WARSAW — Poland is building a border wall to keep out illegal migrants, but the barrier will also cut through one of the Continent’s most significant wild areas, scientists warn.
The planned wall slashes through the Białowieża Forest, regarded as one of the last surviving patches of the primeval forest that once covered Europe.
Part of the forest lies in Poland, and some areas are covered by the EU’s Natura 2000 environmental protection network, while the rest is in Belarus. It is also a cross-border UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of just 218 such sites worldwide.
But Białowieża Forest became the site of a border crisis last year after Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko encouraged people to fly to Minsk and try to enter the EU. Poland declared a state of emergency along the frontier and put up a temporary wire fence, which is now being replaced by a 5.5-meter steel wall with surveillance equipment.
Poland’s right-wing government is coming under fire for racing the project through without due regard for EU nature protection rules.
In a letter sent to the Commission on Monday, more than 600 scientists and researchers called on Brussels “to take all the possible measures to immediately halt the construction of the wall.”
“The construction of the wall will create a barrier with devastating consequences, leading to permanent interruption of the functional connectivity of the ecological corridors of the Natura 2000 network on the national and European scale,” the letter said.
The government has pledged that construction works will strive for minimal impact and that “in places of naturally occurring migration corridors, passages for animals will be provided,” the ministry of environment and climate said on January 21. Border Guard officials said that trees will only be cut where “absolutely necessary.”
But the government is so keen to build the wall fast that it has exempted the construction from water and environmental laws.
Heavy equipment started work on January 25 on the 186-kilometer-long wall, including roughly 50 kilometers through the Białowieża Forest National Park. The construction of the 1.6 billion złoty (€350 million) wall is expected to take 150 days.
“I hope that the wall won’t ever get built and if the worst happens and it will get built, we will want to dismantle it after the next election,” MP Urszula Zielińska, the co-leader of the Polish Greens, told POLITICO. The Greens are part of the Civic Coalition, Poland’s largest opposition party.
The European Commission is also calling for caution.
“These type of projects, due to their potential impact on the Natura 2000 sites, should be subject to an appropriate assessment pursuant to the Habitats Directive. In line with the directive, the authorities can approve the project if it is confirmed that it would not have significant negative effect on the integrity of the sites concerned,” said a Commission spokesperson.
Experts worry that negative effects are inevitable. Even if the migration gates for animals are installed, already vulnerable species like wolves and lynx will be further in danger. The forest is also home to one of Europe’s last populations of wild bison.
“The result will be a decrease in the already low genetic variability of species like lynx or wolf. Small and isolated populations are more vulnerable and the loss even of a single individual, especially a reproducing female, could prove an existential threat,” said Rafał Kowalczyk, professor of zoology at the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Mammal Research Institute based in Białowieża.
Kowalczyk also says that the wall will effectively end the existence of a single forest straddling the Polish-Belarusian border — which could threaten the forest’s UNESCO status.
Poland’s environmental NGO Naturalists’ Club lodged a complaint with the European Commission last fall, arguing that the wall will breach the Habitats Directive.
In theory, Poland could argue that the project is of overriding public interest, allowing Warsaw to dodge the directive. The Commission spokesperson said: “The authorities have to first prove lack of other suitable alternatives and implement appropriate compensatory measures.”
The letter from researchers said the project “should be subject to a substantive and in-depth analysis.”
“While understanding the need to protect the integrity of the European Union border and being aware of other aspects of the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border, we take the firm view that this project must be implemented in accordance with European Union law,” they said.
Alternatives do exist, said Zielińska.
“We don’t need walls in the 21st century, there is technology that could be used for monitoring illegal migration if need be, without damaging the environment,” she said.
It’s not the first clash between Poland and Brussels over Białowieża.
Logging in the forest landed Poland in the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2017. The CJEU ruled the following year that Poland had failed to ensure that the management plan for the Białowieża Forest would not adversely affect the integrity of the Natura 2000 sites in the area.
Poland eventually suspended logging but is expected to send to the Commission new management plans early this year.
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