The ancient woodlands of Poland’s south-eastern Karpacka Forest are home to 150-year-old fir trees, an array of rare birds, protected mosses, and, for now at least, dozens of climate activists dressed as wolves.
For the past nine months, members of the environmental group the Wolfens Collective, who wear the wolf masks to protect their identities, have occupied a section of the primeval forest to protest the continued felling of trees to fuel charcoal production. This has been going on for years despite numerous large-scale protests that have featured some of Poland’s most prominent figures, including Nobel prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk. Since 1996, activists have unsuccessfully petitioned the government to create a National Park within the forest.
VICE World News spoke to two members of the collective, Manu and Lava — who used pseudonyms to protect their identities while carrying out the occupation — over a video call about the aims of the occupation and the obstacles they face.
VICE World News: What is the Wolfens Collective and what are its main aims and goals?
Manu: Wolfens Collective is struggling to stop the logging of the forest, as well as to create a community and spread the values of equality for queers, women, animals and other oppressed groups. Our occupation has been going on for more than 220 days now.
You set up a base in Section 219a of the forest. Why did you choose this particular part of it?
Lava: We chose this specific place because, in recent years, this part of Bieszczady has been subject to intense logging and deforestation. We are bordering Bieszczady National Park and despite that, the cuttings are still happening all around us, in the middle of a mountain forest. We are demanding to stop the cuttings in this area to protect the inhabitants, to stop selling out the forest for money and to spread the message of the climate crisis. Cutting trees, nowadays, is a big threat not only to the forest and its inhabitants but also to us humans. We are fighting for the next generations. We’re in Poland, a country with a particularly difficult history, so that makes the issue more complex.
What do you mean by that?
Lava: What I mean is that these days, in Poland, where the Catholic Church and conservative, traditionalist governments dominate the public discourse, many groups within our society who are considered different have been oppressed for years. It’s difficult for me to even talk about but I want this message to be spread further. This is not a country for people who want to be free. Look at the Women’s Strike that happened last year, what kinds of reactions it caused. Our government hates women...We are controlled on so many levels, like marionettes, who are supposed to believe in only one particular god or one political party. There are people who don’t agree with that and I’m one of them. I want to live my life by my own rules. And those rules happen to align with the rules of the collective.
We fight for equality for all beings, not only humans. How is it that one species ruled and dominated the entire world? We are in the sixth mass extinction. Each year, we read reports of new species becoming endangered due to the human race polluting the air, water, taking more and more space away from them. Think about wolves, lynxes, bears – the forests are disappearing constantly but for them [State Forestry] it’s business as usual. I want to scream at all those directors, who sit around in their fancy, expensive suits, to get the fuck out. They can fuck off to Mars and dig there but leave our Earth to its native inhabitants.
Would you say that prominent and well-respected figures, such as Nobel-winning Olga Tokarczuk, who also campaigned for protecting Section 219a inspired you in any way?
Manu: We like to see that this particular place becomes more known and recognised because of her voice, but it doesn’t mean that these specific thirty hectares of the forest are much different from any other part of the buffer zone. But you know, we are one group of people. It’s not possible for a collective to occupy the entirety of the endangered area so we had to choose one particular place.
Being in a forest that is subject to such intense cutting and logging, you must be surrounded by various people who aren’t necessarily on your side – like forest guards and woodcutters. Have you spoken with them to try to find some common ground, or are they aggressive and unwilling to cooperate?
Manu: Forest Guards can be assholes. Some of them are not professional at all and can’t control their emotions. Certain guards in this area are likely to act dangerously and aggressively. We had some talks with the head of the local forestry but there was no offer from them to increase the protection. Their argument is that cutting and logging is performed to stabilise the forest and to protect it. They think they’re actually helping the situation. It’s also a common method of disinformation. They teach people that forests are meant to be cut to keep them in good condition. The scientists say the opposite: Natural forests are meant to be preserved.
You occupy the forest together so I would like to know how well you get along? Are you all friends, do you all share the same values?
Manu: Personally, I feel we are all friends. We try to be patient and understanding towards each other. This occupation, however, is open to anyone, not only the members of the collective. There are some rules and guidelines, for example, to not assume things based on someone’s biological gender or to ask for pronouns.
There are communal clothes, food, spaces to sleep. We share everything. We oppose this private and individualist way of maintaining things.
Lava: For me, this place is not only about struggling for the forest, which is the most important thing, but also creating community. Meeting people from all over Poland and beyond, who come here. It’s about caring for each other. Here, we don’t judge people. We see another person as a being and try to unlearn what the capitalist society taught us. Here we can confront how we were created and discuss many things that bother us. Each one of us has this power to stand up to speak for themselves and others. For me, watching and listening to the forest makes me calm and lets me listen to myself and focus on what’s important in life. It’s not all about career. It’s about doing crazy stuff, sharing emotions, and building shelter for other people. Here, you feel like a human again.
What’s really interesting about your activity is that you don’t cut yourself off from the public. Anyone can come and visit your camp. What kinds of people would you like to see come and what can they expect?
Manu: We don’t only invite people to visit. We probably prefer to call it participation because having “visitors” and “guests” creates hierarchy and there is no such thing here. So far it’s been people who share our values and understand them. If there are people who believe in different values, there is space to discuss that but on the basis of respect. There are rules not to exclude people based on their gender identity and so on. We don’t invite fascists and Nazis, basically. Human rights are not discussable.
What do you think needs to happen for the Polish government to change their attitude towards the climate crisis?
Manu: I think they need to see the pressure from society. It’s not only about the government, it’s also about the system. Cultural change needs to happen on every level. The ecological narrative is very often corrupted, there’s lots of greenwashing going on. Capitalism is leading to destruction as it sees the resources as never-ending. Growth is the most important thing according to that lifestyle. But having three cars parked in front of a big villa is not a goal of a human being. There are many other things that can make society healthy and happy, and it’s not buying more stuff and working bullshit jobs.
If I asked you to summarise the purpose of your occupation in just one sentence, what would it be?
Lava: I would say: let us live! [laugh]. Or: leave us alone!