John Parker, January 2018
Poland is a nation with a rich and proud tradition of public protest and activism, some of which has received recent media attention in the UK. Attempts by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to give control of judicial appointments to the government, threatening the independence of the judiciary, were met with significant public protests when first proposed in the summer of 2017. In October of the same year more than 100,000 Polish women took to the streets in response to PiS attempting to change abortion law to make the procedure entirely illegal. Further back in history, one of the most powerful examples of citizen power in the country must be the work of the Solidarity movement which was so influential in the 1989 fall of communism in Poland. All examples of ordinary people fighting against the system.
Recently PiS has been changing legislation relating to the trees of Poland, triggering a wave of arboricultural activism across the country. On January 1st 2017 Environment Minister Jan Szyszko introduced a new law meaning that private tree owners no longer have to seek permission prior to removing trees, regardless of their age, size or condition, and that no replanting is required in mitigation for losses. Rules protecting highway trees from removal were also weakened. The legislation – known as Szyszko’s Law – has resulted in the removal of more than three million trees in 2017 alone according to the Foundation for Sustainable Development in Poland. Europe’s last area of pristine forest, the Unesco World Heritage Site of Bialowieza Forest, has been opened up to logging, leading to fines from the European Commission.
In October 2017 I was honoured to be invited out to Poland to see the situation for myself and to speak at the third annual Tree Friends Forum in Wroclaw, in the south west of the country. The purpose of this event is to bring together tree professionals and activists from all across Poland to share ideas and experiences and to further the cause of Polish arboriculture. Over the two days more than twenty speakers presented their work to 130 delegates (although more than 300 people had tried to get tickets). The Forum was organised by the Polish Tree Institute and the Foundation for Sustainable Development and funded by the European Union Life Programme. I learned a huge amount with the kind assistance of my principal host Kamil Witkos-Gnash, and his patient translation of the presentations into English for my benefit. I experienced far too much to do justice to in a brief article such as this, however I will try to summarise a few of the highlights.
Two of the presentations looked at the problems associated with the risk culture in Poland, where all dead or dying material – in the canopy or on the ground – is removed, creating a sterile environment to the detriment of biodiversity and the overall ecosystem. Jerzy Stolarczyk gave a talk entitled Is there a place for dead trees and non-living wood in Poland? Jerzy gave some examples of situations where he has persuaded landowners and managers to retain dead trees and, particularly, dead wood within crowns as valuable habitat. Dr. Marzena Suchocka, lecturer in landscape architecture at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, explained that many parents are afraid that their children could be hurt playing in parks and open spaces if stumps and fallen trees are left lying in situ; they put pressure on the authorities to clear it all away. The challenge is to educate parents to understand that retaining deadwood, stumps and fallen trees should not be seen as a mess or a hazard, but an opportunity for play and education. Another, separate, piece of work that Marzena was recently involved with is the development of a Polish tree valuation system. This was created after an evaluation of more than a dozen existing systems, including CAVAT; a great example of international collaboration in action.
One interesting presentation came from Dr. Beata Pachnowska and was entitled Why are people so afraid of trees? Beata is a social psychologist and board member of the Market and Social Opinion Research Institute. In her presentation she explored some of the reasons for why people fear trees, and looked at the difference between fear (the emotional response to a known or definite threat) and anxiety (a sense of apprehension related to the possibility of a threat). Beata suggested that it might be useful for those who manage trees to familiarise themselves with some basic psychological research and papers in order to better understand why people feel the way they do, and how we might be able to diffuse their anxiety about trees.
A panel discussion called Are city gardeners enough to protect trees in cities? featured representatives from five urban centres in Poland – Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Gdynia and Szczecin – discussing arboriculture in their areas. Broadly speaking, municipal tree management in Poland seems to be divided across the roles of tree inspectors and city gardeners. The tree inspectors are responsible for inspections and surveys, and the city gardeners for the more strategic elements of arboriculture. This panel was an opportunity for the city gardeners to speak about their work, and I was pleased to hear that many of their challenges were very familiar to the kind of experiences we know all about in the UK. In Wroclaw many different departments are responsible for looking after trees. There have been some changes in recent years which have helped to bring uniformity, coordination and a bit more consistency across areas. They have a city database with which to record tree planting, which they seek to distribute evenly across the city, paying consideration to where trees have previously been removed.
Tree planting is also an important part of city gardener work in Gdynia, where there are local systems in place for developers paying to replace any trees which have had to be removed. Krakow has declared a green revolution in their city – they have very good budgets which allow for effective tree management – including annual surveys by tree inspectors – and even the creation of new green spaces. One of the problems reported from Warsaw was that in urban regeneration schemes there is often no involvement from tree specialists at an early enough stage, leading to missed opportunities and tree damage. The same outcomes occur due to a lack of engagement with highway engineers. In Warsaw they are very keen to encourage citizen participation in arboriculture and harness what was translated as ‘social power’.
