A crisis faces the world’s ancient forests

No apology for returning to an issue that should cause an international outcry.

A staggering 80% of the world’s ancient forests have already been destroyed or degraded. Much of what remains is under threat from illegal and destructive logging.

Over thousands of years, ancient forests have evolved into unique habitats for unknown numbers of plant and animal species. It is estimated that some 1.6 billion people worldwide depend on these forests for their livelihood and 60 million indigenous peoples depend on them to subsist. Then there are those who simply like to wander among what e. e. cummings called “the leaping greenly spirits of trees”.

Today, unscrupulous logging companies and timber traders worldwide are exploiting and jeopardising the world’s ancient forests. This is mainly due to weak governance and corruption in timber producing countries and the failure in consumer countries to ban the import of illegally and destructively logged timber.

Disgracefully, the European Union is a significant importer of timber from regions where illegal and destructive logging is rampant. In addition, the EU is not acting quickly enough to forestall acts of vandalism on its own doorstep.

Despite vociferous public protest, Poland is continuing logging operations in the ancient Białowieża forest, home to some of Europe’s last primeval woodland. Poland claims that logging is only aimed at harvesting wood from non-protected areas, combating infestations of spruce bark beetle, and protecting tourists and rangers from harm by cutting down trees at risk of falling.

Poland is being economical with the truth. According to Christian Davies in “‘My worst nightmares are coming true’: last major primeval forest in Europe on ‘brink of collapse’” (The Guardian, 23 May 2017):

“They are logging in Unesco zones where timber harvesting is forbidden, they are logging 100-year-old tree stands in contravention of European law, they are logging during breeding season and destroying habitats occupied by rare species. It is disrupting natural processes which have been continuing there for thousands of years.”

Just over a year ago, seven groups – including Greenpeace Poland and the Polish branch of the World Wildlife Fund – lodged a complaint with the European Commission for the Polish government’s failure to comply with its obligations to conserve natural habitats and wild fauna and flora. The complaint stated that:

“The approval of the revised level of logging represents a major threat to the integrity of the Bialowieza Forest site, including the conservation status of a number of priority habitats and species. Large-scale logging would seriously disturb natural processes shaping the habitats and leading to impairment of conservation status of certain species.”

It is not ignorance that leads to such decisions and actions. It is sheer greed: profits for the logging corporations and kickbacks for the government. Let’s hope the EU sees reason and imposes sanctions on the Polish government. As the 19th century environmental activist and writer John Muir pointed out in “The American Forests” (Atlantic Monthly, August 1897):

“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed, – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. During a man’s life only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees – tens of centuries old – that have been destroyed.”



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