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Protecting Europe’s last remaining lowland forest

The last remaining European lowland forest can be found at the junction of two countries: Poland and Belarus. The Białowieska Forest is all that remains of an ancient forest that once stretched between the Ural Mountains and Spain. A lowland forest refers to forest growing at low elevations, typically having many tiers of canopy, growing taller and more diverse than forest at higher elevations. The value of the Białowieska lowland forest has been recognized by UNESCO, which has included it in The World Heritage list. Today the eight thousand-year-old ecosystem has been shrunk to 800 square kilometres, out of which the Belarusian part is a National Park and the remaining 17% lies within Polish borders. Every year in the Polish part of the forest 100,000 trees were cut down, meaning the whole ecosystem was gradually being destroyed. Thanks to a Greenpeace Poland campaign this extraordinary region stands a better chance of being preserved.

Last week Greenpeace Poland submitted a civil initiative to the Polish parliament bearing over 240,000 signatures. Its goal is to introduce changes to the environmental act. The current law allows local authorities to veto any expansion plan of the existing National Park as well as creating a new one. This is precisely the problem with the Białowieska Forest that makes it impossible for yet another minister of the environment to take action. What can help the situation is changing the environmental act so that the final decision will be made by the minister of the environment after having held consultations with the local authorities, NGOs and scientists.

Polish law gives the possibility to its citizens to submit a bill to the parliament, provided that within three months they are able to collect 100,000 signatures in support of the initiative. Greenpeace initiated its campaign in August, after a group of activists had climbed the roof of the Ministry of the Environment and hung a banner reading: “I love Puszcza” – “I love the Forest”. The response that was evoked exceeded our expectations – we have collected twice as many signatures as were required! That is a great success of the civil society and a clear signal to the politicians who cannot remain indifferent to almost 250,000 voices of those who supported the project. Now, the bill will be submitted to the parliament where the members of parliament have three months for the first reading to take place.

It is estimated that there are around 20,000 species of animals living in the Białowieska Forest, including bison, wolf and lynx, and the logging of Białowieska Forest definitely affects them. This has been shown by research carried out on a population of endangered woodpecker which demonstrated considerable population loss over the past nineteen years. Scientists, carrying out research in the Białowieska Forest, warn us that by cutting down this natural forest we are losing a vast biological laboratory. Nowhere else in Europe can such unique evolutionary processes be observed. That is why 240,000 Polish citizens signed on to support the “I love Puszcza” campaign and called on their government to act to protect one of Europe’s last remaining ancient and diverse woodland areas. Now the Polish government must make the wishes of its people into law and ensure the preservation of Białowieska Forest is permanent.

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