Another subject of interest was a presentation from Aleksandra Zienkiewicz, an activist from Wroclaw who spoke about How to prepare and win a green project in a citizen’s budget. The citizen’s (or participatory) budget is an interesting concept; a pool of public money is set aside for projects proposed by community groups, activists or organisations. Each proposal is put to the general public for a vote and the citizens are given the opportunity to select the one that they think should be funded (similar to the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK). The number of ‘green’ projects has been increasing over the last few years and such projects now form the bulk of the citizen’s budget. Aleksandra’s winning entry related to tree planting in Wroclaw, where the project team found more than 600 locations for new trees around the city. The project was widely promoted using social and traditional media and drew large amounts of local support and involvement, proving to be the most popular citizen’s budget submission of 2016.
One personal highlight for me was a presentation from Cecyla Malik and Anna Grajewska, co-founders of Matki Polki na Wyrebie – Polish Mothers on Tree Stumps. Cecyla is a Krakow-based activist and artist who once embarked on a project entitled 365 trees, in which she was photographed up a different tree every day for a year. After the introduction of Szyszko’s Law Cecyla wanted to protest against the widespread loss of trees in her home city, but felt unable to do so because she had a newborn son. One day she and her family were out walking when her baby needed feeding; she sat on a recently-cut tree stump to do so and her husband took a photograph. The resultant picture was widely shared on social media and became a symbol of protest against the tree removals. Cecyla started visiting a different tree stump in her local area every day to feed her baby and take a photograph; an echo of her 365 trees, half of which had been cut down after Szyszko’s Law.
In March 2017 a group of eleven mothers congregated in a grove of felled trees. Each sat on a stump and breastfed their babies; the resulting photograph is enormously powerful and was reported around the world. During my visit I was fortunate enough to take a tour of the university arboretum in the same group as Cecyla and Anna, and I spoke to them about their campaign. They explained that it was a triple protest; firstly against the change in legislation and mass tree removal, secondly because breastfeeding in Poland is generally frowned upon, and thirdly because the only image of breastfeeding in Catholic Poland which is seen as acceptable is that of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus. The religious aspect is particularly pertinent as Minister Szyszko has previously cited the Bible as one of his justifications for the legislation, as in the book of Genesis man is urged to “subdue the earth” as well as to replenish it. Environmental, feminist and religious activism, all wrapped up into one artistic protest which has now spread across Poland. Some of the group even headed to Rome with papier-mâché stumps and held a protest there, managing to press one of their leaflets into the hand of Pope Francis. They are truly inspirational women.
There were many other fascinating presentations which, unfortunately, space does not permit me to report. For my own contribution I introduced delegates to the London Tree Officers Association (LTOA) and the work of tree officers in the UK including topics such as tree protection, removal, community engagement, valuation and defect inspections. I had a wonderful time in Poland and would like to extend my thanks to the Tree Friends Forum and all of the fantastic people that I met, particularly to Kamil for all his help but also so many others. As well as learning lots, making new friends and having the opportunity to speak at such an event I was able to see a bit of Wroclaw itself. Thanks to the warm hospitality of my hosts I thoroughly enjoyed three fine evenings of food, drink and conversation and a driving tour of Wroclaw. I even managed to squeeze in a trip to the Wroclaw Botanical Gardens during a storm, and went to see a magnificent plane tree supposedly planted by Napoleon’s brother. It is a beautiful city and a fantastic country and I would recommend anyone visit should they have the chance; I’ll certainly be returning when I can.
There is already some effective collaboration going on between Poland and the UK, one example of which was the recent publication Trees – A lifespan approach. Neville Fay of Treework Environmental Practice was one of the authors and the book was edited by Kamil Witkos-Gnach and Piotr Tyszko-Chmielowiec of the Polish Tree Institute. I hope that this international collaboration will continue and expand through the LTOA, working with our Polish partners to the benefit of both countries. For example, in 2018 we plan to translate the LTOA publication Surface materials around trees in hard landscapes into Polish.
So what is the future for arboriculture in Poland? The Law and Justice Party still acts as if those who support and promote trees are a subversive threat, but there has been another change – this time positive – in legislation prompted by the public reaction to Szyszko’s Law. Those seeking to remove trees now have to notify their municipality of their intention to fell, and the municipality can object if it feels the removal would be inappropriate. ‘Green Monument’ status – a similar principle to a Tree Preservation Order – can now be given to trees of particular value or importance. Public action has led to a change in the law. But these safeguards are far from perfect and tens, if not hundreds of thousands of trees are still being lost. The Bialowieza Forest remains in imminent danger.
There are, however, plenty of reasons to be positive. It is inspirational to see that so many citizens, professionals and activists in Poland are willing to stand up and be counted, fighting for their trees; I hope that the international arboricultural community will lend their support. There is an incredible opportunity for Polish arboriculturists to shape the future of their industry. The passion, professionalism and activism I saw in the people I met leaves me in no doubt that the future they will create for their country is a bright one, full of trees. The spirit which defeated the Communist regime almost 30 years ago has turned its attention to protecting the environment, and I’m not sure I fancy the government’s chances much this time either.
For more information about the Foundation for Sustainable Development please visit www.drzewa.org.pl