The Fight for Natural Forests in Slovakia
Welcome to Bratislava! You have recently returned from a full week spent in the forest. What did you do?
Each year, our forest protection movement WOLF organises educational seminars for the public where we live in the forest for a week. We check and fix the marking of protected areas as a part of the activities. We had a nice group of almost 60 people whom we took to the natural reserves Kyjov and Vihorlatské mountains. We managed to mark an area of 400 ha - all these trees were supposed to be cut down back in 2007, but we managed to save them and the area was declared a National Natural Reserve.
What can the participants expect from the forest monitorings and seminars?
We organise these seminars called Gaia around the same time each year - the first week of May and June, and the third week of September. We live in the forest for a week, without any technology or tents. We try to make every day a little bit different so it's interesting for the people. We invite experts who act as guides in the forest - for example, a ranger will explain his work, an ornithologist will teach people recognize birds by sound or feathers, we have experts on animals or plants, nights are for star gazing. The last day is always a bit more philosophical and we try to teach people how they can be fully present in the woods and enjoy all they offers.
How many days in a year do you spend in the forest?
A good half of it. I love the forests around the village Osadné where I live. The other half is dedicated to meetings and chasing down politicians (laughs).
Your activist group WOLF owns the first private National Natural Reserve Vlčia in Čergov Mountain Range and Rysia in Strážovské Mountain Range, you are also renting out Suchá dolina in High Tatras. How did you choose these areas that are now protected?
We knew the forests in Čergov all too well, we have been exploring them as tourists for over 20 years. We saw that they needed protection and the rangers some help so we founded the forest protection movement WOLF in Čergov. When we found out that they were for sale we were trying to get some money together. We took out a loan to pay for them and came up with the campaign "Buy a tree" through which people could buy or give a tree in Čergov as a gift for a symbolic sum. It was very successful, it helped us pay back the money. A part of the reservation in Rysia was given to us as a gift.
How is Vlčia holding up today?
Before we bought the land, we appointed a professional expert who counted and measured every tree in the area. So we have the exact number of trees that grow in the reserve and their dimensions - their type, height, width. We update this Excell table every 10 years which allows us to see how the forest is growing since we acquired it. Dead trees fall down so the number of trees is declining but the cubic metres of wood are constantly increasing. There are less trees now but they are taller, stronger and healthier.
How many trees have their symbolic owners today?
Since the very beginning of the campaign, we have sold over 12 100 trees. And this number is rising, almost every day. People can choose from many trees: fir, beech, Norway or sycamore maple, cherry, elmtree, ash tree, birch...
If someone buys a tree, can they come visit it?
Of course, everyone is welcome. For each tree sold, we issue a Letter of Ownership with exact GPS coordinates of the tree. A lot of people come to choose the tree personally. It's a lot of really touching stories.
One of the Capuchins in Bratislava buys only dead trees. He often calls us, asking: "Has any new tree fallen down recently?" I think it's a nice gesture of acknowledging that deadth is also a part of life, these dead trees will eventually rot and fertilise the soil. We had newlyweds who were gifted a tree with the train ticket to Eastern Slovakia to pick their tree. One Letter of Ownership was also a subject of inheritance. One tree was bought by Wisława Szymborská, Polish poet who was awarded the Nobel price for literature.
The idea of “doing nothing” and let the nature rule is your main philosophy. If we have the means to do so, shouldn't we try to help damaged forests?
The forests have been on this planet for over 350 milions of years. They have lived through a lot of challenges - from declines of temperatures, climate changes to falls of meteorites - they have developed effective strategies how to survive. Humans are have been here less than 2 millions of years and they cannot fully comprehend the complexity of a forest ecosystem. That's why I think that people shouldn't try to fix nature, the nature knows best what is needed. When it comes to forests, every group has "the best" solution, from activists, rangers to politicians. At WOLF, we might be the only people who say that the best we can all do is to stop interrupting the natural healing processes in nature. Nature has my full trust.
What is your goal?
We want to stop destroying the natural forests and accomplish that 10 % of forests in Slovakia are not affected by human activity of any kind.
Can people freely enter Čergov or Vlčia?
In protected Natural Reserves today, everything is prohibited. It's forbidden to enter them for tourists but so often other activities such as motor vehicles or timber harvesting get an exemption. That's absurd! So we want to flip this - we want people to be able to come and enjoy the nature but we want complete ban of timber harvesting, illegal hunting, motor vehicles, toxis chemicals, harvesting of deadwood or mindless planting of new trees. People should be able to explore forests off the beaten track. How can someone love the forests when he has no knowledge about it?
"Čergov had 3,500 cubic metres of wood when we bought it. Today, it's 15,000 cubic metres. So by not doing anything, we have multiplied its economic value 5-times."
Have Čergov or Rysia turned into a “safe haven” for animals?
