Poland’s border wall to cut through Europe’s last old-growth forest

Work has begun on a 116-mile long fence on the Polish-Belarusian border. Scientists call it an environmental “disaster.”

The border between Poland and Belarus is a land of forests, rolling hills, river valleys, and wetlands. But this once peaceful countryside has become a militarized zone. Prompted by concerns about an influx of primarily Middle Eastern migrants from Belarus, the Polish government has begun construction on a massive wall across its eastern border.

Human rights organizations and conservation groups have decried the move. The wall will be up to 18 feet tall (5.5 meters) and stretch for 116 miles (186 kilometers) along Poland’s eastern border, according to the Polish Border Guard, despite laws in place that the barrier seems to violate. It’s slated to plow through fragile ecosystems, including Białowieża Forest, the continent’s last lowland old-growth woodland. 

If completed within the next few months as planned, the wall would block migration routes for many animal species, such as wolves, lynx, red deer, recovering populations of brown bears, and the largest remaining population of European bison, says Katarzyna Nowak, a researcher at the Białowieża Geobotanical Station, part of the University of Warsaw. This could have wide-ranging impacts, since the Polish-Belarus border is one of the most important corridors for wildlife movement between Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and animal species depend on connected populations to stay genetically healthy.

Border fences are rising around the world, the U.S.-Mexico wall being one of the most infamous. A tragic irony of such walls is that while they do reliably stop the movement of wildlife, they do not entirely prevent human migration; they generally only delay or reroute it. And they don’t address its root causes. Migrants often find ways to breach walls, by going over, under, or through them.

Nevertheless, time after time, the specter of migrants crossing borders has caused governments to ignore laws meant to protect the environment, says John Linnell, a biologist with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

Polish border wall construction will entail heavy traffic, noise, and light in pristine borderland forests, and the work could also include logging and road building.

“In my opinion, this is a disaster,” says Bogdan Jaroszewicz, director of the Białowieża Geobotanical Station.

Fomenting a crisis 

The humanitarian crisis at the border began in summer 2021, as thousands of migrants began entering Belarus, often with promises by the Belarusian government of assistance in reaching other locations within Europe. But upon arrival in Belarus, many were not granted legal entry, and thousands have tried to cross into Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Migrants have often been intercepted by Polish authorities and forced back to Belarus. At least a dozen migrants have died of hypothermia, malnourishment, or other causes.

Conflict between Belarus and the EU flared when Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in the August 2020 presidential election, despite documented claims the election results were falsified. Mass protests and crackdowns followed, along with several rounds of EU sanctions. Poland and other governments have accused Belarus of fomenting the current border crisis as a sort of punishment for the sanctions.

In response, the Polish government declared a state of emergency on the second of September, which remains in place. Many Polish border towns near the Belarusian border are only open to citizens and travel is severely restricted; tourists, aid workers, journalists, and anybody who doesn’t live or permanently work in the area cannot generally visit or even move through.

That has made life difficult for the diverse array of people who live in this multi-ethnic, historic border region. Hotels and inns have gone out of business. Researchers trying to do work in the forest have been approached by soldiers at gunpoint demanding to know what they are doing there, says Michał Żmihorski, an ecologist who directs the Mammal Research Institute, part of the Polish Academy of Sciences, based in Białowieża.

The Polish government has already built a razor-wire fence, about seven feet tall, along the border through the Białowieża Forest and much of the surrounding border areas. Reports suggest this fence has already entrapped and killed animals, including bison and moose. The new wall will start at the north edge of the Polish-Belarusian border, abutting Lithuania, and stretch south to the Bug River, the banks of which are already lined with a razor-wire fence.

“I assume that it already has had a negative impact on many animals,” Żmihorski says. Further wall construction would “more or less cut the forest in half.”

Some scientists are circulating an open letter to the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, to try to halt the wall’s construction.

Primeval forest 

Much of the Białowieża Forest has been protected since the 1400s, and the area contains the last large expanse of virgin lowland forest, of the kind that once covered Europe from the Ural Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. “It’s the crown jewel of Europe,” Nowak says.

