When the going gets tough, civil society gets organised
Well Grounded is publishing a series of blog posts that tells the stories of people and organisations who have spoken out, who have found new ways to solve old problems and who have stuck at it in impossible circumstances in the pursuit of social and environmental justice. Be inspired!
When there’s a crisis that threatens something important to ordinary people, there are many ways in which they organise themselves to step up to it. In Poland, right now, there is a crisis facing a forest that is deeply important to the Polish people and indeed to the rest of the world. Bialowieza Forest is Europe’s largest area of old growth forest and home to species like the European bison that have been wiped out elsewhere. In the last couple of years, the Polish government has massively increased logging in large areas of previously untouched forest, threatening a unique forest landscape that has a special place in Polish culture. The government says that it is to protect the forest from insect infestations, but the scientific evidence doesn’t back up their argument and many voices have been raised to contest what is happening.
The response of Polish civil society shows the strength of the diversity of CSO actions when a crisis emerges – but it also shows the huge struggle needed for change.
In the first place, the issue has to get onto the agenda. Civil society mobilised around this and one Polish grassroots CSO, “Matki Polki na wyrębie”, (Polish Mothers against Logging), ran a particularly powerful campaign. Their members were photographed breastfeeding their children on tree stumps in the devastated forest:
Photo credit: Tomasz Wiech
Once people know about an issue and are getting energised, an option is to go down the legal route and use the courts and formal complaint mechanisms. In this case, Poland is a member of the European Union, which means that it has committed to uphold European law. Client Earth, an international NGO with a strong Polish team, has made use of this commitment. They identified that by increasing logging, the Polish government had breached an important EU directive on the environment, (the Birds and Habitats directive), and so they submitted a formal complaint. In response, the European Commission demanded that Poland issue an immediate ban on logging in the forest. The government didn’t comply and the case has been referred to the EU Court of Justice. A CSO has thus been able to demand that their government respect the rule of law.
Another option is to use international mechanisms. Bialowieza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because of its importance to global biodiversity. This year, the UNESCO Summit was held in Krakow in Poland, which offered a great opportunity. Local CSOs used formal space and creative campaigns to flag the issues up with delegates: they sent letters to all UNESCO delegates about the issue, they organised demonstrations and they managed to get these paper napkins into the conference space:
At the Summit, the World Heritage Committee adopted a decision to urge the Polish government to halt all logging.
Unfortunately, despite the mobilisation of many Polish citizens and the formal warnings from UNESCO and the EC, the government is still logging, so people have moved to direct action. Activists from Poland and from other countries have been peacefully blockading the loggers on the ground. This is where collaboration between organisations and international solidarity is really important: although the protesters are campaigning against a breach of the law by their government, they are facing a challenging response from the authorities. So the regular networking and information sharing between CSOs around Europe and internationally is vital to ensure the safety of the campaigners.
The Bialowieza case really highlights the importance for CSOs to use a variety of approaches to a problem and to build and maintain solid networks of support. If you want to help in any way, there’s a website that has all the latest information here.
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