GB No. 9, autumn 1992


The present campaign to save the Valley of the Upper Narew is by far the most protracted effort ever, in the history of ecological campaigns to save the Polish rivers.

The Narew, once regarded as one of the most beautiful rivers in the whole country, has nearly been reduced to the status of a stinking sewer. The Narew and its many tributaries meander through the north-eastern counties of Białystok, Łomża, Ostrołęka, and Ciechanów, to flow into the river Bug near Serock, making the Zalew Zegrzyński reservoir, where the main intakes of drinking water are located for the metropolitan Warsaw. A few miles outside the village of Łapy, in close proximity of Suraż, the Narew makes its slow progress across the realm of marshlands and peat bogs, meandring through the landscape of an unique natural beauty, the diversity and the profusion of species comparable only with the flood lands of the Amazon (hence the "Polish Amazonia"). In 1985 this area, covering 22.733 ha, had been granted the privileged status of a Landscape Park. The stretch of the Narew between Suraż and Żółtki is absolutely unique in terms of its capacity to act as a natural biological filter, being at the same time a huge storage reservoir and a breeding haven for the multitude of fish.

The area of the actual Park straddles the two counties: Białystok (20.900 ha) and Łomża (1.833 ha).

The ecological tragedy starts already in Łapy, for the past few years the site of a major sugar refinery. A few miles downstream, in Supraśl, where the municipal sewage from Białystok is being dumped straight into the river, the Narew is already nothing more but a stinking sewer, devoid of any life.

There is much more to it, however. A complex regional re-development scheme envisages the extensive drainage of the marshlands and straightening out of the natural river meanders to make it look more "civilized". And so, in the name of such civilization the Narew was slowly being turned into a huge drainage canal, collecting water from the surrounding swamps and peat bogs. The massive drainage commenced at the mouth of the Biebrza river and duly moved upstream. The civil action designed to stop its progress at Tykocin came to nothing. An important battle to retain the unique enclave of the genuine marshland vegetation in the region, was irrevocably lost. The damage caused by the drainage was so extensive, that many species of birds and a great number of endemic plants disappeared forever from the landscape.

The massive drainage scheme, rather arrogantly dubbed by its authors "the reclamation of hundreds of hectares of prime farmland" - as if it has ever been lost in the first place - eventually ran out of steam at Żółtki.

Before this actually happened, in 1978 the ecological periodical AURA had published the article of W. Mironiuk (Institute for Environmental Research and Control in Białystok), that in fact called into question the very validity of all arguments put forward by the authors of the scheme - BIPROMEL of Warsaw (The Centre for Water Design and Engineering).

He argued, that they had all conspicuously failed to carry out the comprehensive study of the natural specificity of the region, before the whole project was given a "go ahead". He pointed out, that "skimming through" the complexity of the issue in the engineering project of such magnitude, was simply inviting a major ecological catastrophe.

The then executive director of BIPROMEL disregarded the arguments of his colleague with ostensible disdain, describing them as biased and irresponsible. He also argued, that he "found it hard to understand, why should anyone want the Narew Valley to be left in its natural state". Such cynicism could have only be employed by somebody, who knew exactly that the vested interests of the local oligarchy had, in fact, been powering the whole project.

Mironiuk remained totally undeterred by the "force" of his adversary's rebuttals and still the same year had another feature article published, entitled: "The Destructive Drainage", in ŻYCIE WARSZAWY. Again, his adversaries were quick to reply. This time the glove was picked up by the very Head of the Department of Agriculture at the county headquarters of the Communist Party (the subsequent Governor), who proceeded to tell his readers that Mr Mironiuk was simply a sensationalist and a scare monger, and that his alarmist pronouncements had no grounding in reality, whatsoever.

Exactly a year later, in his next report, Mironiuk made a series of very accurate predictions, that in the course of the following years all came true. The gist of the arguments put forward in "The Landscape Transformation in the Narew Valley" was, that the greatest damage to the natural environment of the whole region would be done by virtue of implementing the drainage scheme in the central part of the area - water would then run off like from a cracked wash-basin, and therefore any research to be subsequently carried out on the remaining stretch of the river would be plain pointless, for there would be nothing much left to study. If the protection was to be taken really seriously, the whole drainage scheme would simply have to be aborted there and then.

W. Mironiuk had been battling it out with the local oligarchy for some twenty five years, totally dedicated to his task, regarding it simply as his duty to posterity. Then, out of a sudden, in the times of the "Green Lungs of Poland", he was dismissed from his post.

The cronicle of the river Narew Landscape Park is opened by a commemorative postcard, depicting a bird in full flight over the marshlands. The caption describes the area as "comparable only with the most unique sites of natural beauty, like the Puszcza Białowieska forest, the river Biebrza marshlands and the Tatras mountains".

If W. Mironiuk was the veteran of the long and drawn-out struggle, to save the uniqueness of the area from utter destruction, then Bolesław Bielicki, the then executive director of the Park, was soon to become its epitome.

Every May, the whole Narew Valley comes alive with thousands of marshland birds circling overhead on the look-out for the right nesting site. They begin laying their eggs completely unaware, that very shortly the whole area, thickly carpeted with dried-up reeds and rushes, will soon be turning into the ocean of raging fire storm. The fire started by "unknown arsonists" will have consumed a few thousand hectares of marshland with any wildlife that may have been trapped within, and the soil will have thus become even more fertile and ready for cultivation.

The Narew Landscape Park epitomizes, as it were, a typical conflict of interests: natural marshlands are indeed hardly suitable for farming. This conflict has been simmering for years, with the person of the Park's executive director, Bolesław Bielicki, as the chief adversary of the drainage lobby.

