Thu, Apr 13, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Polish law change leads to tree ‘massacre’

Planting trees has become almost a dissident activity. When a lawmaker asked for permission to plant some oak trees in Kielce, he was refused on the grounds that ‘such an initiative could be regarded as involving our city in an anti-government protest’

By Christian Davies  /  The Guardian, WARSAW

Illustration: Mountain People

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.

“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.”

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