A group of NGOs, academics and citizens has called on the Polish government and the EU to stop building the wall along its border with Belarus. They fear that the barrier will destroy the area’s ecosystem and endanger animals.
A group of more than 150 NGOs from 25 countries took a signed letter to the EU Commission representation in Poland on Tuesday, February 8, asking the Polish government and the European Commission to consider halting the building of a 186 kilometer wall along the Polish-Belarus border.
News of delivery of the letter was posted by the network of Polish NGOs that monitors the border region, Grupa Granica.
UNESCO world heritage site
The groups are particularly worried about the impact of the wall on the delicate ecosystems and world heritage site which line much of the border between Poland and Belarus. According to the UN World Heritage Agency UNESCO, the primeval Białowieża Forest covers much of the border between Poland and Belarus.
UNESCO says the forest has "outstanding universal value," is a world heritage site and offers an "immense range of primary forest including both conifers and broad-leaf trees covering a total area of 141,885 hectares."
At the end of January, Guy Debonnet, chief of the Natural Heritage Unit at UNESCO told Reuters that "Poland should not move forward with this before we have the necessary assurances and our advisory body for natural heritage is convinced this can be done without impacting outstanding universal value."
'Out of sync with global solidarity'
The forest is not only home to a wide range of plant and tree species but also to more than 12,000 animal species including wolves, bears, deer, lynx, otters and the largest population of European bison. Animal rights activists and environmentalists are worried that the wall will not only upset the balance of the forest’s ecosystem but also prevent some of these large animal populations from following their usual migration routes.
According to an article by Polish academics published on The Conversation and the American news site United Press International (UPI) in December, the wall could for instance prevent "brown bears from recolonizing the Polish side of the forest, where they were recently observed after a long absence."
They said that walls are "out of sync with the global solidarity, and coordinated actions [are] urgently need[ed] to safeguard life on Earth."
Also read: Stumbling blocks at EU-Belarus border
'Walls are dividing, not protecting'
In January, Anna Alboth, who is a member of Minority Rights Group and Grupa Granica, a network of NGOs monitoring the border, told The Guardian newspaper that "walls are dividing, not protecting. The decision about building such a wall on the Polish-Belarusian border is not only lawless but also brings a risk of irreversible harm to the environment, in one of the most rich natural places of Poland and the whole of Europe."
In addition to the NGOs, the letter delivered to the EU executive in Warsaw was accompanied by a letter signed by 1,500 academics and a petition from the local community opposing the wall, reported the news agency Reuters.
Some of these local organizations, reports Reuters, "say the decision to build the barrier was taken without public consultations or an environmental impact assessment."
The decision to build the wall has gone through in record time. Critics say this has interfered with transparency, a charge the government denies. A law was passed allowing for its construction in November 2021, and three contracts were signed in early January 2022. According to the Polish government press release about the signing on January 7, the barrier is "the largest construction investment in the history of the Border Guard."
It is being constructed from "steel elements" states the government website and will be 5.5 meters high. Five meters of it will consist of steel poles "topped with a coil of wire so that one cannot cross to the other side."
The wall will also be equipped with motion sensors and cameras along its entirety. The Polish government expects that a total of 50,000 tons of steel will be used, at a cost of 1 billion 233 million Polish Zloty (around €276 million) for materials and construction. The Guardian notes that this is "approximately ten times the whole budget of Poland’s migration department this year."
Money better spent on migration policy
Minority Rights campaigner Anna Alboth told the Guardian that the Polish Government should be spending its money instead on "developing a migration policy that prioritizes human rights and [the] safety of people on the move, local people, animals and nature."
The Border Guard says it is dividing the construction into four sections to speed up the building and begin its operation.
In response to the environmental concerns, the Polish Government and Border Guard have said that the government has already responded to concerns, saying they will build "over 20" crossing points for animals.
A spokesperson for the Border Guard, Anna Michalska, told Poland’s PAP news agency, reported the Guardian, that the "intention is for the damage to be as small as possible. Tree felling will be limited to the minimum required. The wall itself will be built along the border road." Contractors would be using existing roads, she added.
On February 9, the Border Guard tweeted a video of a bison crossing the half-constructed barrier from Belarus to Poland. According to Google Translate, the text said that Poland welcomes all bison that wish to return from Belarus to Poland. The border guards said "today another four bison have gone over to the Polish side," and that their soldiers were waiting for them.
On February 8, the Border Guard tweeted another video showing the metal poles for the fence going into the ground. The first 1,000 have already been delivered, read the tweet.
Since the beginning of the year, the number of migrants trying to cross from Belarus to Poland has slowed down to a "few dozen daily," according to Reuters. The request to stop the wall for environmental reasons came a day before the EU announced it was taking action to protect biodiversity in several countries across the bloc, including Poland.