Warsaw, Poland – A few days ago, Polish contractors started building a wall along the country’s eastern border with Belarus to deter migrants from attempting the dangerous crossing.
“Ecological connectivity” in danger
But several environmental organisations and activists have since warned that its construction, cutting through the Białowieża primeval forest, could have a dramatic environmental impact and threaten local wildlife.
According to Katarzyna Nowak, a researcher at the Białowieża Geobotanical Station, the 5.5-metre-high wall would obstruct the migration route of animal species – including wolves, lynx and brown bears – and have disastrous consequences on the fragile ecosystem.
In addition to threatening the forest’s “ecological connectivity”, environmentalists also fear the construction of the wall would lead to increased logging and road building, and criticized the government’s lack of transparency on the issue.
“Walls are dividing, not protecting,” said Anna Alboth of the Minority Rights Group NGO. “The decision about building such a wall on the Polish-Belarusian border […] brings a risk of irreversible harm to the environment, in one of the richest natural places of Poland and the whole of Europe.”
One of Europe’s most important natural areas
The Białowieża forest is a UNESCO World Heritage Site shared by Poland and Belarus and the last lowland old-growth forest in Europe. Described as “the crown jewel of Europe” by researcher Katarzyna Nowak, it is home to the largest population of European bison, and to more than 50 mammalian and 250 bird species, in addition to 16,000 species of fungi and invertebrates.
Experts also point to the rise in animal mortality linked to the construction of other walls and razor-wire fences, including at the Slovenia-Croatia and Croatia-Hungary borders.
Earlier this week, more than 700 scientists published a joint open letter detailing the impact the wall could have on the environment and appealing to EU leaders and institutions to take appropriate measures to defend the forest and local wildlife.
Polish authorities have tried to defuse the controversy, with Border Guards spokeswoman Anna Michalska assuring that the damage would be “as small as possible”, that “tree felling will be limited to the minimum required” and that contractors would only build the wall along existing roads.
But according to Guy Debonnet, head of the Natural Heritage Unit at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, “Poland should not move forward with this before we have the necessary assurances […] this can be done without impacting outstanding universal value.”
In response to critics, Poland’s Environment Ministry also claimed more than 20 animal crossings would be built at key points along the natural migration routes, although no details have yet been released.