GB No. 9, autumn 1992
Despite the radical changes in the political system of our country, nothing much has as yet stirred in the domain of the environmental protection, let alone any breakthrough in the approach to the issue itself. Although, admittedly, the number of newly established national parks and nature reserves has increased, one still has precious little grounds for optimism.
It is generally assumed, that a system of environmental protection in a particular country can be efficient only in the situation, when the total area of national parks covers between 2% and 3% of its territory. In Poland this figure is just 0,6%, an average area of a national park covering a mere 10.000 ha.
In comparison, in Romania it is 1,72%, In Czecho-Slovakia - 1,86%, an average size of a park covering some 40.000 ha; in France - 2,1%, av. size 200.000 ha; let alone Albania (0,94), or Latvia and Estonia (1,3%).
Only by virtue of attempting such comparisons can we realize how far behind have we actually fallen in respect to the effective ecological policies - by European standards.
Romania might easily serve as a good example to follow - all national parks had been established there within a year (in 1989).
Our endeavours in this domain can only be regarded as ludicrous, although, it has to be borne in mind, the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Forestry, has been assigned only 2 bln zł for their annual budget, out of which 148 mld zł is allocated for the top priority projects: national parks and forestry (100 for the forestry and 40 for the national parks).
At the same time, the current budget of the on-going construction of the Czorsztyn Dam to be put across the Dunajec river, is an annual drain on the financial resources of the said Ministry for the handsome sum of 200 mld.zł. Not a small matter, considering that the Czorsztyn Dam is but one of many hare-brained schemes being currently financed by the Ministry, out of the taxpayer's pocket, that is.
The situation is already quite serious, as the ecological crisis deepens. The policies of the present government hardly offer any tangible remedies, manipulating the concept of "eco-development" as a political ploy, with no strings attached.
Paradoxically enough, eco-development seems to be just about the only domain in which Poland could easily keep up with the rest of Europe, as for a start it merely requires a bundle of stringent environmental regulations with a few in-build safeguards, to guarantee their consistent and successful implementation across the whole country.
As it happens, the majority of existing national parks and nature reserves are in serious jeopardy. In many of those areas regular logging is still the order of the day, from some parks, (as in the lake Wigry National Park) the timber used to be spirited out at nights, in the Wielkopolski National Park [central Poland] there were areas, where the logging was carried out on an industrial scale - to the very last trunk. In the midst of the Bieszczady National Park, at Wołosate, a large border crossing is being planned by the local authorities. Should they succeed, it would simply mean the beginning of the end for this Park.
The Wielkopolski National Park is cut right across by a motor way, in the Tatras many mountain chalets are not equipped with any sewage treatment facilities, the rough sewage polluting mountain streams, of which only a few can boast the 2nd degree of cleanliness. In the Mazurian Lake District, within the area of the prospective national park, hardly any lake conforms to any standards of cleanliness; only a mere 1% of them can boast the 1st degree of cleanliness (as opposed to 36% in the 1970s), while only a few fall within the 2nd degree category. Many of the picturesque lakes have been reduced to the role of biologically dead reservoirs of rough sewage. At the bottom, underneath a few meters of dead water, a massive amount of sulphuretted hydrogen is usually trapped, supressing all life. The main culprits are obviously to be found among the countless hotels and rest houses dumping their untreated sewage straight into the lakes. In the Augustów region, following the establishment of the Lake Wigry National Park, all hotels with no funds allocated for the construction of their own sewage treatment stations had been simply closed down until further notice. And a dramatic improvement in the quality of water in the surrounding lakes followed shortly.
It would appear, by virtue of a simple analogy, that the ecological survival of the Mazurian Lake District can only be successfully achieved by a prompt incorporation of the whole area into a National Park.
This idea seem to run contrary to the desires of the local community councillors, apparently stirred up by the foresters and game keepers, who stand to lose their substantial bonuses, once the area has been declared out of bounds for all hunters, particularly the foreign ones. In order to win over the support of the local community, they keep spreading rumours that the establishment of the national park would result in the closure of the local saw-mill, furniture workshop and that farming would no longer be allowed, either. The situation is identical almost all over the country. For that reason alone the National Council for the Protection of Nature has been unable to push through the pertinent legislation, so as to have the five new national parks established: in the Mazury lake district, on the river Biebrza marshlands, in the Bory Tucholskie forest, in the Góry Stołowe mountain range and the Magura region.
