Polish-Belarus border wall threatens primeval forest, environmentalists say

by Reuters
Friday, 28 January 2022 11:00 GMT

By Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Kacper Pempel

WARSAW, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Poland should delay construction of a new barrier through the primeval Bialowieza forest that straddles its border with Belarus until it can prove that it will not harm local wildlife, UNESCO and environmentalists said.

The forest is a World Heritage site and home to the European bison, lynx and other endangered species.

The metal barrier, which will stretch for 186 km (115 miles), is intended to deter migrants after nearly 40,000 people from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa tried illegally to breach the border last year from Belarus.

This week construction began along a stretch of the border to the north of the forest of what one of the companies involved said would be a 5 metre high metal barrier with a concrete foundation and topped by razor wire.

Environmentalists say the wall, estimated to cost more than 1.6 billion zlotys ($392 million), will separate populations of wildlife, especially the lynx.

Guy Debonnet, chief of Natural Heritage Unit at UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, said Poland had to demonstrate that the wall would have no negative impact on the protected site.

"Poland should not move forward with this before we have the necessary assurances and our advisory body for natural heritage is convinced this can be done without impacting outstanding universal value," he told Reuters in a recent interview.

'NOT TRANSPARENT'

Debonnet said "ecological connectivity" between the Polish and Belarusian parts of the forest was a key element considered when the World Heritage status was extended to Belarus in 1992.

Echoing such concerns, the European Commission also called on Thursday for a proper assessment of the environmental impact.

If, nevertheless, "the project has to be carried out for imperative reasons of overriding public interest, the authorities have to first prove a lack of other suitable alternatives and implement appropriate compensatory measures," Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz said.

Responding to environmentalists' concerns, Poland's climate and environment ministry said the law on the border wall did not require an environmental impact assessment and that over 20 animal crossings would be built for them.

That stance has not reassured the wall's critics.

"It is not a transparent process, it is not subject to an environmental impact assessment, it is a process which the government has excluded from systems of oversight," said Adam Wajrak, a journalist and environmentalist living near Bialowieza.

Bialowieza proved a major flashpoint between Poland's nationalist government and the European Union in 2016-2018, when Warsaw stepped up logging in the forest, saying it was necessary to protect it from a bark beetle infestation.

Large-scale logging stopped after the European Court of Justice ruled in April 2018 that Poland had broken environmental laws.

The number of migrants seeking to enter Poland from Belarus has slowed to a dozen or so daily, down from hundreds last autumn, when Poland erected a temporary barbed-wire fence in places to keep them out.

Poland and the EU accuse Belarus of encouraging the migrants to cross in retaliation for Western sanctions imposed on Minsk over alleged human rights abuses. Belarus rejects the charge.

Poland built a barbed-wire fence along the border last August as an emergency solution and is starting work this week on a more robust, permanent construction. ($1 = 4.0800 zlotys) (Additional reporting by Kate Abnett in Brussels; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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