For two and a half years, environmentalists have waged a war with the Polish authorities for Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Europe's last and largest remaining patches of Europe's original primeval forest.
In April 2018, the European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court, ruled that Poland violated EU laws by logging in the forest, imposing fines of a minimum of 4.3 million euros (five million US dollars), potentially rising to 100,000 euros a day, if the felling doesn't stop.
In March 2016, former Polish Environment Minister Jan Szyzko, a member of the Law and Justice party who's backed by forester lobbies, approved tripling the amount of wood that could be harvested from Białowieża, allegedly to combat an infestation by the bark beetle. In July, a handful of Polish environmental organizations filed a formal complaint to the European Commission, which then sued Poland in the EU Court of Justice.
Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, Białowieża includes extensive undisturbed areas and is home to a rich wildlife of which 59 mammal species, including the European bison. But while on the Belarussian side over 80 percent of its extension is circumscribed under a national park, only 17 percent of Poland's forest enjoys a similar level of protection.
Watchdog environmental organizations say at least 160,000-180,000 trees have been felled since Szyzko's 2016 new management plan.
Neglect for the environment is an issue touching all corners of Eastern Europe. In Romania, Greenpeace estimates that three hectares of trees are lost every hour in the Carpathian mountains, also home to one of Europe's last patches of primeval forest. In Slovakia, official declarations that forests are growing undermined by aerial photography.
In Poland, Szyzko was eventually sacked in January 2017, only days after another controversial bill which he had sponsored was approved in parliament. The bill removes the obligation for private landowners to apply for permission to cut down trees or to inform local authorities that trees have been or will be removed.
The new environment minister, Henryk Kowalczyk, agreed to comply with the EU’s decision, but controversy still surrounds his administration. In May, he established a team to envision a long-term plan for the forest, including plans to replant the logged areas, which environmentalists claim could do more harm than good.
In May 2017, protestors established a permanent camp in the forest, often chaining themselves to harvest machines. The settlement, organized on a bottom-up basis, encouraged the development of online petitions and international awareness.
The situation detonated when some protestors were forcibly removed from the area, in handcuffs, by the Forestry Corps, and a legal ban was put in place to forbid entry to certain parts of the land. By the height of 2017 Summer, the Environment Ministry had declared any opposition to logging would be seen as political opposition.
As Poland’s state media, which had been increasingly subject of intervention by the government of the conservative Law and Justice party, began to attack these protests with vitriol, campaigners decided to season their message with patriotic sentiment, promoting a message of national heritage that is in line with the party's ideas.
A digital 3D model of the forest, produced by a collaboration between Greenpeace and Minecraft, allows players to explore Białowieża complete with biodiversity and weather patterns. Called “To the Last Tree Standing”, the game eventually removes the trees from players’ sight without warning, leaving them scrambling to find the last one.