A controversial change to Polish environmental law has unleashed what campaigners describe as a “massacre” of trees across the country.
The new amendment, commonly known as “Szyszko’s law,” after Polish Minister of the Environment Jan Szyszko, removes the obligation for private landowners to apply for permission to cut down trees, pay compensation or plant new trees, or even to inform local authorities that trees have been or are to be removed.
The change came into force on Jan. 1 and has led to a surge in tree-felling, with advocates reporting newly cleared spaces in cities, towns and parts of the countryside all over Poland.
Illustration: Mountain People
“The law allows any tree on private property to be cut down by the owner, even if it is 200 years old,” said Joanna Mazgajska of the Institute of Zoology at the Polish Academy of Sciences. “Many private citizens regard trees on their land as a nuisance. They don’t report, they just cut — it’s barbarism.”
Although the new law prohibits private landowners from engaging in commercial developments themselves on land that has recently been cleared of trees, it contains a loophole: There is nothing stopping them from selling the land to developers as soon as the trees have been cut down.
“A company can sell a plot of land to a private individual for a nominal fee, the individual cuts down the trees, and then sells it back to the company. Legally, there is nothing stopping them from doing so,” said Dagmara Misztela of the campaign group Gdzie Jest Drzewo (Where’s The Tree). “We used to advise local people on how to register an objection to trees being cut down in their area, but now there is no objection process at all.”
Because people are no longer required to report or record trees that have been felled, there are no reliable statistics as to how many have been cut down since the law was passed. However, both those who have benefited from the changes and those who oppose them agree that the evidence of a major change is overwhelming.
“Before the new law, we would receive between five and 10 inquiries daily,” one owner of a tree-cutting business told the Guardian. “But in January and February, we would sometimes receive 200 inquiries in a single day.”
“We used to receive around one telephone call a day from people concerned about trees being cut down in their area, but suddenly we had two telephones ringing all day long,” Pawe Szypulski of Greenpeace Poland said.
In the southern city of Krakow, a group of women calling themselves Polish Mothers on Tree Stumps are raising awareness of the issue on social media by posting photographs of themselves sitting on tree stumps and breast-feeding their children.
“Every day, I go around Krakow with my husband and son to find a new place where trees have been cut down and every day we find one,” said Cecylia Malik, who founded the campaign, which has since spread across the country. “Since the passing of the new law, we have done 50 in a row.”
For some, the planting of trees amounts to dissident activity.
When an opposition lawmaker wrote to the president of the city of Kielce to ask for permission to plant some oak trees in a part of the city where a number of trees had been cut down, Wojciech Lubawski, who is an independent, but is aligned with the ruling Law and Justice Party, refused on the grounds that “such an initiative could be regarded as involving our city in an anti-government protest.”
A professor of forestry, Szyszko is openly disdainful of environmental campaigners and mainstream ecologists, espousing an environmental philosophy that critics describe as geared toward sacrificing Poland’s natural resources for the sake of economic development and the financial interests of foresters.
“We must accept two assumptions,” Szyszko told a meeting in February organized by Poland’s National Fund for Environmental Protection. “First, that it is man that is the subject of sustainable development and so man has not only the right, but the duty to use natural resources. Second, that human development is not detrimental to the environment.”
Szyszko last year attracted widespread criticism for his decision to sanction large-scale logging in the Biaowiea Forest, Europe’s last remaining primeval woodland.
In defense of the move he has cited the book of Genesis, which exhorts mankind not only to “replenish the earth,” but also to “subdue it.”
When serving as environment minister the last time the Law and Justice Party was in power, from 2005 to 2007, Szyszko suffered a massive defeat when environmental campaigners successfully blocked his attempt to sanction the building of a freeway through the Rospuda Valley in northeastern Poland.
Back in office, Szyszko appears to have those same campaigners in his sights. In a letter to senior ministers in Novermber last year, he outlined plans that advocates argue amount to the wholesale dismantling of Poland’s environmental monitoring and protection regime.
“The existing system requires a thorough overhaul,” he wrote in the letter, which was subsequently leaked to Greenpeace Poland. “Dominated by ideologically driven unprofessionals, it serves the development of bureaucracy and, while having virtually no influence on the environment situation and its assessment, paralyzes the development of investments.”
Under the plans, no body that receives funding from grants — as opposed to members’ fees — would be allowed to participate in the consultation process on environmental projects, effectively excluding the vast majority of nongovernmental organizations.
“This isn’t just about big organizations like Greenpeace, this would also exclude the hundreds of local organizations that fight for the rights of residents — whether from the effects of coal, open-pit mining, or logging — all over Poland,” Szypulski said.
However, those plans appear to have been shelved for the time being, as the government responds to popular hostility to Szyszko’s law.
Law and Justice Party Chairman Jarosaw Kaczyski has declared his intention to have the law amended. However, efforts to close the loophole allowing developers to take advantage of the new regime have hit a snag.
As currently drafted, the new amendment to the law contains a paragraph that would ban professional activity of any kind on a property on which trees have been cut down. In practice, this would prevent anyone from working from home after a tree had been cleared from their garden.
As a result, the proposed correction remains stalled in the Polish parliament, with developers able to continue to take advantage of the law’s present drafting.
“We just want an end to this catastrophic process, which is harming us and our children,” Malik said. “The scale is really horrible.”
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