BY ROSS HUNTER
The European bison looks like the result of a genetic marriage between an African wildebeest and a Highland cow. Its thick coat ranges from muddied brown to ochre red and the musculature of its shoulders looks positively steroidal. It has the cow’s look of placidly, albeit accompanied by an evident suitability to wild places. This is a beast at home in snow-beaten valleys, its bulk braced against the wind. And yet, for all its hardiness, the existence of this creature continues to be precarious. As humanity has proved throughout our history of interactions with other species, brute strength and adaptability to harsh conditions are feckless traits in the face of our compulsion for senseless destruction.
On the 13th of September 2017 what was thought to be the first wild bison in 250 years to be spotted in Germany was shot dead on the orders of a local official. The official determined that the bison posed a threat to public safety, which has subsequently resulted in WWF filing charges against him. As the Brandenburg Environment Minister, Jorg Vogelsanger, astutely announced, bison pose no immediate threat to humans, otherwise ‘half of Poland, where the animal is a national symbol, would have to be declared a danger zone’. That a minister is required to spend time making such glaringly obvious statements is testament to how warped the human relationship to wildlife has become. Upon hearing of this animal’s presence in a German town the official’s knee-jerk reaction was not to celebrate the bison’s return nor even take any particular interest in beholding the creature for himself. Instead, this person’s mind went immediately to the darkest possibilities: the public safety scandal, an imagined headline (NEGLIGENT OFFICIAL TO BLAME FOR VICIOUS BISON GORING), a rabid beast causing unknown destruction.
One of the most frustrating things about Brexit is the fact it completely dominates the landscape of contemporary British journalism, particularly when it comes to news coming out of mainland Europe. Important stories are buried under the daily machinations of a political nightmare; and so it is that the destruction of Europe’s remaining primeval forest – the home of the bison – has received relatively little mainstream media attention. The shadow of Brexit covers everything, even the destruction of a habitat several thousand years older than the United Kingdom itself.
Bialowieza forest, some of Europe’s last remaining ancient woodland, straddles the Polish border with Belarus. While some of it is protected under National park status, which makes activities such as logging illegal in Poland, this amounts to just 17% of the forest within the Polish border. In 2016 the Polish government sanctioned an intensive increase in the amount of logging permitted within the unprotected areas of the forest, claiming that such measures were necessary in order to combat the spread of a spruce bark beetle, which has caused widespread devastation of spruce trees throughout the forest. However, much of the habitat where logging is now occurring still contains ancient forest – and many of the trees being felled are not spruce and are therefore unaffected by the prevalence of the bark beetle. In April of this year the European Commission claimed that trees over one hundred years old had been felled, which is illegal under EU law, and therefore formally asked the Polish government to cease large scale logging in the Bialowieza forest.
Unperturbed the Polish government continued with their plan to increase the logging quota three-fold: from 63,000 square metres to 188,000. By July the European Commission had referred Poland to the European Court of Justice and requested that interim measures be taken to ensure the destruction of the forest was stopped while the court made a decision. The Court of Justice then demanded that logging activity be halted in the Bialowieza forest, unless trees posed an immediate threat to public safety. However, despite this order coming from the highest court in the EU, activists have found that in many areas the Polish authorities are simply ignoring the court’s demands and continuing to fell trees for timber.
In November of this year the court ruled that the Polish government could face fines of up to €100,000 a day if logging continues, although another ruling is required to clarify whether the Polish state continues to flout the orders of the court. As of yet, the Polish government has faced no repercussions for destroying large swathes of irreplaceable habitat. It is viewed by some as a political power play – the Poles asserting their authority over their own resources and raging against the same claims of needless interference and bureaucracy that stoked Brexit. Bialowieza is not just a forest; it’s a battleground.
For months activists have been chaining themselves to forest harvesters or hosting sit-ins at the headquarters of Poland’s forest management agency. Along with many scientists, these activists claim that the Polish authorities justification for extensive logging – the prevalence of the spruce bark beetle – is a ruse. They claim the Bialowieza forest has survived for centuries without human interference and while the increasing numbers of the beetle may be down to human impact, the age and size of the forest mean it is resistant to such a threat. Regardless of these protests, an investigation conducted by Greenpeace found that logging was still going ahead in many areas of the forest.
The Polish Environment Minister – Jan Szyszko – has chosen Bialowieza as the proving ground for the political convictions of the Polish state, with fierce self-governance and religious fervor at its heart. Szyszko’s ecological ideology takes its inspiration from the Biblical compulsion to ‘subdue the earth’ for mankind’s needs. He has been quoted as lamenting the ‘animalisation of people and humanization of animals, trees and plants’, which is to say that he believes animals and plants only have a right to exist when and where humanity deems it convenient. His end-goal is to create an apparently ‘world-leading Polish model of sustainable environmental exploitation’. Again, this emphasizes Szyszko’s belief that anyone willing to protect the environment without envisaging the economic return its “sustainable” exploitation may accrue is, as he has said, a ‘Green Nazi’ – protecting nature for nature’s sake.
Ironically, the preservation of large tracts of the Bialowieza forest and many of the creatures within it was down to the Nazi’s. After taking control of Poland the Nazi state evicted those living within the forest and set about manufacturing a kind-of Jurassic Park playground. Their plan was to maintain the ancient forest as the largest hunting estate in the world. Two zoologist brothers – Heinz and Lutz Heck – even attempted to bring back extinct species through breeding programs in order to return the forest its ancient, folkloric glory, complete with aurochs and tarpans (the wild ancestors of modern cows and horses). At the war’s conclusion the forest remained protected and animals such as the bison were allowed to flourish, coming back from the brink of extinction.
The actions of the Polish state in regards to the forest are not dissimilar to those of the Nazis. Just as the Lutz brothers’ were compelled by contorting nature to suit their own needs and desires, so too is Jan Szyszko. The current Polish government views the Bialowieza as a resource and condemns those who believe it should be valued as a rare and irreplaceable habitat in its own right as literal fascists.
Britain’s exit from the European Union not only signals a defiant move away from a collective continental politics; it also shows how unscrupulous we are in adhering to an ethic most decent people would maintain: that the natural places and creatures of this world are a kind of international inheritance, belonging to no one and under the stewardship of an global protectorate. No one nation or government should have the right to destroy something larger than itself – an ancient forest, a whole species, a devil-horned bison whose existence is precarious and remarkable. That the European Union has been so tentative in actually punishing Poland shows exactly where this conservational ethic lies in our political hierarchy.
At a time when the natural world needs collective human action in order to survive it seems we are dividing. Nations are asserting their ownership of land and their prerogative to treat it however they like. And so caught up are we in the kerfuffle of geopolitical scuffles and the personalities of the people who manufacture them, the dying rattle of the natural world is barely heard above the din of political commentary.
It all begs the question: what will we be left with by the time these issues – climate change, habitat destruction, extinction – become more important than trade deals and budget deficits? As the shooting of Germany’s first wild bison in centuries goes to show, perhaps by that point our only instinct will be to destroy. To put an end to something we stopped caring about long ago; to condemn the Green Nazis to history; to finally achieve what the Bible foretold: utter subordination.