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Together with Irena and Stanisław, we are sitting in the kitchen, looking at the view of the burnt Biebrza National Park. On the floor, next to a bucket full of  bread for chickens, stands a pile of dirty coffee pots for firemen. We do not open the window because the wind carries charred grass that sticks to the curtains.

- They say that we burn grass. That you have to educate us. Ciemnogród. Katogród. Kaczogród. (Translator’s note: Demeaning terms for rural, traditional, Catholic poles). We read it. You don't know what you are writing about. - says Irena.

Krzysztof Mocarski and Artur Korytkowski have just arrived. They live in Pluty. They got into the car as soon as they learned that someone wanted to write down their stories. Krzysztof has 20 cows, Artur 40. Their cows starred in a YouTube video - the promotional video of Biebrza National Park. The cows swim through Biebrza river. You can see the herd guide swimming front. It murmurs, encouraging those cows which are less brave. 

However, Krzysztof and Artur do not want to talk about it.

Krzysztof: - We don't get along with the park. The reason for this situation are the meadows.

Artur: - It’s the same in my case.

Irena: - Our grandparents grazed cattle and mowed meadows of Biebrza. Thanks to the peasants, birds and all this nature survived. Nobody called this land a park, but it lived and we had respect for the land. Now the peasants are treated as intruders on parkland. If it had remained as it used to be, the land wouldn’t be burning now.

Stanisław, while talking, adds wood to the stove: - I used to take a boat, scythe, food and I sailed for haymaking. In order not to come back every day, some of us were sleeping in tents. The hay was drying on ladders. We brought the hay back home on boats or during the winter on ice, using sleighs. Now peasants have grown old and they sell meadows to the park. Officials say they save the old people from misery. They drive around the villages and pay 7000 PLN per hectare. Although my son-in-law says that in the province of Podlasie hectare costs 25 000 PLN. Those who still have their farms would like to rent meadows from the park, but who can afford it? The prices skyrocketed.

Pożar w Biebrzańskim Parku Narodowym. 22 kwietnia 2020Pożar w Biebrzańskim Parku Narodowym. 22 kwietnia 2020 Fot. Agnieszka Sadowska / Agencja Gazeta

Dariusz Ciochanowski, who lives nearby, is also sitting in the kitchen with us. He dumped cattles’ excrement in front of the park's headquarters to make authorities aware of the problem of leases. Until recently, he raised pigs and cattle. Now he cultivates grain: - It is difficult for farmers to participate in tenders for the lease of park meadows. The prices start from 600 to 1200 PLN per hectare. They set up meadow complexes of 100, 300, 400 and even over 1000 hectares. No one can afford spending 200 or 400 000 PLN plus security fees - it’s 100 percent of the value of the lease. And usually farmers do not need 400 hectares, only 5, 10, 50. Complexes should be smaller. A company from Warsaw or Krakow does not need hay. But we, farmers, do. There is drought, and the hay mowed by companies is rotting or burning.

- What is the use of the lease for Warsaw companies? - I ask Dariusz.

- For “ptaszkowe”.

- What is it?

- EU subsidies.

GRANDPARENTS MOWED WITHOUT ANY ADDITIONAL FEES

Farmers say that the Biebrza National Park leases meadows to companies from Warsaw, Krakow, Sopot and Radzymin. The park receives approximately 1000 PLN per hectare annually from each company. The companies take EU subsidies every year, 2 400 PLN per hectare. One of them leases over a thousand hectares. They choose to be subsidized by the environmental program, created in order to protect birds and meadows. It is the tenants' responsibility to mow meadows once a year. The frequency is set by the park and the Agency for Restructuring and Modernization of Agriculture. Mowing should be conducted no earlier than in August and no later than in February.

