GB No. 2(13)/94
Many of you may already be familiar with the Białowieża Primeval Forest, Europe's last remaining stand of ancient lowland forest dating back as far as 8000 BC. Covering approximately 580 km2 along the Polish-Belorussian border, it represents a remnant of the vast lowland forests which once stretched across the greater part of the European continent. The forest is widely recognized as a site of unique biodiversity and has high international status, being listed as a World Heritage Site (it is the only natural site in Poland to receive this distinction), a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Core area, and in 1992, a recipient of grant money under the pilot phase of the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility (GEF).
However, despite such international recognition of its biological worth, the future of the Białowieża Forest is by no means secure. The wider Białowieża Forest (outside of the national park, which is the core zone of the biosphere reserve) is currently subject to intensive logging activity, which is removing forest ecosystems found nowhere else on the European continent. Although the Białowieża National Park, an "island" of 47 km2, is under strict legal protection, it has long been widely accepted that this area needs to be greatly enlarged as it does not contain representative samples of all the ecosystems typical of the whole forest. This is particularly important for the moose, beaver, wolf, lynx, owl, crane, and several species of eagle. Indeed, for the area to become a working biosphere reserve as stipulated by UNESCO, it is necessary to create buffer zones around the core area. Yet plans to increase the protection of the forest and to extend the boundaries of the biosphere reserve are far from being realized, even though the need is urgent. "If the number and areas of protected territory are not enlarged now, it will be too late to save the existing biodiversity," wrote Dr. Czeslaw Okolow, Director of the Białowieża National Park, in the WWF Baltic Bulletin (Autumn '93).
Last July the Polish government signed a loan agreement with the World Bank (WB) which will channel 146 million US$ into its floundering forestry industry. This initial loan will cost Poles a total of 335.4 million US$ to be repaid over the next 17 years. WB plans for Polish forestry development have already received a great deal of criticism and are being vigorously opposed by Polish environmentalists.
Meanwhile, the 4.5 million US$ GEF-funded project to conserve more of Europe's last remaining lowland primeval forest in Poland and Belorussia has so far (after two years) proven to be ineffective in securing the immediate expansion of protection that this unique forest so desperately needs. Despite the impressive-sounding proposals and projections of WB documents, official paper promises of the Polish State authorities, and a flurry of scientific activity in Białowieża itself, the fact remains that intensive logging activity in the area is threatening to remove all but a small pocket of this ancient forest so rich in biodiversity. The GEF support has even been described as nothing more than a green smoke screen to conceal the economic growth priorities of the larger commercial forestry development loan.
According to local reports, there are plans to increase logging by 25% this year. This includes clear-cutting and and removal of some of the oldest and most valuable tree stands. Unless a logging ban is introduced immediately, then much of the forest "to be protected" won't be there anymore. The Białowieża National Park is rapidly becoming a tree museum in a sea of pine plantations. It seems strange that, although the GEF project has been accorded "high priority" by the Polish government, the local forestry department seems to know very little about it. According to Stanisław Ignatjew, Chief of the Białowieża Forestry Department, there are no plans to decrease production, even if the biosphere reserve is expanded.
There are actions within Poland to change attitudes towards forestry, and environmental pressure groups such as the Workshop for All Beings are working to create constructive dialogue with the forestry sectors. However, this is a sensitive area whose cause has most certainly not been supported by the recent WB loan. The has been some allocation of funds in both the GEF project and the forestry development loan to promote more ecologically-oriented training (20,000 US$ in the GEF project, and 300,000 US$ from the larger loan). However, the details of these training areas are vague, and no specific reference is given to re-training of forestry staff. In view of the critical situation, these sums are barely adequate, and their potentially positive effects will, without doubt, come too late to protect areas like the Białowieża Forest. Our duty as an international community must be to encourage the Polish State to meet up with its official commitment to forest conservation.
Of course the situation must also be viewed from the perspective of a wider economic reality. In the short term, the commercial potential of the area is obviously far more attractive to the Polish government than its ecological value.
The local population is kicking up a fuss and blocking protection plans because they have been told that they will no longer receive income from a forest cutting tax due to a decrease in cutting levels if the biosphere is expanded. In 1991, the locals gained some rights to the forest in the form of entitlement to a tree-cutting tax from the forestry commission. This tax replaced the state support lost wilth the collapse of Communist rule in Poland. The local councils claim that it has become a valuable source of income for a community struggling to modernize itself. Of course, the locals are loathe to lose this revenue and are demanding compensation before they agree to the plans. Ironically, should the local communities be given this compensation (of around 300,000 US$ per year), it would go towards projects such as the conversion of coal-fired central heating systems and a sewage treatment plant -- projects which could act directly to reduce air and water pollution and hence be of direct benefit to the forest.
If all three communities of the Białowieża Forest were to be paid this compensation for ten years, the total amount needed would be three million dollars. This seems a small price to pay to set in motion effective preservation plans, but no compensation has been offered. The anticipation of future restrictions on logging coupled with this local obstacle to the biosphere installation are resulting in an increase in logging. Are the locals perhaps being used as a scapegoat for the current paralysis of the program -- their non-cooperation being utilized to mask the true economic agenda of the forestry sector?
So what has the GEF money given to Białowieża been used for so far? Responsibility for implementation of the grant lies mainly with the state forestry commission, where it is to be used for monitoring, assessments, planning, gene bank preparation, etc. A fair proportion of this money has been allocated to the Forestry Research Institute in Białowieża and has been spent on technical equipment such as computers, pollution monitoring, and a variety of specialist studies aimed at paving the way for the biosphere reservation. Many in Białowieża would agree that there has been a distinct over-emphasis on the importance of scientific "investment" in the GEF program. Perhaps, in this case, science is a false "champion," for it cannot deliver the forest quickly enough to safety before the industrial "dragon" has passed through, leaving a trail of destruction. The effectiveness of the GEF grant is further weakened by the lack of local involvement or any realistic appraisal of the social attitudes or economic expectations of the local community as a whole.
GEF as an environmental funding vehicle has been largely ineffective in dealing with this acute situation. If the international community is truly serious about supporting the conservation of forest biodiversity, it must realize that a completely new approach is required -- one which works from the bottom-up and which is prepared to follow the initiatives, the social and economic reality, and the true needs of the area in question.
adapted from texts by
Anna Adhemar and Jesper Petersen
2200 Copenhagen N, DENMARK