Not long ago Poland embodied Europe’s worst nature-destroying tendencies.
Białowieża is one of the last remaining fragments of primaeval forest in Europe and a Unesco World Heritage site, which has been protected for 500 years. Not surprisingly, a 2022 study found Poland to be the EU’s ‘least green country‘.
Our parliamentary election last October changed everything. The country’s highest turnout for more than a century turfed out the ruling nationalist populist government in favour of a liberal-left coalition, led by Donald Tusk. And the new government has made a 180 degree turn by initiating highly ambitious measures to safeguard nature.
These include protecting 20% of our most valuable forests from logging: equivalent to more than 1.4 million hectares of forest; restricting unprocessed wood exports; banning burning wood for energy in the commercial energy sector; giving citizens new rights to oversee forests, including being able to legally challenge how they are managed; and implementing a programme to restore wetlands and peatlands.
These rapid, bold moves come just as parts of Europe are moving in the opposite direction, with a growing backlash against policies to fight the climate crisis and protect the environment, vividly illustrated by the farmers’ protests which have erupted in France, Belgium and elsewhere.
Białowieża was the catalyst for the change.
In 2016, during an outbreak of bark beetles which attacked spruces in Białowieża, Poland’s then Environment Minister used it as an excuse to justify logging in the prehistoric forest, known as Europe’s last frontier.
I was one of many people spurred to act. I gave up my job in tourism to join the protest camp in Białowieża, living there for eight months, joining fellow activists in patrolling the forest, making inventories of the logging and staging sit-ins to try to stop it.
The European Court of Justice ruled that Poland was breaching EU environmental law and that if it didn’t stop logging Białowieża, the government would be fined €100,000 ($107,000) a day. Eventually the Polish government caved in to the massive local mobilisation and international pressure, and stopped the logging.
For much of Polish society, the case was a turning point.
Protests in both villages and cities across the country drew people who had never supported forest conservation before. Grassroots groups sprung up all over Poland. This wave of opposition against intensive logging grew to such an extent that there are now more than 100 groups campaigning against logging in specific local forests, and 85% of respondents to an opinion poll we commissioned in January 2024 said they were in favour of excluding 20% of the most precious forests in Poland from logging.
Subsequently, for the first time in Polish history, forest conservation became a major topic in our recent election. All the opposition parties who have now formed the ruling coalition had provisions for forest conservation in their electoral programmes. These are now being acted upon.
Public pressure is being translated into concrete action despite Poland having one of Europe’s biggest wood-processing industries. The new government – and we – are confident that it is possible to achieve forest conservation without harming the economy.
Poland shows that what seems impossible one moment can be realistic the next: that concerted civil society pressure really works, and that if people want pro-environmental policies they must pressure their governments to implement them.
Of course, as hopeful as recent developments are, they are just a start, and those who want to protect the natural world must remain vigilant. Events last year in the European Parliament show what’s at stake – and how politicians can be pushed by the prevailing tides, adopting different positions depending on the setting.
Last summer the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) almost torpedoed one of the most crucial pieces of environmental legislation currently wending its way through the EU: the Nature Restoration Law (NRL). The EPP contains a number of Polish Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from Civic Platform, part of the coalition government currently pushing through progressive forest protection policies and was once led by Donald Tusk.
The NRL would set binding targets for Member States to bring back nature across Europe, and is a central plank of Europe’s Green Deal. We now hope that the scrutiny Civic Platform is under in Poland, leads their MEPs to support nature in the EU, and push for progressive policies in Brussels as well as at home.
Poland’s transformation can be a beacon for others: showing how people can successfully mobilise to protect the ecosystems that humanity’s survival depends on.
Yet we’re under no illusions about the challenges we face. Our government’s bold decision to immediately ban logging in vast swathes of our forests is already facing resistance from the forestry sector and others.
This backlash against green policies is set to be one of the defining battles of the next few years. In Poland we’re doing all that we can to defend what’s already been achieved – and build on it.
Augustyn Mikos is a forest campaigner for Pracownia na rzecz Wszystkich Istot (Workshop for All Beings) and a former activist at the Camp for the Forest.