BIALOWIEZA FOREST

By Olivia Hanks

What happens if a member state of the European Union refuses to comply with a European Court ruling? Incredibly, the answer is that nobody knows: it has never happened, though financial sanctions including the withdrawal of all subsidies are theoretically possible. But following Poland’s open defiance of an ECJ order to cease logging in the ancient Białowieża forest, suspicions that the EU is essentially toothless when it comes to law enforcement are about to be tested like never before.

Environment minister Jan Szyszko was in court this week to defend the Polish government’s actions. He and the state forestry company argue that the logging is necessary in order to contain a bark beetle infestation. Scientists and conservation campaigners, however, say that tree felling in protected areas is threatening the forest, and that the bark beetles are a cover for giving foresters access to valuable old-growth wood. In July, the European Court of Justice ordered the government to pause its operations pending a final ruling; but Greenpeace patrols in August found evidence that this ban was being consistently broken, including in the most sensitive parts of the forest.

Bialoweiza Forest location. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Jarosław Kaczyński, chair of the ruling Law and Justice party, and prime minister Beata Szydło are ramping up their confrontation with the EU, not only on Białowieża but also the widely condemned announcement that the country’s judiciary would be brought under government control.

The nationalist government has not openly called for a Polish exit from the EU, but this is widely considered to be a matter of political expediency in a country generally appreciative of the investment and freedom of movement that membership of the union has brought. Now, the government has seized upon Białowieża as a tool in their campaign to turn Polish citizens against the EU. According to their narrative, they are defending local people’s right to earn a living from the forest against interference from meddling bureaucrats; the forester’s local knowledge against the distant academic.

According to their narrative, they are defending local people’s right to earn a living from the forest against interference from meddling bureaucrats; the forester’s local knowledge against the distant academic.

This approach is evident in the claim of Szyszko, himself a forester, that he is going to court “to defend the honour of Polish science, Polish rangers and residents”. The stronger the line now taken by the EU, the more effective Law and Justice’s romanticised nationalist narrative of “honour” will be. The British tabloid press, not otherwise known for its love of the Polish people, has picked up the Białowieża story as another example of plucky folk defying the meddling EU.

Białowieża is an effective vehicle for the nationalists’ campaign because the forester has a near-mythical status in Polish culture. Seen as custodians of traditional rural life and defenders of local interests, foresters are at the top of the rural hierarchy and are extremely influential figures in Polish life and governance. The government and the forestry industry have drawn on this image to present the conflict over Białowieża as locals versus outsiders. The fact that the forest was occupied and exploited by the Germans in World War I and the Soviets in World War II, and heavily logged by a British firm in between, feeds the sense of outrage that ‘foreigners’ are now telling Poland how to manage such a symbolically important asset.

An uneasy relationship? Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Yet while the injustices of globalisation fuel a desire for local autonomy, they also ensure that ‘local’ is a hard thing to pin down. It is the massive Polish state forestry company that calls the shots, while timber logged in Białowieża is exported around the world. Residents used to depend directly on the forest and know it intimately, but no longer. Eunice Blavascunas, a researcher on conservation politics in Eastern Europe, writes in an article for the Journal of Political Ecology that “with the explosion of the tourist industry, and local people’s rising incomes, few still visit the forest even to collect mushrooms and berries. They say they are too busy with their businesses to find the time.”

the forest continues to play a powerful role in local imagination

However, the forest continues to play a powerful role in local imagination. The forester keeps alive the ideal of a community where everyone went into the forest to plant trees together, argues Blavascunas, and “[w]ork in the forest had been a focal point for community unity.” This iconic cultural status allows foresters to appoint themselves spokespeople for the local residents, who can thereby hark back to an idealised golden age.

There are some similarities with the position of the farmer in English culture, revered as guardian of the countryside and producer of the food we eat, associated with honest toil, cosy cottages and trips to market, even though much of our food is imported and agriculture is predominantly a dirty business of mega-farms and pollution. This elevation of the farmer to heroic status is part of the British mythology that allows a handful of powerful landowners to continue to run the show in rural counties like Norfolk, even while most farmers are struggling to make ends meet.

As the capitalist model of resource extraction for maximum short-term profit has rapidly taken over even traditional rural societies, an opposition has grown up between those who work on the land and those – ecologists and environmental activists – who want to protect it. In a healthier economy, their interests would be clearly aligned, and they once were much more so – hence the enduring mythological status that clings to farmers and foresters. The dominance of big companies – be they mega-farms or Polish state forestry – with financial clout and little connection to the local area means the role of protector of the natural world is taken on by scientists and campaigning organisations, who can be dismissed as out-of-touch outsiders – Michael Gove’s ‘experts’.

Fed propaganda by tabloids, super-rich tax avoiders and Old Etonians dreaming of empire, British society has internalised a lot of false and damaging stories about itself and its superiority to the rest of the world. As the unfolding Brexit fiasco makes clear, the price is likely to be high.

when the trees you cut down fill not your hearth but a corporation’s coffers; when the pursuit of profit erodes all distinction between managed forest and ancient wildwood; then the myth is hollow

Meanwhile, emboldened by Brexit and by its new nationalist, climate-change-denying ally in the United States, the Polish government is pushing its luck with the EU, pushing its aggressive nationalist agenda through myths of wholesome rural toil and harmony with nature. But when the trees you cut down fill not your hearth but a corporation’s coffers; when the pursuit of profit erodes all distinction between managed forest and ancient wildwood; then the myth is hollow. For the sake of Europe’s natural treasures, the EU must come down hard in defence of Białowieża. But top-down legal structures will not be accepted by local people unless they chime with their own sense of values and meaning. To save such beauty and wealth in the long term, we must discover new myths fit for our fragmented, ravaged world.

Featured image credit: Greenpeace Polska, Flickr


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