For sure! Somehow, they understood that they are safe here and we see a lot of them on camera traps. We even have a picture of rangers with rifles outside Čergov and another one of them without the rifles inside the reserve. We are happy to see that they respect our rules.
Slovakia needs more protected areas like these.
We do what we can that the state designates more of natural reserves. The areas of Kyjov or Udava have been another success of ours. We want to set a positive example also for private owners of forests. We have years of experience and so we can help them if they want to turn them into natural reserves. The process is often very complicated and full of unnecessary bureaucracy. Sometimes it feels like instead of helping, the state builds more barriers for protecting our forests.
Will planting new trees save the alarming state of forests in Slovakia?
Forest is not just trees, it's a complex network of interconnected relationships and organisms that build an entire ecosystem. Trees can communicate through subterranean network of roots and fungi (mycorrhiza) that connect them. The estimate is that there are some 15,000 signals that trees can send over the distance of 20 km - about new seedlings, which "sick" trees need help in the form of extra nutrients. So when we cut down trees and plan new ones (oftentimes the wrong sort), it does not work. We forget all the bacteria, fungi, beetles or animals that are part of the network. The forest will heal itself if we let it do its thing.
Would having proof of this help change the minds of the ministers?
We have the proof! The first forest that we bought, Čergov, initially had 3,500 cubic metres of wood that was condemned to cutting down. Today, the same forests has 15,000 cubic metres of wood. By not doing anything to it, we have multiplied its economic value 5-times.
What are the most common complaints that WOLF files?
People send us complaints about illegal timber harvesting. Believe it or not, the number today show that only 1.5 % of the forest area is free of any human activity. We monitor our reservations closely and protect them should anyone try to harvest timber.
The second largest group of complaints is chemical spraying. Media do not pay much attention to this issue and so people have no idea how much of chemicals is sprayed over protected areas in High and Low Tatras each year. These highly carcinogenic chemicals "killing bark beetles" are air-sprayed in huge amounts by planes, oftentimes during the tourist season and on blueberry or blackberry fields that people consume.
You might have heard about the recent lawsuit when US court ordered Monsanto (the manufacturer of the weed killer Roundup) pay $ 289 million to a gardener who contracted cancer after a lifetime suing this chemical on his job. Roundup has been used in High Tatras for years.
You also dedicated your life to the protection of wolves, animals that also gave name to your organisation. What is the current situation in Slovakia?
Thanks to our efforts, wolves are now protected almost everywhere in our country. The numbers of animals shot each year are declining, which is very good. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has set the annual quota for hunting wolves to 76 animals.
Why do people hunt wolves? Is it from fear or trophy hunting?
Huntsmen are complaining about deer and wild boars overpopulation. Which are the main pray for wolves, so I don't buy the argument that they shoot wolves because that kill these animals. Wolves do not attack people or sheep if they are guarded by dogs.
People can be surprised when they read that WOLF, an activist group, is campaigning to remove the UNESCO certificate of ancient and primeval beech forests in the Carpathians. Can you explain what's behind this campaign?
The primeval forests are on the list of UNESCO since 2007, but what is happening in reality is a lot of illegal timber harvesting in the area. It's a paradox. We stopped the activity only after we sent a complaint and demanded the UNESCO certificate to be removed. The officials in Krakow were extremely surprised - historically, we were the very first activist group in the world that asked for the UNESCO status removal. Why did we do it? Well, if the requirements of the status are not being honoured by Slovakia and we continue to cut trees all over the area anyhow, we should lose the status. It's completely unheard of in the Western countries that a country would do such thing. We even had to get aerial shots to prove it, they did not believe us at first. Slovakia was urged to re-define the borders of the original 5,700 ha of forest area. It's an international shame.
The short film BIOMASSACRE that was a part of the documentary series for 2018 activist awards White Crows and heros amongst us was met with success. Dosiahli sa už nejaké zmeny v legislatíve?
We created the title Biomassacre by combining the words "biomass" and "massacre", because what is happening with our forests is a real massacre. This campaigns asks for abolishment of EU funding for factories that burn split fuelwood as a form of green energy. Because apart from dead trees and waste from wood industry, they use high quality trees for that. Why? Money. For 1 ton of wood, the business gets €70 in state funding, while its buying price is only €10. This means he has a profit of €60 just from the sale. There is not enough wood in the forests and the demand is very high. What happens is that the companies are breaking the law and harvest timber in protected areas or use healthy wood for burning. We don't want to ban burning split fuelwood as a form of renewable energy, what we want is the abolishment of the extremely high state dotations that fuels the illegal practices.
The members of Parliament have already moved the proposal of amending act on renewable energy sources that could limit timber harvesting in Slovak forests to the second reading. The vote is this September so we have to keep fighting.
In 1993, Juraj founded forest protection movement WOLF. For 25 years, he has been fighting for nature protection and raising awareness about the issue of preservation of Europe’s natural forests. He lives in Osadné.