Note: On Friday July 28 the European Court of Justice ordered that the logging of Białowieża Forest must stop immediately.
The interim decision comes after the European Commission sued the government of Poland on July 13 for proceeding with the logging despite previous warnings, as well as statements from UNESCO and other environmental lobby groups to stop the logging. The case is still in progress, and if Poland loses, it may face severe penalties. See continued coverage from The Guardian here.
In March 2016 the Polish government decided to triple the quota for logging in the forest, including areas not planted within the frameworks of forest management – meaning that trees more than a hundred years old are being cut down every day. The government refers to a bark beetle outbreak as an excuse for the logging, but environmentalists claim the reason is much more prosaic: state corporations and local foresters are turning a fat profit from selling the logged wood.
In May 2017, activists set up a permanent camp in the village of Białowieża, to protest the logging through direct action and engagement with the local community. Political Critique interviewed two of them about life in the camp and the possibilities of resistance.
You’ve been living in a camp in the Białowieża Forest for some time. How long has it been, exactly?
Jakub Rok: I came there at the end of May, during the first blockade – and the official opening of the camp followed a few days after. So, with minor breaks, I have been there ever since, all in all around 4 weeks.
Joanna Pawluśkiewicz: I’ve also been there since the beginning, and saw how the camp was being built, when people weren’t able to live there yet. I’ve also had some breaks, but the longest I’ve stayed there was a whole month.
How has the camp evolved since you set it up?
JP: When I first saw it, it was all covered in tall grass and there were only a few buildings here and there. Then, within two weeks, it was already well prepared for taking people in – and now it’s very well organised. I think everybody did a great job: it’s not only environmentally friendly and in harmony with the local residents, but it is also well equipped with facilities. It’s all set up and functioning well. I consider it a huge success.
JR: It’s also great to see how it’s becoming more and more settled. At the beginning it was just a raw space, which was later filled with the ideas and creativity of the people who passed through. It grows and grows. At the beginning it was just a plot of land with some sheds and barns. Now it’s a real activist camp with a lot of energy. It’s great to see this.
JP: The people who come bring their ideas to the camp. Since it’s run by the whole group together, people can express their creativity and do things independently. I haven’t been there for 3 days, and I must say, I really miss it: not only the work and the atmosphere – it really has something special. I’ve seen it before how an idea can connect so many people, and of course there are some problems from time to time, but to see how everyone brings their ideas and respects the rules of the camp is very special.
I come from Hungary, where the democratic culture is similarly developing – and I can really relate that whenever I took part in similar events, it can be of such educational value for the participants themselves, to have an “experience” of democracy, too.
JR: This was one of the founding ideas of the camp, that it should be organised bottom-up, according to the principles of self-organisation, DIY, and direct democracy. It’s interesting to see how these develop over time and how the democratic institutions in the camp are becoming more and more established. For instance, every day we have a meeting for the whole collective where we discuss all the important issues of the day and the plans for the next day – it’s interesting to see how people are entering this way of decision-making. For some of them it’s new, others have more experience in this, but everyone is included, and hopefully everyone can find their place.
How many people are at the camp now and what kind of people join?
JP: It depends on the day (more people come during the weekend), but I’d say approximately 40 at any given time, on average. The camp is very open, which can be difficult at times, as we cannot easily accommodate children or pets. But the camp is very diverse: we have not only the experienced activists who are ready to chain themselves to the harvesters, but also short-time visitors who just come for a short time to bring food or supplies, biology teachers from 400 hundred kilometres away, professional activists from the Czech Republic, students from different cities, and entire families. Some of them know less about the forest, others know more.
JR: As Joanna said, the fact that there are so many less experienced activists here is really changing the atmosphere of the camp, which is very important. This is a protest camp, and it could easily be overwhelmed by an atmosphere of seeing ourselves as warriors and “fighting like men”, and so on. And the fact that the majority of those taking responsibility and coordinating projects at the camp are women, I think, is also the reason why it’s easier not to adapt a very gender-specific way of creating tension and thinking through the macho perspectives of muscles and power or wanting to be like the Warsaw Uprising.
The necessity to protect “nature” or “primeval forests” is pretty abstract for a lot of people. What makes this particular forest (which, according to your material is only 0,7% of Polish forests) so important?
JR: This is a long story, but one thing I’d like to highlight, is that I see an ontological divide between two groups who are in struggle over the forest’s future and how it should be managed. One perspective is rooted in an exploitative view of managing environmental resources to be used by people. This is, typically, the approach of the foresters. According to the second perspective, what is taking place in the forest are all natural processes, which are valuable in themselves, and are worth protecting because this forest is one of the last spots where human intervention has not yet been strong enough to interfere with these natural processes. According to this approach, the forest does not have to be useful for humans in order to have value: it is valuable in itself. This is why it is so hard to find a common ground between the two perspectives, because the basic difference in understanding is rooted in fundamentally different principles and values.
As to why this particular forest is so unique, there are a couple of basic facts worth repeating. It is the only remaining natural forest in the European Lowlands. Personally, I find it very important and even majestic that there is a place here in Europe which was not created by and for humans and which has its own organising forces.
JP: I have seen many forests in my life, but this one is completely different. This forest was organically created by itself, and it has been here for thousands of years. It used to be huge but now it’s tiny and if we kill it there will be no connection between us and “nature as it is” in Europe anymore. People often get very emotional about this forest, or even feel about it spiritually, because it’s so different from other forests. You can see it easily: it has very different colours, different plants. I find it unbelievable that someone doesn’t recognise this – this conflict sometimes seems plainly absurd. It’s like killing a huge organism, and it is invaluable, just like the Great Barrier Reef, or Mount Everest.
JR: Another important issue that motivates me, is that there are certain points of no return: if we cut down the forest which wasn’t planted by humans, it cannot be reversed – even if we plant new seedlings. And this is what’s happening there: there are many natural parts of the forest which are being razed in order to plant new trees. But these processes cannot be reversed.
JP: I find it unbelievable. It’s like destroying one of the most valuable things we have here in Poland. Therefore, I don’t think it’s an economic struggle: it’s an ideological one.
JR: Exactly. There is a lot of ideology at the basis of this – but on the other hand, financial and economic interests also play a significant role. The government earns real money for what they are doing there. For many people involved in the logging, it is not only their source of income but also of power. It is also very much connected with the power relations in the local communities; and this is also why the exploitative logic of the foresters’ narrative is so prevalent among them. They are the privileged ones in these communities and have a lot of influence, therefore it is easy for them to spread their own narrative of the forest.