Poland’s Primeval Forest Has Lost its Staunchest Defender

Obituary: Janusz Korbel

Ecologist Janusz Korbel, defender of Poland’s primeval Bialowieża Forest, passed away earlier this month. He was 69 years old. An architect and urban planner by training, Korbel was a founding member of the deep ecology movement in Poland and for the past 21 years had dedicated his life to protecting Europe’s last stretch of lowland forest in against logging and development.

Janusz KorbelPhoto by Agnieszka SadowskaKorbel believed that deep ecology could be cultural in some ways, but also held fast to the principle that nature does not need humans.

Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus Białowieża (pronounced byah-wo-vyeh-zhah) Forest is one of largest remaining parts of the immense 8,000-year-old forest that once stretched across the European Plain. Divided between Belarus and Poland, the 580 square mile forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to myriad flora and fauna, including more than 250 bird species, 1,500 species of fungus, moose, wolves, lynx, beavers, wild boars, and the largest wild population of the European bison, the continent’s heaviest land animal.

The Polish section of the forest (one third portion of the entire forest) includes the country’s oldest national park — Białowieża National Park. Established first as a nature reserve in 1921, and later a national park in 1932, the park covers an area of about 153 square km (about 17 percent of the forest area on the Polish side) and is famous for its bison population and, perhaps even more, for its strictly protected 10 sq km inner zone of old growth, which has existed without much human intervention for nearly 800 years. This heart of Białowieża, called Obręb Ochronny Orłówka, is accessible to tourists only under the supervision of a guide. The 83 percent of the forest that lies outside the national park is open to selective logging. It’s this area that’s been the subject of an ongoing battle between conservationists like Korbel and local foresters.

I first met Korbel in 2005 when I was doing doctoral research in the village of Bialowieża. As a cultural anthropologist, I was interested in the ways communist and peasant pasts interact with conservation politics. Korbel drew me into his world of art, music, photography, and activism, and a wide network of friends. He had a gentle voice and demeanor, yet he was stubborn and not afraid of confrontation.

Korbel believed the Bialowieża Forest could take care of itself as long as there was no human intervention, not even to feed wild animals or remove dead and dying trees and animal carcasses. (In the park’s strictly protected core there is almost as much dead wood as live wood. Half of the forest’s 12,000 species depend on the decaying logs for survival). Yet Korbel held these beliefs with an attentive eye to the political and cultural history of the forest, which had been preserved unlogged for hundreds of years in large part due to its status as a royal hunting ground for Polish kings and Russian tsars.

Although Korbel was born in the industrial town of Katowice Poland in 1946, he spent much of his formative youth at a family manor in the swampy and forested region of Podlasie, of which Bialowieża is a part. (Podlasie loosely translates as “the land close to the forest”). In 2004, he bought a small cottage in the village of Bialowieża so he could be close to the forest he loved; a forest he described as “a place of great harmony, with millions of unseen interrelations.” He would spend three or four days a week in the forest observing its plants and animals, and human impacts.

Korbel introduced me to the ways that deep ecology could be cultural while still holding fast to the principle that nature does not need humans. The core reserve area, for instance, is a tangle of 500-year-old moss-covered oak, birch, pine, spruce and other trees. But it’s also a forest with ghostly trails of small-scale human uses, such as scythed riverine meadows (now machine cut by the national park authorities) and pines marked by more-than-a-century-old beekeepers’ fires.

I lived in and conducted research in the Bialowieża forest and village for 18 months between 2005 and 2006. My training as an anthropologist is in political ecology, a body of theory in which conservation practices come into question for their role in dispossessing locals and for their connection with international capital. Yet I had also long been a park ranger for the US National Park Service and I unabashedly loved the spaces of nature contained within the boundaries of nature reserves. On the one hand I appreciated the ways that political ecology never left capitalism, racism, and privilege out of the equation, but on the other, I could not disavow the need for protecting land marked as wild, by human language, but also by the constellation of nonhuman processes which form the soil, airs, waters, plants, fungi, and animals.

Korbel became my philosophical friend for these struggles between theory and praxis, shedding new light into the world of Bialowieża and its conservation politics. His world was formed from a perspective of living through the supply economy of state socialism/communism

Back in Korbel’s youth, nature and its protection became a way of identifying against the hierarchical and authoritarian system imposed by the Communist Party. Bialowieża was different from other conservation sites I had read about and visited. It brought up questions of what defines the wild in Europe when Europeans have long defined the “wild” against what is “civilized Europe.” And it also brought up what defines democracy in an era of communist nostalgia and the crony capitalism of former communists in local political positions.

Jhe Bialowieza Primeval ForestPhoto by Janusz Korbel, used with permission”In Białowieża National Park’s strictly protected core there is almost as much dead wood as live wood. Half of the forest’s 12,000 species depend on the decaying logs for survival.

The Bialowieża Forest needed interpreters, especially for outsiders. Korbel helped me with this. He taught me that the forest is not primeval for its “untrammeled” character, but because it had been called “primeval” by Europeans for hundreds of years, beginning perhaps in the late eighteenth century, by when the auroch had already been extinct for a century. It is primeval in the sense that it has always been forested and renowned for its wild character. Royalty may have stocked it with game, or allowed their local beaters in the hunt to graze their cows in it, but all who used it over the past several centuries called it primeval.