Krzysztof Mocarski: - I rented 10 hectares for a year. The park punished me because someone had cut my grass before August. They told me to pay a fine of 25 000 PLN together with interest. I did not cut it, the police determined who cut it, but the park did not care. The contract stipulates that the lessee is to blame for third parties. If someone arrives at night and cuts the grass or a tourist throws a dog out and the meadow catches fire, the farmer is blamed. Contractual penalties are so high that farmers can not afford them. But the companies and personal friends of the park employees don't care. Why does the park prefer companies to settle down on our land? And where were the companies when our grandparents mowed without any subsidies? All companies claim to protect the aquatic warbler. As if there were no other birds to protect in the whole park. Why is this happening? Because the subsidies are the highest for protecting this kind of bird.

Artur: - I was fined as well. I had to pay 50 000 PLN. I printed color satellite images for the court. The pictures show that the grass was cut a few days before I signed the lease agreement.

WE MOW LOW

The Biebrza area is now black. The black land stretches for kilometers. Here and there are still some oases of greenery; the fire stopped on them, went around them and then went on, which gave time to firemen. Green tracts are often farmers' meadows. They collected hay and mulch. This can also be seen from the kitchen where we are still sitting.

Irena: - The one on the left belongs to Barzak. The one on the right to Kowalczyk. That one behind the trees to Sowiński.

Stanisław: - It can't be that they throw the peasants out of their patrimony! In front of the park door you do not need one dump truck, but as many dump trucks as many farmers were shooed from Biebrza.

Irena: - Until 1993 there was peace here. Then they made a park.

Krzysztof Mocarski: - We mow to the ground, because we care about hay and litter. If companies mow at all, they cut half a meter above the ground. It was burning beautifully now. The dry part, which they did not mow in order to save costs, was set ablaze. I informed the head of the Restructuring Agency in Warsaw about the situation. And what? This year I already had two inspections. They checked fertilizers and measured the fields again. I've never had such an invasion before. And I would like to add that companies, instead of mowing, run over the snow groomers. They crush everything - together with frogs, snails and God knows what else. The compacted land cannot recover for a long time. Is this supposed to be nature conservation? Please explain to me what is the difference between burning and crushing with a ratrak. We hear that a fire is a great tragedy for the Park. Why destroying the ecosystem with a ratrak isn’t a tragedy then? It is the same thing. Why does the agency and the Park agree on such methods? Where are the environmentalists? Together with my friends I wrote to the Ministry of the Environment. The ratrak was drowned. Oil was spilled out and everything flowed into the water, it looked terrible. How the ministry reacted? It didn’t.

Pożar w Biebrzańskim Parku Narodowym. 22 kwietnia 2020Pożar w Biebrzańskim Parku Narodowym. 22 kwietnia 2020 Fot. Agnieszka Sadowska / Agencja Gazeta

We saw the documentation. A park official wrote to the Restructuring Agency that the meadows on some plots are mown by hand, with a scythe. We live next to these plots. We do not remember that in the last decade someone here has chopped grass with anything, and certainly not a scythe.

Dariusz Ciochanowski: - Farmers rent only two percent of the park's meadows. The rest is leased by non-farmers. The park counts it differently, it says that more than half of the renters are farmers. But they consider as a farmer a gentleman from Poznań who bought an old barn and a piece of land here. In this way, according to the law, he became a farmer. And we mean real hosts, local peasants who live here from generations.

Krzysztof Mocarski: - I wonder if the head of the park will tell the press how many companies do not pay him for the lease and how much money they owe to the park. From what I know, it is about 6 000 000 PLN. During one of the meetings, the head of the park affirmed it by himself. The head goes to court because the company owes him a million. The first hearing is an amicable settlement. The director says: "Pay 100 000 PLN, we'll let go of another 900 000 PLN". And this is where the matter ends in court. Is this called management? What if the peasant was guilty? They'd beat him with lawyers and regulations.

THE PARK DOES NOT REPLY

I'm calling the head of the park - Andrzej Grygoruk.

- Please visit us today at 3 PM. The director will hold a press conference - I hear from the secretary's office.

"But I won't get from Warsaw so quickly," I say.

- I'll connect you with the deputy head.

