Action camp to save Białowieza forest

10 August 2017

Over the past week Danielle van Oijen, from the forest team in Milieudefensie/Friends of the Earth Netherlands, joined the action camp for Białowieza forest just a few kilometers from the border with Belarus. Here, she shares her reflections on her time there.

Białowieza forest in Poland - the last wild ancient lowland forest left in the European Union - continues to be logged at unprecedented speed, despite the European Court of Justice calling for an immediate halt last month because of the irreversible damage. Białowieza forest is protected under strong European laws and is a World Heritage Site. Some parts have not been logged, planted or converted in centuries. But the unthinkable is happening: the Polish government refuses to stop the logging.

The action camp is a gathering of forest enthusiasts, scientists and families. Hnutí DUHA/Friends of the Earth Czech Republic activists are also regulars at the camp. Neighbours from the small village nearby are supportive and bring in heaps of material, blankets, food and encouraging words. These often first-time activists are hugely successful in blocking harvesters - the huge machines with a big arm that can cut down, de-branch and resize a tree in mere seconds. Every day the harvesters are blocked, hundreds of trees are saved.

Logging in Białowieża (c) Milieudefensie

I took part in one blockade to prevent a logtruck from leaving the forest with illegal wood. Trees that were over 100 years old were about to be transported. They shouldn't have been felled in the first place. Tourists and locals spontaneously decided to join our blockade. I saw tears flowing as their beloved 'Puszcza' is in danger.

While monitoring the clearcuts and other logging, the sights are devastating. Forest soils that haven't been disturbed in centuries now lie barren under the sun. Giant oak trees - where you would need more than 5 people holding hands to circle them - are not spared from the destruction caused by the harvesters. Hundreds of thousands of trees are still standing marked for logging, even in nature reserves inside the forest. The ecological processes that have created this forest over centuries have come to an abrupt halt.

During the monitoring we saw the iconic European bison, one of the last wild herds in Europe. We heard wolves howling from the camp. Ten species of woodpecker make use of the abundant dead wood and insect life in the forest. For Polish and foreign people alike, this is a treasure that needs protection. In its untouched form it can support the local economy through tourism, education and research programs. This can be made real if the whole of the forest becomes a national park.

But the ultra-conservative government and its allies in the church and state forest service will not have it. They want the income from selling wood. But why here, why must this forest be destroyed? Poland has extensive plantation forests all over the country with low biodiversity values that can serve for wood consumption. It seems higher politics are at play here. The current Minister of Environment lost a battle over a road passing through another nature area and now seems determined to save face by destroying another. Poland is currently under heavy scrutiny over new laws that endanger its young democracy.

The people in the camp and their allies will persist and they will win. My only hope is that not too much of the forest is lost before that. Majestic oaks, ash, lime, hornbeam, hazel, spruce and alder have been growing here for centuries. This forest needs to become a national park now.

Everyone can join and support the forest movement for Białowieza. Check out the Białowieza website to see what support you can give. Go and see the forest, while it is still there. Or join the forest march on the 13th of August in Białowieza.

Czech Republic, Netherlands