Where did humans, especially former peasants, belong in the landscape of nature conservation? How had communism in Poland both destroyed nature in places like the Silesian coal region of Janusz’ birth and yet provided surprising amounts of green spaces? How was a small forest creature like the bark beetle, which destroyed spruce trees, connected to a farming/forestry mentality? Korbel occupied himself with exploring such questions and wrote about these issues in the magazine he founded, Dzikie Zycie (Wild Life) and for the journal of Belarusian identity, Czasopis.

Korbel believed in breaking local monopolies on power by encouraging young people from the villages to move to the city for a while, travel, and then come back — a position which often got him in trouble with the old time locals in Podlasie.

He first became involved in the campaign to save Bialowieża forest in 1994. Together with other Polish activists, he organized the first big protest against logging of old trees in Bialowieża. Korbel miraculously managed to haul an oak stump, felled by the state forestry service, hundreds of miles from Bialowieża to Warsaw for a widely publicized protest in front of the Parliament: No small feat at a time when few Poles owned cars let alone a truck with a flat bed. His bold action sparked a national debate and spurred the new democratic government to more than double the size of the Bialowieża National Park. From then on an international and widespread campaign began to stop logging in the Bialowieża. Korbel was awarded an Ashoka fellowship in 1996 to continue his organizing, the same year the Bialowieża National Park expanded.

But the conservationists’ efforts were met with stiff resistance from the powerful state forestry service, which manages 30 percent of the land in Poland and has deep local connections. The forest service contends that selective logging is beneficial for the forest, and that only diseased or pest-ridden trees are felled. Korbel, however, firmly believed that harvesting old-growth timber threatened the biological integrity of the forest.

In 2000, when Poland’s environment minister made an appearance in Bialowieża and announced that the state was planning to expand the protected national park area, local foresters and their allies voiced loud protests. They threw eggs at the minister and accused scientists and “pseudo-ecologists” of destroying their chance for “normal development.” A year later, this same group of people lobbied heavily to create “The Law on the Protection of Nature,” which would require “local” representatives’ approval for any new national park expansions. Since foresters had already secured most government positions on the local councils, there was little way to break this monopoly on power.

Meanwhile, as news of Europe’s last primeval forest spread, so too did the tourist developments, which fed the growth and incomes of local residents. At first, in the 1990s, arrived the bird watchers and nature lovers from Denmark, The Netherlands, the UK and elsewhere. Then came three large 150-plus room hotels, including a Best Western. Then came paid parking lots and the EU’s mandates for agriculture, which killed any remaining small-scale farms in the hamlets around the forest.

What was once a quiet outpost soon turned into the playground of VIPs from Warsaw, who would party in nightclubs such as the “Czar’s Boudoir,” or have rowdy bonfires on state forestry lands. Most residents began to operate bed and breakfasts. (There are now about two dozen restaurants in Bialowieża village, which has only 1,200 permanent residents.) Real estate prices went through the roof and many people wanted to sell off or develop their meadows adjacent to the national park, even though they were prohibited from doing so by Europe-wide Natura 2000 laws.

I spent a lot of time with Korbel during this era of transition from post-communism to fast capitalism and saw the immense mental and spiritual effort he put in to protect the forest. Every day he watched developments in the forest, marched into administrative offices and demanded land use maps, argued with local officials, got appointed to the National Park Scientific Council, met with researchers and journalists from all over the world, helped filmmakers and artists working on projects related to Bialowieża.

In 2006, I joined Korbel and several others in founding an international campaign to expand the park, called BISON (Bialowieża International Solidarity Network). We organized an international day of action in March of 2006 with rallies in front of Polish embassies in 22 countries. In addition to international headlines, many thousands of letters were generated asking Polish President Lech Kaczynski to expand the park boundaries to cover the entire Polish side of the forest. In response, the then president, Lech Kaczyński, created a commission to recommend better protection for the Bialowieża Forest. But that went nowhere, due in no small part to the powerful voice of local foresters.

However, Korbel and other activists’ persisted in pressing for better forest management practices. Their sustained campaigns brought an important victory in 2012, when the state forestry drastically reduced the amount of timber that could be taken from the forest each year from 140,000 cubic meters to about 50,000 cubic meters and prohibited taking down trees that were more than 100 years old.

These logging plans, though, are created for 10-year periods and are subject to revision. In 2014, Belarus increased the protected area of it’s part of the forest to incorporate former state-owned farm lands into the Belovezhskaya National Park. But that doesn’t mean much because the national park in Belarus allows heavy logging outside of its strictly protected areas.) Hence, Korbel was keenly aware that much still needed still to be done to secure the integrity of the forest and he kept working tirelessly to that end.

Korbel openly and generously shared his resources. His time was given to the forest and its protection, without pay, without an institution. He supported himself by occasionally teaching cultural studies at a local technical college in nearby Hajnowka. His needs were small. He ate a vegetarian diet, usually cans of beans with some rice or bread. During one of my last visits last year, sharing both his exasperation with politics and his Buddhist philosophy, he told me: “What we do to the forest has to be cultural. We don’t know what the nonhuman world is, but we know that it’s more than us, and outside of us. Therefore, we need to develop very good arguments for why we value the forest while using different actions to convince people [to do the same]. If we’re strategic enough we can convince people. Though, we are all here as travelers and the forest belongs to no one.”

On August 3 Korbel suffered a stroke and fell in his home. Friends found him and took him to the hospital. Although he was resuscitated briefly he died on Friday August 7. His passing is a great loss for Bialowieża Forest and for those fighting to defend it, but his legacy is being carried on by hundreds of younger activists who continue to monitor the forest and look for new protective strategies.

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