Bogdan Jaroszewicz tries to stifle the drumbeat of war as he conducts his research deep in the heart of Poland’s ancient Bialowieza Forest.
Dr. Jaroszewicz has spent 30 years studying the ecosystem of this unique forest – the last patch of virgin lowland forest in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And like many people in this part of eastern Poland near the border with Belarus, he has learned to live with geopolitical tensions.
The region had already attracted worldwide attention due to the thousands of Middle Eastern migrants who tried to cross from Belarus to Poland, but many of whom were turned back by Polish soldiers and then trapped in the forest between the two countries. Now, dozens of Russian troops have poured into Belarus as part of Moscow’s military buildup for a possible invasion of Ukraine.
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Meanwhile, Poland has upped the ante: on January 25, it began construction of a 186-kilometre-long steel wall along the border. There is also an exclusion zone that prevents unauthorized persons from approaching within two miles of the barrier. When completed this spring, the $400 million wall will stand 5.5 meters high and extend nearly half a meter underground. It will cover all land portions of the border, leaving only rivers, streams and swamps unenclosed.
“I’m just sad. I am sad,” Dr Jaroszewicz said as he sipped tea at a restaurant in Hajnowka, a town just outside Bialowieza. He lives in a village located in the exclusion zone, which means that he must carry a permit at all times and face constant checks from the police and the army.
He doubts the wall will do much to stop migrants or curb Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s desire to stir up trouble among Western allies.
Poland and the European Union have accused Mr Lukashenko of encouraging people from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere to travel to Minsk, then promising them safe passage across the border Polish. Even though the number of asylum seekers has recently fallen, there are fears that as insecurity in Russia and Ukraine grows, Mr Lukashenko could provoke a new migrant crisis to help his Russian ally.
“Judging from similar situations with similar barriers, they show that humans are not stopped by such a wall, humans will find other ways,” Dr Jaroszewicz said.
His main concern, however, is the damage the wall is causing to the forest, which has remained relatively untouched for nearly 12,000 years. The barrier scarred the landscape and disrupted the movements of several endangered animals, including the handful of forest lynx. The forest is also home to wolves, bears, elk and Europe’s largest herd of bison, all of which scientists say will lose vital access to feeding and hunting grounds. Low-flying birds, such as grouse, may be unable to cross the structure.
Last week, 1,600 scientists and 150 organizations around the world signed an open letter calling on the European Commission, the administrative arm of the EU, to pressure Poland to stop construction of the wall. The scientists argued that the Polish government breached EU law by failing to carry out an environmental assessment of the project or failing to take action to mitigate the damage. “The construction of the wall will create a barrier with devastating consequences,” the letter reads.
The EU has yet to respond, but it has already had several disputes with Poland’s populist law and justice government, particularly over reforms to the country’s judiciary, which EU officials say , will politicize the judges. In 2018, the European Court of Justice also ruled that the Polish government violated environmental laws by stimulating logging in the Bialowieza Forest. The government complied with the ruling, but last year allowed some increase in logging.
Polish officials have defended the wall as a crucial part of border security. And they insisted that environmental protection was taken into account. “Border guards are doing everything possible to ensure that there is as little interference as possible in the environment during the construction of the barrier,” guards’ spokeswoman Anna Michalska told Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. last month. Officials have also promised to erect 20 animal crossings along the wall, although scientists say that is less than half of what is needed.
For many people living in villages and towns around the forest, the fence and the ongoing migrant crisis have weighed on the local economy.
The wall “is supposed to give us a sense of security, but it doesn’t provide a sense of security for us; it gives Warsaw residents a sense of security,” said Paulina Siegien, who runs a small holiday home business with her husband in Czechy Orlanskie, a hamlet less than 10 kilometers from the border. “You can’t continue to live with this tension.”
The couple are building a second home, which they hope to start renting out to tourists this summer. But visitors to the area have been scarce in recent months and tourism is unlikely to resume as long as access to the forest is restricted and soldiers patrol the woods.
Lukasz Synowiecki, a local naturalist and tourist guide, has been unemployed since last September when the migrant crisis began. He lives about 1,500 meters from the border in Nowe Masiewo, a village inside the exclusion zone. Mr Synowiecki said he and his neighbors faced constant police checks and watched a steady stream of soldiers go on patrol. Even still, he met five migrants on Saturday who got lost in the forest without food or water.
He has joined local protests against the wall and knows halting construction is an uphill battle, given strong public support for the migrant crackdown and growing concern about Russia. “But we have to keep trying,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling to live like this.”
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