Green activists, rangers face off over Poland's ancient forest
Kraków (Poland) (AFP) - Several hundred environmental activists and forest rangers on Tuesday held rival protests in southern Poland over large-scale logging in the ancient Bialowieza forest, a UNESCO world heritage site that includes some of Europe's last primeval woodland.
The demonstrations took place in the city of Krakow on the sidelines of the annual meeting of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, which is set to discuss the Bialowieza controversy on Wednesday.
Straddling Poland's eastern border with Belarus, Bialowieza boasts unique plant and animal life -- including the continent's largest mammal, the European bison -- as well as one of the largest surviving parts of the primeval forest that covered the European plain 10,000 years ago.
Toting signs with slogans such as "I love the forest" and "The forest should remain wild," the environmental activists from groups such as Greenpeace protested against the logging in Bialowieza.
The Polish government has said it authorised the logging, which began in May last year, to contain damage caused by a spruce bark beetle infestation and to fight the risk of forest fires.
Separated off by a police cordon, the forest rangers shouted words of support for Environment Minister Jan Szyszko and Konrad Tomaszewski, the director general of state forests.
The rangers believe the logging is meant to protect Bialowieza, while ecologists allege the infestation explanation is being used as a cover for commercial cutting of protected old-growth forests.
Scientists and the European Union have also protested the logging. In late April, the European Commission gave Polish authorities a "final warning" to address its concerns over the forest or face being summoned by the EU's top court.
The UNESCO committee also expressed its doubts, writing in a June conservation report that the "felling of trees in these areas raises serious concerns."