The Ministry of Environment is draging its feet over the formal motion to have these parks established, confronted with the intransigence of the foresters' lobby. Meanwhile, the chance to save all ecologically jeopardized areas from irreversible devastation might soon be lost.
By the year 2000 we could possibly have over 30 national parks; the ecological lobby has been strongly advocating the establishment of another 12 parks, apart from the substantial enlargement of the existing 13.
In most cases, however, the projects are being torpedoed by the local authorities and the Management of the State Forestry Enterprise - the main adversary. On many occassions the opposing views are being aired in the presence of the Western sponsors, who come over in a bid to help Poland save its natural environment (i.e. World Bank, McArthur Foundation, Worldwide Fund).
Similar circumstances usually accompany all endeavours to have the nature reserves established in some ecologically unique areas. Eventually, in the majority of cases, their areas do not exceed 50 ha; while in some counties, the total area of protected zones does not even cover 100 ha, which, compared to the average size of a county being some 630.000 ha, is quite negligible.
The ecological policies of the present Polish government have long lost their credibility. The enthusiastic declarations of the government officials supposed to safeguard the execution of the said policies, have a rather hollow ring to them, in view of the newly approved guidelines for the development of the national forestry, (apparently prepared in consultation with the World Bank) envisaging a much intensified logging, a "rejuvenation" of forests by way of felling the oldest trees, and also a set of unspecified measures described by the all inclusive term "thinning out".
In practice it simply translates into ripping out as much timber as possible from as many places as possible, regardless of the circumstances, with making a fast buck as the sole aim.
Should this plan be ever implemented, there would be hardly any forested areas left in the whole country. As it is, Poland's forestation is already much below the European average in this respect, as well as is the health of the forests themselves (70% of damaged trees). In the Sudety range there are presently 13.000 ha of dead forests, similar damage is being sustained by the forests in the Beskid Żywiecki and ¦l±ski mountainous regions. As there is little likelyhood of bringing the air pollution in the region effectively under control, the problem can only be exacerbated in the foreseeable future.
For the foresters, however, logging is the only feasible way of getting the basic revenue, needed to finance all other ventures. For the foresters, therefore, it all boils down to the quantity of timber they can prospectively sell.
What is being overlooked in the chase after the hard currency, is the fact that the potential gain resulting from actually sparing the forests by far exceeds the one obtained from the intensive logging.
The forests retain the rainwater in the soil (1m of a forested area can retain as much rainwater as 17m of pasture), moderate the climate, bring in more rain to the area and generally clean the air. These are, obviously, the long range benefits, that cannot be cashed in immediately, and most regretfully, not in hard currency, either.
The establishment of the new national parks and nature reserves seems very much the order of the day. The status of a mere Landscape Park, is hardly an effective protection against organized devastation, as can be inferred from the reports coming in from all over the country. In the river Narew Landscape Park, the local authorities brought about a virtual ecological catastrophe: an extensive drainage of the marshlands, burning of rushes and tree felling has inflicted an irreparable damage to the area once dubbed "the Polish Amazonia".
In the area of the river Biebrza Landscape Park, the local farmers had felled some 2.000 ha of forest, in the Spring, taking obvious advantage of the recent legislation, allowing the logging of privately owned forests without an official license normally issued by the State Forestry Enterprise. In the neighbouring forestry district of Trzcianka, within just one week some 600 ha of forest was felled. Roughly the same situation seems to be very much in evidence in the whole Beskidy range.
The resultant changes in the eco-system are usually irreversible. A recent draught was only one manifestation of such changes. An extensive drainage of marshlands, artificial reinforcement of the river banks and deforestation of mountainous regions is bound to result in the progressive dehydration of the soil - already some 36% of farmland is being inadequately irrigated.
The rainwater, instead of being retained in the soil, runs off very fast into the rivers. It is high time we all understood that the effective protection of the natural environment is, in fact, in our own interest.
The politicians, however, are hardly aware of the gravity of the problem, concentrating on slinging hollow slogans of eco-development and doing nothing to implement it in their policies, always bowing to the economic expediency of one sort or another.
In Britain ecology was taken seriously for the first time in the 1960s - during a single day the London smog claimed 4.000 fatalities.
Do we also need this kind kind of shock therapy? Do we really need to be held to ransom, to start acting responsibly?