As Bielicki was really getting in the way, it had been agreed that he would then have to be given "the chop", so as to stop him interfering with the "agricultural progress" in the area once and for all. And so it came to pass. The appropriate petition was duly signed by a great many local farmers, who understood, that Bielicki was trying to stop them from using efficient and modern methods of farming, and submitted to the local authorities.

Bielicki was trying to enlist the support of the officials from the Dept. of Environmental Protection at the Provincial Administrative Office at Białystok, who by rights should have been his allies - all in vain. The officials could not make out why Bielicki was so keen on saving the useless marshlands and all their wildlife.

Before the actual "chop" was finally delivered by the Governor, as formally requested by the Head of the aforementioned Department of Environmental Protection, Bielicki managed to get together with a number of ecological organizations, both in Poland and abroad, and launched a nationwide campaign to save the Upper Narew Valley from utter destruction by human greed and stupidity.

In one of the leaflets published in German by the Foundation for the European Natural Heritage it says:

"The Narew marshlands are drying up, due to the extensive drainage. In order to stop this process and bring the area back to its original state, some 500ha of drained marshland would have to be bought over. This would in turn make it possible, to salvage the site for posterity as a monument of natural heritage". Underneath - the number of a bank account and the code word: NAREW.

The fact that all this international assistance in the bid to save the Narew Park proved so widespread, can only be attributed to Bielicki's great personal clout and his tireless efforts in enlisting as much specialist contribution to his cause as possible.

He managed to attract the attention of the Workshop for All Beings, whose members later put in a lot of voluntary work in working out the complete urban design for the Centre of Ecological Education in Kurów, subsequently also contributing to its curriculum. The Centre was meant to propagate the ecologically oriented farming techniques, eco-tourism and the academic research within the Park itself. Later on, Social Ecological Institute, Ekoland and Greenpeace joined in.

Thanks to his personal contacts in the academic community, Bielicki did also manage to organize the 1st International Seminar on Ornithology in Kurów, well attended by specialists from six Western European countries. This was to give grounds to a very successful co-operation with the ornithologists and ecologists from Germany, Switzerland and Holland.

Today, nobody even remembers what was eventually given as the official reason for Bielicki's dismissal.

In November 1990, the Social Ecological Institute lodged an official protest with the Minister of Environment, one Bronisław Kamiński, signed by a few dozen ecologists attending the International Forum NGOs on"Ecology & Development".

By the end of 1990, the District Committee of "Solidarity" in Białystok had set up a special panel, entrusted with the task of investigating the situation in the Narew Landscape Park.

One of the conclusions presented by the panel was that Bielicki had been unfairly dismissed from the post of an executive director of the Park, and all charges against him had been fabricated.

As to the officials from the Provincial Department of Environmental Protection, the report states the following:

"The persons responsible for the damage sustained by the natural environment in the area, apparently owing to their extensive personal connections, have not as yet been called to account for their highly destructive decisions, when in office; the majority of them still remaining in office and pursuing the very same policies. (...) This group of bureaucrats appears to be well consolidated and is aggressively disdainful of any protests lodged by the ecological activists against the power monopoly held by this totally corrupt clique".

The final recommendation was to rename the infamous Department of Environmental Protection into the Department of Environmental Degradation.

In 1990 the Białystok Ecological Club formally approached the District Director of Public Prosecutions to have the persons responsible for the ecological catastrophe in the Upper Narew Valley charged with conspiracy to cause an extensive damage to the natural environment under false pretences, and put in the dock.

After two years of complete inaction, the District DPP finally advised the Club, that he was in no position to instigate any criminal proceedings against the people in question.

And no wonder, as the matter had all the hallmarks of a personal grudge.

Bowing to the mounting public pressure, the Białystok Governor, one St. Prutis [who earlier on personally dismissed Bielicki from his post], called in the State Inspection for the Environmental Protection to investigate the Upper Narew Valley business.

The Inspection duly delivered its verdict, following the on-site investigation. A few dozen pages long report concluded that the following factors proved detrimental to the area:

The Inspection recommended, that the Governor should immediately rectify all faulty or inadequate procedures pertaining to the actual administration of the Park. Among the most apparent drawbacks in this respect the Inspection listed the following:

Later on, the Chief Inspector wrote an official letter to the Governor stating, that the establishment of the Landscape Park had not, in fact, made adequate provisions for the effective protection of the ecological assets of the area. The Inspector also firmly rejected the opinion, that Bielicki was allegedly the person to blame for the situation.

The official explanation of the causes of this ecological disaster did not satisfy the Director of Public Prosecutions, however. The reason given to the Białystok Ecological Club for his refusal to instigate criminal proceedings in the case referred to as NR II Ds 4/90, was the conclusion of the study, carried out by a group of experts, headed by one Janusz Janecki, PhD,. The study on "The Ecological Impact of the Drainage Works in the Upper Narew Valley on the natural environment of the region" concludes, that all pertinent water engineering designs and their subsequent implementation, envisaging the introduction of an intensive farming in the drained areas, had been carried out in accordance with the appropriate regulations and also reflected the scientific body of knowledge at the time of the study. The study was done in wide consultation with the academic centres and oficially approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and the local authorities.

And so, all the perpetrators have now been officially absolved of all responsibility, courtesy of the experts headed by the President of the League for the Conservation of Nature himself.

This would have been indeed a very sad ending to this story, if not for the fact, that the joint effort of many ecological organizations, spearheaded by the Social Ecological Institute and the Committee to Save the Narew, is soon to result in the official establishment of the Narew National Park.

For the first time ever the motion of such great ecological significance will have been carried through solely on the strength of the personal initiative and dedication of all people involved.

Jolanta Pawlak
transl. by Sigillum Ltd.

GB No. 9, autumn 1992 | Contents