when logging operations started, until its cessation it is thought that at least 10.000 trees were felled in Bialowieza.

If you believe that the voices of individuals protesting against governmental decisions have no chance of being heard and listened to then a counter argument can be found in the circumstances that lead to the cessation of logging in Bialowieza.

In May 2017, activists set up a permanent camp in the village of Bialowieza to protest the logging through direct action and engagement with the local community. Protesters ran several projects; one of which was visits from biologists organising walks in the forest to teach anyone interested in Bialowieza’s particular trees, plants and biodiversity. The location of the camp in a village was intentional – the environmentalists wanted to peacefully cooperate with locals and raise their awareness on the significance of protecting the woodland.

More importantly, activists were involved in patrolling and monitoring the forest and areas in danger of being logged. A lot of effort was put into gathering data on places where logging took place as well as a scale of it. This data was then used in the media to evidence the current status and impact of the logging and in again lawsuits against the government. The European Commission, as well as UNESCO, was interested in what was going on in the forest; they needed reliable information and, luckily, there were hundreds of people who devoted their time and energy to collect relevant data and then provided them to the authorities.

ClientEarth and other environmental groups filed a complaint with the European Commission, which took the case to the European Court of Justice in 2017, alleging that Poland was in violation of EU laws to protect habitat and birdlife. Eventually, the EU’s highest court ruled in 2018 that Poland’s logging in the UNESCO-protected Bialowieza Forest was illegal opening the door to potentially multi-million-euro fines.

Szyszko was fired from his Ministerial role in early January 2018 as part of a Cabinet reshuffle intended to improve relations with the European Union. The new Minister of the Environment, Henryk Kowalczyk, confirmed that Poland will respect the verdict and, hence, logging in Bialowieza Forest was halted. Additionally, he assured that all lawsuits against the protesters would be withdrawn.

I believe that protests, such as those in Bialowieza, do not only directly impact on the physical environment (for example lead to logging being stopped) but also indirectly change society’s attitude towards environmental issues. Such actions catch the media’s attention and attract influential people to get involved and openly speak about these issues. Public opinion is affected; those, who previously ignored climate change, start to think about it, they hear more about environmental dangers and crimes and, hopefully, learn how serious that problem is. I can see this process first-hand because many of my friends from Poland are becoming more and more aware of ecological dangers.

There is an increasing awareness of the need to protect our environment and urgency to take actions. On 15th February hundreds of children missed school to protest against the biggest threat to their future – Climate Change. The more people get involved, the louder and stronger our voice becomes and in that way we can stop logging, force local and national governments to ban plastic bags or to abandon plans for new coal plants, just to name a few actions that had already succeeded in the past.

As more and more people are lifting their voices to be heard on stopping climate change and creating a better, greener future, let us not forget the importance of activism and the initial voices that spark a movement. We should never forget how important the voice of an individual is. Let’s think how much else can be improved if we all speak out loud?

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