Heritage

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, diseases, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” The words of US environmentalist John Muir. Different trees and different times, but the words remain apposite when considering the plight of trees in Poland.

With almost perfect timing, the 41st session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has formally opened in Kraków, with some 1,000 people, including Poland’s president and a number of senior government officials, and delegates from the committee’s 21 member countries and from more than 100 other countries party to the world heritage convention, attending. The committee has to decide which places of cultural or natural significance deserve international protection, and among the 34 applications this year, is that from a Polish silver, lead and zinc mine with an underground water management system located in Tarnowskie Góry in southern Poland. If the application is successful, it will become the fifteenth site in Poland on the World Heritage list.

This is the first time that the World Heritage Committee has met in Poland. Speaking at the opening session, Polish Culture Minister Piotr Gliński said that Poland had been involved in establishing both the United Nations (UN) and its educational, scientific and cultural organization (UNESCO). Poland had been one of only a handful of countries east of the former Iron Curtain to ratify the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1976.

President Andrzej Duda said that Poland had lost much of its heritage sites in World War II but had later made efforts to restore them. Warsaw, reduced almost entirely to rubble by 1945, had been rebuilt true to historic documents. Duda offered Polish support and expertise to countries affected by war, terrorist attacks and natural disasters in rebuilding their own heritage sites.

Which makes it all the odder, one might think, for Poland’s government to be busy destroying one of its world heritage sites by the decision in increase logging in Białowieża Forest, one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. It is also home to several hundred European bison, Europe’s heaviest land animal. Well worth looking after then?

Apparently not. Environment Minister Jan Szyszko says the Białowieża Forest should never have been designated as a World Natural Heritage site by UNESCO, and that doing so in 2014 ‘broke the law’. Instead, he thinks it should be a cultural heritage site. His reasoning seems to that a natural site is supposed to be ‘untouched by human hands’ and that people are ‘not allowed to use it’. By contrast, he believes that Białowieża is a site that is ‘the work of human hands’. This requirement does not appear to be listed among the criteria for selection listed on the UNESCO website.

Needless to say, the usual everybody misunderstands defecnce was applied. “Poland is currently defending EU law, recreating destroyed habitats, but across the world it has been described as the felling of trees. Of course, this amounts to slandering Poland and is untrue and I believe it will be clarified.” The minister has always claimed that the logging is being done to protect the forest from beetle infestations, an argument which has been rejected by ecologists. He even undermines his own justification by claiming that “man has the duty to use natural resources”, based on his reading of the Book of Genesis to support of his view.

Be that as it may, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has warned that Białowieża is among the UNESCO protected sites where “illegal activities” threaten “our planet’s greatest natural treasures”. They would like a monitoring mission to visit the site, assess the logging and, if their fears are confirmed, consider placing it on next year’s list of World Heritage in Danger.

But it would be wrong to single out the minister since many Poles seem to have a problem with tress generally. Earlier in the years, a change to the law allowing land owners to cut down trees without the permissions hitherto required, saw mass tree felling across the country, including some that had stood for many years, for no other reason than it could be done. Madness.

So while it is very noble of Poland to offer help to others to repair their damaged heritage, time might be spent reflecting on the wisdom of harming its own. Unless, to paraphrase, tress are simply the “wrong sort” of vegetation to be suitably poleaxed.

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