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Climate activists hope stronger EU laws will protect member states' forests when governments won't

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By Samir Jeraj
In this March 24 , 2017 file photo, a bison stands among fir trees that have been logged, in the Bialowieza Forest, Poland.
In this March 24 , 2017 file photo, a bison stands among fir trees that have been logged, in the Bialowieza Forest, Poland.   -   Copyright  Adam Bohdan/AP Photo, FILE

At the beginning of the year, Poland started cutting a swathe through one of Europe’s most ancient forests, Białowieża, to block refugees with a 190-kilmometre wall along its border with Belarus.

“It's five, almost six meters high. It goes down with concrete that is underground. And it has razor wire on the top,” said Augustyn Mikos from the environmental organisation Workshop For all Beings, one that has frequently come into conflict with the Polish government's forestry policies.

Legal routes in Polish domestic courts are limited for environmental activists, due to the government's changes to the judiciary.

But climate activists hope that as the EU tries to enforce stronger forestry management and protection, member states will be forced to focus more on nature conservation. Some have already taken EU states to court over non compliance with the rules.

EU policies already offer some protection for forests

In 2017, Workshop for all Beings tried to stop logging in Białowieża in Poland's courts, but was unsuccessful.

“The interpretation of the law is constructed in such a way that the management plans of forests are not considered to be documents that can be reviewed by the court,” Mikos said.

But they took their case to the European Court of Justice and won against the government for allowing logging in Białowieża.

“There isn't something like a Common Agricultural Policy on forests,” said Georg Winkel, professor of forest and nature conservation policy at Wageningen University. “At the same time, there are several policies that still deal with forests.”

These include EU climate, energy, and environmental policy, but one of the challenges is that these all have different goals. Member states manage their forests differently as well.

For instance, Finland and Sweden use forests for economic production more often than Spain where land abandonment and forest fires are overall more pressing issues.

However, Winkel said, in the last three years there has been a “paradigm shift” on forests in the EU, moving away from a focus on biomass production towards climate change and biodiversity.

There's a question on whether the European Commission, or rather its member states, should set forestry policies.

Shift towards more conservation

The current shift towards more biodiversity conservation and climate issues has been a positive development for Winkel.

“In our data you can see that citizens prefer forests mostly for being nature, for biodiversity, and also for health,” he said.

Yet EU policy and surrounding debates still struggle with being “very technical”, largely confined to expert circles, with policy on forests not encouraging public participation, analysts say.

“The Forest Strategy made a really big step for the EU to carve out some concrete responsibility,” said Kelsey Perlman, forest and climate campaigner at Fern, a Dutch forests NGO.

In late November last year, the EU Council welcomed a new EU forest strategy for 2030, recognising "the need for forests to contribute more to the European Green Deal".

The Commission's proposal includes promoting sustainable forest management and planting three billion new trees by 2030 among other measures.

Prior to this, she said, there were a lot of “voluntary initiatives”, but the EU is now passing new laws on monitoring forests and setting targets on nature restoration.

"Those two laws are incredibly strong compared to what used to be just a voluntary strategy where not much happened over a decade," Perlman said.

The impetus for this, she said, is at least in part the EU moving in advance of the new international agreement on the Convention on Biological Diversity, scheduled to be adopted at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China. It's been touted as the Paris Agreement for nature and biodiversity.

"[This is] a big reason why the European Green Deal has been much more focused on nature than previous commission strategies.”

Still reliant on European courts

However, grassroots groups and environmentalists in member states will still largely be reliant on taking their governments to European courts in order to enforce the new laws, even though they will have more tools and data available to them.

“The government is not very excited to have more than legislation and to integrate environmental norms, they try to avoid it,” said Catalina Radulescu from Agent Green, an NGO based in Romania. The group uses EU laws to protect the country’s forests from logging.

Much of Radulescu’s recent work has been on challenging forest management plans, which are meant to be based on proper assessments, but in practice, she said, are done late or not at all.

This has led to “a lot of cases of habitat degradation," she said, adding that almost all of Romania’s forestry management plans are not approved correctly, but challenging them through national and then European Courts is a lengthy process.

Agent Green is currently waiting on a case filed with the European Court of Justice.

Illegal logging is also a lucrative business in Romania, and forest defenders are often at risk of coming to serious harm or death.

In 2019, two forest rangers were murdered, and the head of Agent Green was attacked several years earlier by people he claimed were sent by the “Forest Mafia”.

In January 2020, 1,600 trees were illegally logged in the Baneasa Forest near Bucharest, and the National Forest Inventory estimated at the time that 20 million cubic metres of wood were “disappearing” every year -- more than the 18.5 million wood that was legally extracted at the time.

Back in Poland, at least 19 people have died trying to make their way through the Białowieża forest and to safety in Europe, having been “pushed back” by the authorities.

The border wall is emblematic, Mikos said, of a xenophobic response to the refugee crisis, and the destruction of the environment.

The route of the wall will take it through at least nine areas protected under the EU's Natura 2000 programme.

“If you build a wall there, the ecological connectivity will be totally disrupted, the animals will not be able to move,” he said.