February 21st, 2018
The Advocate General at the European Court of Justice has found that Poland breached EU law with its recent scaling up of logging in the ancient Białowieża woodland.
Advocate General Yves Bot proposed yesterday that the Court should rule that Poland has failed to fulfil its obligations under those directives.
The legal opinion of an advocate general is given as part of the formal procedure in a case before the ECJ. The final judgement is often in line with that of the Advocate General.
Białowieża, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which straddles the border of Poland and Belarus, is a relic of the primeval lowland woodland that once blanketed much of Central Europe.
It is widely regarded as the best-preserved forest ecosystem in Europe and harbours the largest population of European Bison.
In Belarus, the woodland is protected as a National Park. However, on the Polish side, Białowieża is divided into two major segments – one a protected National Park in which natural succession is allowed to occur, and the other designated for state-managed forestry.
In 2016, Polish Minister for the Environment, Jan Szyszko, authorised a tripling of logging activity in the woodland, citing the spread of the spruce bark beetle and the associated risk of forest fire.
Polish environmental scientists, however, said that this reasoning is a Trojan horse to allow for large-scale commercial forestry in an otherwise protected woodland.
In response, a number of Polish and international environmental NGOs filed complaints with the European Commission, claiming that the activities run in breach of EU environmental law.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee also expressed its concern, and urged the Polish government to reverse its decision.
Last July, the EU Commission announced that it would commence legal proceedings against the Polish government on the matter, and instructed Polish authorities to cease logging activities in the ancient woodland pending the ECJ ruling.
In an unprecedented act of defiance, Minister Szyszko indicated that logging in Białowieża would proceed in spite of the Commission’s decision.
In November, the ECJ countered by imposing a minimum €100,000 fine for each day that the logging ban was breached.
According to EU Timber Regulation, illegally harvested timber may not be traded within the EU. Notably, it is left up to individual member states to define what constitutes ‘illegal’ harvesting – but only as long as the activities in question are not in contravention with other EU legislation.
Since the Białowieża Forest has been designated as a protected site under both the EU Habitats and Birds Directives, Polish authorities are legally obliged to refrain from activities that adversely affect the site’s ecological integrity.
The ruling of the ECJ – expected in a number of weeks – will be decisive. Poland’s new Minister for the Environment, Henryk Kowalczyk, has said that his department will respect the European court’s decision.
Environmental organisations welcomed the position of Advocate General, with the European Green Party stating that: “Europe must fight to protect the environment using the legal and institutional tools at its disposal”.
Friends of the Earth Europe tweeted their approval: “An important – yet all too rare – example of the EU cracking down on illegal destruction and enforcing our vital nature laws”.
By Lorraine Guerin
Lorraine is a freelance writer on agroecology, sustainable forestry and the impact of policy on the environment. She is currently studying for an MSc in Environmental Management & Policy, specialising in agri-environmental policy in the Irish context.