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Polish Border Guard members keep watch as workers from Unibed company work at the construction site of a barrier at the border between Poland and Belarus, in Tolcze near Kuznica, Poland, on Jan. 27.KACPER PEMPEL/Reuters

Bogdan Jaroszewicz tries to shut out the drum beat of war as he carries out his research deep in the heart of Poland’s ancient Bialowieza Forest.

Dr. Jaroszewicz has spent 30 years studying the ecosystem of this unique woodland – the last remaining parcel of virgin lowland forest in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And like many people in this part of eastern Poland near the border with Belarus, he’s learned to live with geopolitical tension.

The area had already attracted global attention because of the thousands of Middle Eastern migrants who tried crossing from Belarus into Poland, only for many to be pushed back by Polish soldiers and then left trapped in the forest between both countries. Now scores of Russian troops have poured into Belarus as part of Moscow’s military buildup for a possible invasion of Ukraine.

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Meanwhile Poland has upped the ante: On Jan. 25, it began construction on a 186-kilometre-long steel wall along the border. There is also an exclusion zone that prevents unauthorized people from getting within three kilometres of the barrier. By the time it’s finished this spring, the US$400-million wall will soar 5.5-metres high and run nearly half a metre below ground. It will cover all of the land parts of the border, leaving only rivers, streams and swamps unfenced.

“I’m sad, simply. I’m sad,” Dr. Jaroszewicz said as he sipped tea in a restaurant in Hajnowka, a town just outside Bialowieza. He lives in a village that’s within the exclusion zone, which means he has to carry a permit at all times and face constant checks by the police and military.

He doubts the wall will do much to stop the migrants or dampen the desire of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to stir up trouble among Western allies.

Poland and the European Union have accused Mr. Lukashenko of encouraging people from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere to travel to Minsk, and then promising them safe passage across the Polish border. Even though the number of asylum-seekers has fallen recently there are fears that as insecurity over Russia and Ukraine increases, Mr. Lukashenko could provoke another migrant crisis to help his Russian ally.

“Judging from similar situations with similar barriers, they show that humans are not stopped by such a wall, humans will find other ways,” Dr. Jaroszewicz said.

His main worry, though, is the damage the wall is doing to the forest, which has remained relatively untouched for nearly 12,000 years. The barrier has scarred the landscape and disrupted the movements of several endangered animals, including the forest’s handful of lynx. The woodland is also home to wolves, bears, elk and the largest bison herd in Europe, which scientists say will all lose vital access to feeding and hunting grounds. Low-flying birds, such as grouse, could be unable to cross over the structure.

Last week 1,600 scientists and 150 organizations from around the world signed an open letter calling on the European Commission, the EU’s administrative arm, to press Poland to stop construction of the wall. The scientists argued the Polish government has violated EU law by not conducting an environmental assessment of the project or taking steps to mitigate the damage. “The construction of the wall will create a barrier with devastating consequences,” the letter said.

The EU has yet to respond but it already has had several disputes with Poland’s populist Law and Justice government, in particular over reforms to the country’s judicial system, which EU officials say will politicize judges. In 2018, the European Court of Justice also ruled that the Polish government violated environmental laws by boosting logging in the Bialowieza Forest. The government complied with the ruling but last year it allowed some increase in logging.

Polish officials have defended the wall as a crucial part of border security. And they’ve insisted that environmental protection has been taken into account. “The Border Guard makes every effort to ensure that there is as little interference in the environment as possible during the construction of the barrier,” guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper last month. Officials have also promised to erect 20 animal-crossing points along the wall, although scientists say that’s less than half of what’s needed.

For many people living in the villages and towns around the forest, the barrier and the continuing migrant crisis have taken a toll on the local economy.

The wall “is supposed to give us a sense of security, but it gives a sense of security not for us; it gives a sense of security to people in Warsaw,” said Paulina Siegien, who runs a small holiday home business with her husband in Czechy Orlanskie, a hamlet less than 10 kilometres from the border. “You can’t keep on living with this tension.”

The couple are building a second home, which they hope to start renting out to tourists this summer. But visitors to the region have been scarce in recent months and tourism is unlikely to pick up as long as access to the forest is restricted and soldiers patrol the woods.

Lukasz Synowiecki, a naturalist and local tour guide, has been out of work since last September when the migrant crisis started. He lives about 1,500 metres from the border in Nowe Masiewo, a village inside the exclusion zone. Mr. Synowiecki said he and his neighbours face constant police checks and watch a steady stream of soldiers head out on patrol. Even still, he ran into five migrants on Saturday who were lost in the forest with no food or water.

He’s joined local protests against the wall and he knows that stopping construction is an uphill battle, given the strong public support for the crackdown on migrants and the growing concern over Russia. “But we’ve got to keep trying,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling living like this.”

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