Oaks, ash, and linden trees, hundreds of years old, tower over a dense, unmanaged understory—where trees fall and rot undisturbed, explains Eunice Blavascunas, an anthropologist who wrote a book about the region. The forest is home to a wide diversity of fungi and invertebrates—over 16,000 species, between the two groups—in addition to 59 mammalian and 250 bird species.

In the Polish side of the forest, around 700 European bison can be found grazing in low valleys and forest clearings, a precious population that took a century to replenish. There are also wolves, otters, red deer, and an imperiled population of about a dozen lynx. Normally these animals move back and forth across the border with Belarus. In 2021, a brown bear was reported to have crossed over from Belarus.

Reports suggest the Polish government may enlarge a clearing through Białowieża and other borderland forests. Besides the impact on wildlife, researchers worry about noise and light pollution, and that the construction could introduce invasive plants that would wreak havoc, fast-growing weedy species such as goldenrod and golden root, Jaroszewicz adds.

But it’s not just about this forest. Blocking the eastern border of Poland will isolate European wildlife populations from the wider expanse of Eurasia. It’s a problem of continental scale, Linnell says, “a critical issue that this [border] is going to be walled off.”

Walls cause severe habitat fragmentation; prevent animals from finding mates, food, and water; and in the long term can lead to regional extinctions by severing gene flow, Linnell says.

Against the law? 

The wall construction runs afoul of several national environment laws, but also important binding international agreements, legal experts say.

For one, Białowieża Forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a rare designation that draws international prestige and tourists. As part of the deal, Poland is supposed to abide by the strictures of the World Heritage Convention—which oblige the country to protect species such as bison—and to avoid harming the environment of the Belarusian part of the forest, explains Arie Trouwborst, an expert in environmental law at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

It’s conceivable that construction of the wall could lead UNESCO to revoke the forest’s World Heritage status, which would be a huge blow to the country and the region, Trouwborst adds; A natural heritage site has only been removed from the UNESCO list once in history.

The Polish part of the Białowieża site has also been designated a Natura 2000 protected area under the European Union Habitats Directive, as are a handful of other borderlands forests. The new wall would “seem to sit uneasily with Poland’s obligations under EU law in this regard, which require it to avoid and remedy activities and projects that may be harmful for the species for which the site was designated, [including] European bison, lynx, and wolf,” Trouwborst says.

EU law is binding, and it can be enforced within Poland or by the EU Court of Justice, which can impose heavy fines, Trouwborst says. A reasonable interpretation of the law suggests that the Polish government, by building a razor-wire fence through Białowieża Forest, is already in breach of the Habitats Directive. The law dictates that potentially harmful projects may in principle only be authorized “where no reasonable scientific doubt remains as to the absence” of adverse impacts. And further wall construction carries obvious environmental harms.

“One way or another, building a fence or wall along the border without making it permeable to protected wildlife would seem to be against the law,” Trouwborst says.

The EU Court of Justice has already shown itself capable of ruling on activity in the Białowieża Forest. The Polish government logged parts of the forest from 2016 to 2018 to remove trees infected by bark beetles. But in April 2018, the Court of Justice ruled that the logging was illegal, and the government stopped cutting down trees. Nevertheless, the Polish government this year resumed logging in the outskirts of Białowieża.

Walls going up 

Poland is not alone. The global trend toward more border walls threatens to undo decades of progress in environmental protections, especially in transboundary, cooperative approaches to conservation, Linnell says.

Some of the more prominent areas where walls have recently been constructed include the U.S.-Mexico border; the Slovenian-Croatian boundary; and the entire circumference of Mongolia. Much of the European Union is now fenced off as well, Linnell adds. (Learn more: An endangered wolf went in search of a mate. The border wall blocked him.)

The large uptick in wall-building seems to have taken many conservationists by surprise, after nearly a century of progress in building connections and cooperation between countries—something especially important in Europe, for example, where no country is big enough to achieve all its conservation goals by itself, since populations of plants and animals stretch across borders.

This rush to build such walls represents “an unprecedented degree of habitat fragmentation,” Linnell says. It also reveals “a breakdown in international cooperation. You see this return to nationalism, countries trying to fix problems internally... without thought to the environmental cost,” he adds.

“It shows that external forces can threaten to undo the progress we’ve made in conservation... and how fragile our gains have been.”

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