The European Commission will take Poland to court in a bid to curb a surge in logging in the last significant tract of primeval forest left in Europe.
The EU has asked the European court to authorise an immediate ban on logging in Poland’s Białowieża forest.
Around 80,000 cubic metres of forest have been cleared since the Polish government tripled logging operations around the Unesco world heritage site in March 2016.
Białowieża is a biodiversity hotspot and the largest remaining patch of a primeval forest that once covered the European Plain 10,000 years ago.
The forest’s ancient trees provide habitats for a rich diversity of fungi, insects, birds and mammals, including the largest population of the continent’s largest mammal, the European bison.
Unesco has threatened to put Białowieża on its list of world heritage sites in danger unless Poland halts the deforestation, which has felled 30,000 cubic metres of forest in just the first four months of 2017.
Poland’s environment minister, Jan Szyszko, who has inexcusably allowed large-scale logging in the ancient Białowieża forest, has called for the woodland to be stripped of Unesco’s natural heritage status, banning human intervention.
The Polish government has said it authorised the logging to contain damage caused by a spruce bark beetle infestation and to fight the risk of forest fires. But scientists, ecologists and the EU have protested and activists allege the logging is a cover for commercial cutting of protected old-growth forests.
“Beetle pests are natural processes from which a forest can regenerate without intervention,” says Rafał Kowalczyk, director of the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Mammal Research Institute in the village of Białowieża. “The current outbreak is severe, but absolutely not dangerous.”
“For some of these species, the Bialowieza forest is the most important or the last remaining site in Poland,” the EU Commission has stated.
Environment Minister Szyszko, a hunter who is backed by powerful forester and hunter lobbies, has said local communities need logging to protect the forest and their livelihoods, and has accused media with “leftist and liberal leanings” of stirring undue international concern.
“I firmly object to insults directed against Poland and the Poles,” Szyszko said in a statement this week.
It usually takes the European Court of Justice around two weeks to decide on interim measures, lawyers said. But as the court’s summer holiday starts on July 21, the ruling might not be taken before September.
“Decisive and immediate action is the only way to avoid irreversible damage to this ancient forest. We hope that the court of justice will impose the ban on logging, as a matter of urgency,” Agata Szafraniuk an environmental lawyer at the ClientEarth legal firm has said. “The decision on interim measures cannot be appealed. The Polish government will have to conform to it.”
The EU’s action is a positive step in holding governments to account for their reckless disregard for the environment.