Credit: Frank Vassen

Commission seeks to fine Poland over logging in Białowieża forest

The future of a protected primeval forest hangs in the balance as the Polish government continues to prioritise commercial logging activity over nature protection.

Białowieża forest, which is in the east of Poland and stretches across the country’s border with Belarus, is almost unique in mainland Europe, with untouched pristine woodland home to hundreds of natural treasures such as the European Bison and the three-toed woodpecker. In fact, this natural ancient wonder is so important that it has been recognised by the United Nations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is part of the EU’s ‘Natura 2000’ network of protected sites where nature-damaging activities are restricted.

Yet despite these protections, in 2016 the Polish government began increasing the number of logging licences it granted in the forest, citing concerns about a bark beetle infestation as justification for culling trees. Experts dismissed the idea that cutting down trees would control the bark beetle outbreak.

Earlier this year the European Commission took the matter to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), arguing that increased timber production in the forest was a breach of EU nature protection rules. In July, the EU executive won an ECJ injunction that temporarily suspends Poland from logging until a final court decision is reached. The court said logging should immediately stop as it could cause “serious and irreversible damage” to the forest.

But Poland ignored this order – making it the first EU country ever to ignore an ECJ injunction.

With an ECJ verdict on whether the temporary ban should be upheld expected on Friday 15 September, on Monday 11 September the Commission called on the ECJ to couple its verdict on the continuation of the ban with fines on Poland for its breach of the initial logging injunction.

Agata Szafraniuk, a lawyer at NGO ClientEarth said:

“[Polish Environment] Minister Szyszko openly ignored this interim measure. This unprecedented flouting of a direct order has never happened before in the history of the EU. We hope, for the sake of the forest, that the Court will uphold the emergency logging ban and do everything to make Minister Szyszko obey the law, which is here to protect Bialowieza’s unique nature.”

Polish Environmental NGOs have backed the Commission’s call for a fine. They say this will be the only way to stop the logging.

At the ECJ in Luxembourg this week, Minister Szyszko reportedly lashed out at “people from the outside” telling Poland how to act. Such comments reveal how the Polish government wish the court case to be viewed: through the tired Eurosceptic trope of ‘bureaucrats from Brussels’ meddling in national affairs. And some media outlets have been only too happy to lap up this version of events.