Nestled in the north-east of Poland, the Białowieża forest spans the country’s border with Belarus. The combined area of the Belarusian and Polish parts of the forest is more than 3,000 km2, boasting the largest population of European bison. It is also home to lynx, wolves, thousands of red deer, over two thousand fungi and – unfortunately for me – 28 mosquito species.
The forest is steeped in history. Russia controlled it until World War I when Germany temporarily took hold of the area. Narrow train tracks used by German forces to transport wood remain as a reminder of that brief period. Poland received the forest after the Great War but it once again came under Germany control during World War II when Adolf Hitler gifted the forest to Hermann Göring, an avid hunter who fancied the diverse wildlife. Göring prohibited logging in Białowieża, a practice which Russia and then Poland resumed after the War.
Logging has been at the centre of the forest’s history since then. In a landmark ruling in 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union found that the Polish government breached European Union (“EU”) law by failing to conduct proper assessments when increasing logging in Białowieża. The case raised the standard for forestry assessments throughout the EU.
I visited a UNESCO-protected natural park of over 100 km2 within the vast forest. Access to much of the area is currently prohibited because of the migrant crisis on the Poland-Belarus border deemed by several Poles I met as the greatest tragedy in the country.
The migrant crisis is attributed to recent deterioration in EU-Belarus relations in response to which the Belarusian president threatened to overwhelm Europe with migrants. The EU has condemned Belarus’s “instrumentalisation” of migrants. At least 24 people have lost their lives since the beginning of 2021 attempting to pass through Białowieża to get to the EU. In 2022 alone, Polish authorities have recorded over 4,000 attempts to cross the border which Poland has recently fortified with a €353 million wall stretching nearly 190 kilometres.
The intensified security operation in Białowieża is affecting wildlife that now find it challenging to move between the Polish and Belarusian parts of the forest. The significant security presence was immediately evident. Within minutes of arriving, Polish officials appeared out of nowhere to ask about the purpose of my visit. Armed border guards then approached just as I got in the rental car to leave the area.
My guide, Mateusz, warded them off. Mateusz grew up locally where he studied forestry at school and later at the University of Life Science in Warsaw. He has given tours of the forest for over 20 years, following in the footsteps of his father who is still a guide after four decades. “We are not protecting a forest here. We are protecting the process,” Mateusz declared, emphasising the importance of biodiversity. Dead wood and fallen trees now litter the forest floor to ensure that species can live naturally.
Most trees are native but are not immune to the global climate crisis. Increasingly hot weather has made the spruce more vulnerable to spruce bark beetles, which thrive in the warmer climate. These beetles target a spruce’s vital phloem and can kill a tree within a month because of the optimum temperatures they currently enjoy. The spruce bark beetles “had an impact previously but never killed as many trees,” Mateusz noted.
At first glance, environmental changes have not negatively affected the numerous pine trees. Mateusz suggested that the increased amount of nitrogen from vehicle emissions has enriched the soil, making a 100-year old pine tree now 50% taller than a pine tree of the same age a century ago. While they are taller, this exponential growth means that the pine trees are softer and weaker, Mateusz said, emphasising that few trees escape the consequences of pollution.
Mateusz believes that the first sign of climate change in the forest was around 45 years ago when spruces stopped regenerating. It is hard to understand why little has been done to save this natural site despite those early indications. “Our lifetime. Our 80 years. It is nothing. It is not even one generation of the forest,” Mateusz said. Our polluting lifestyles threaten the forest’s long lifespan.
Although delayed, positive action is now being taken. The European Commission last year presented the Council of the EU and the European Parliament with an EU Forest Strategy for 2030. The strategy was largely welcomed as a recognition the importance of forests like Białowieża in achieving the European Green Deal, a range of measures aimed at achieving climate neutrality in the Union by 2050. Among the strategy’s objectives are commitments to promote sustainable forest management, plant three billion additional trees by 2030 and improve biodiversity. While the strategy has faced some criticism, it has been widely regarded as a step in the right direction.
On the surface, Białowieża does not differ from other forests. However, unique realities hide within. Hopeful Belarusian migrants see the forest as a path to refuge in Europe; a hope that is ultimately shattered by strict Polish border policies. Thousands of organisms make up Białowieża’s intricate forest system. Unfortunately, the system cannot avoid the devastating consequences of climate change no matter how strong it may be. Even this seemingly isolated forest on a far-flung European frontier cannot avoid two of the greatest crises facing Europe.