Deputy head Mariusz Siłakowski says that during a telephone conversation he is not able to answer my questions. He asks me to send them by email. I did not receive an answer by the day of publication, although I indicated the date. And I asked, among others:

* What are the names of companies renting the meadows from the park and how many companies are there? 

* What are the park's revenues from lease of meadows to companies and other entities?

* Are local farmers leasing the meadows or is the company based in other provinces?

* Does mowing with snow groomers comply with the policy of protecting meadows and birds promoted by the park?

* What are the park's post-audit conclusions regarding compliance with the obligation to mow meadows?

PRICY ANTLES

Wroceń is one of the villages closest to the park. It started burning on Sunday near Polkow and Kopytkowo. On Wednesday the fire was in Wroceń. Henryk together with the firemen poured the house because it stands next to the river and reeds. The fire could leap over the narrow river.

- There used to be a barn here. Now we have a wooden house and rooms for tourists. I haven't slept in two days. I walked around the farm all night and looked for flames.

Aniela lives nearby. She is working in the garden. She approaches the fence. She cries as she tells about his neighbors and nephew. They took their shovels and went to fire with the firemen. The nephew is called by aunt and he also approaches.

"It was sad to look at it" he says.

- Yes, so many meadows and birds burned down - I add.

- That's not the point. It was sad to watch the park staff following us and collecting elk and deer antlers from the burned ground. They are worth 150 zlotys per piece.

I asked two other farmers who participated in the campaign. They confirmed.

Anna: - We have cows. And our meadows beyond Biebrza. We bought from the Sołecki fund a crossing, which a hay tractor can enter. We asked the park to support us with some money. They gave us nothing. They were still making problems because for safety we wanted to regulate the shore. They said it was Natura 2000 region. Now our crossing was the only bridge for firefighters. They brought the land to shore to prevent it from slipping.

THOSE IN POWER ALWAYS KNOW

Together with Dariusz Ciochanowski we went to his home in Goniądz. In Goniądz there was a base for fire trucks that took part in the firefighting operation. Ciochanowski lent fuel tankers to firemen. Orlen supported them with some of the fuel.

- We are a bit amused by the fundraising campaign for Biebrza, for the reconstruction of the ecosystem. Let the park pull out the cash register, which it takes for leases from companies - says the host. - For years, we have been demanding limited tenders for a lease. That only local residents could participate in them. The director of the park reiterated time and time again that the law does not allow him to do so. Let them change the law in Sejm so that hay can be collected by a local farmer, not a company from Warsaw. We have already asked the authorities for this.

- Who did you ask for it?

- The voivode, the local MP, there was also a conversation with the chairman of the parliamentary committee for agriculture.

- Did they promise something?

- The MP said that there is such a strong lobby from the other side that nothing can be done about it.

- Which MP said that?

- Kazimierz Gwiazdowski.

- And the voivode of Podlasie, what did he think about all this?

- We talked to his deputy Jan Zabielski. He told us to look for examples of wrongdoing at the park and then report to the authorities. But he is not a deputy voivode anymore. He was dismissed.

- And the chairman of the parliamentary committee on agriculture with whom you spoke, who is he?

- MP Jarosław Sachajko. He knows about the problem, but it's hard for him to push through the changes. I have now told Michał Woś, Minister of the Environment, when he was here during fires. He directed me to his deputy. The deputy gave me his business card. We will make an appointment.

I am going back to Irena and Stanisław. We are no longer sitting in the kitchen, but by the fence; the sun sets in the blackened meadows.

Irena: - Relax, the park will be reborn. The grass on the charred soil will grow back. Stanisław: - We are afraid that just as garbage dumps are burning mysteriously, so will the bird grasses start burning. And our homes will burn together with grasses.

Nearly 6000 hectares of the park, including farmers' fields, were burned during the fire. The park's head offered the reward of 10 000 PLN for anyone who points to the arsonist. He said that the cause of the fire could be burning grass.

* Some names have been changed.

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