A joint IUCN/UNESCO mission visited Belovezhskaya Pushcha / Bialowieza Forest in Poland and the Republic of Belarus from 15 to 20 March 2004 in response to the decision of the 27th session of the World Heritage Committee (27 COM 7B.14). The mission reviewed the state of conservation of the property, evaluated possibilities for multi and bi-lateral co-operation in the management of the site, clarified issues of zoning of the World Heritage property as well as fencing along the international border, and met with all relevant stakeholders in both Belarus and Poland. The mission concluded that the integrity and the World Heritage values of the site in both countries are not threatened directly by logging or any other kind of actions inside the boundaries of the World Heritage property.
The mission observed however a few potential common threats, which might have adverse impact on the whole territory, especially by causing a change in dominance of main tree species: a) global warming, b) long distance air pollution and c) Change of hydrological regime and groundwater levels. The mission also found that the integrity of the World Heritage property is rather vulnerable to external factors due to its relatively small size. The situation has however improved during the past eight years. The area of the Polish National Park was nearly doubled in October 1996, when the Council of Ministers approved an extension of 5,186 ha. By the year 2003, altogether 12,000 ha of the surrounding State Forests have been declared Nature Reserves. The administration of the National Park on the territory of the Republic of Belarus has also received additional territories under its jurisdiction, which will serve as additional buffer zones to the World Heritage property.
The mission noted some other issues of concern, which if not managed or controlled, could potentially evolve to become threats to the integrity of the World Heritage property: a) insufficient integration of the World Heritage property on both sides of the border into the surrounding forest and ecological separation of the two sites due to the border fences, b) management activities in the forests surrounding the World Heritage property (mainly sanitary loggings) reducing the amount of dead and rotting wood, and c) growing impacts of tourism, concentrated in Bialowieza / Kamenuki villages adjacent to the World Heritage property.
The mission found that the States Parties, their National Park staff and partners were well aware of these threats and had identified, where possible, measures to mitigate them. The mission pointed out, that some of the threats could be minimized by handling the whole forest as one management unit, where the protection of old-growth forest ecosystem and its biodiversity would be the main goals.
The mission noted that the cooperation between the States Parties in the field of conservation and management of the World Heritage property was not yet adequate. However, the mission noted with satisfaction that the States Parties on their own initiative used the event of the mission to arrange a bi-lateral meeting and discuss ways to improve co-operation with regard to the management of the World Heritage property and the forest in general.
The report noted that, in 1992, the core zone of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park on the territory of the Republic of Belarus was inscribed as an extension to the Polish site. The Polish part of the nominated area is well known for being the starting point for re-introduction projects of the European Bison. However, the conservation values of the forest complex are much wider.
The World Heritage property area is a portion of a larger transboundary forest complex, of about 150,000 ha. The entire forest complex has remained the largest and best-preserved unit of mixed lowland forest in Europe divided into a Belorussian (90 000 ha) and a Polish (60 000 ha) part. The report noted that while in Belarus nearly all forests of the complex have become part of the transboundary World Heritage property (92,923 ha), less than 10 % of the forests in Poland have been included into the World Heritage property.
The protection of biodiversity and natural processes in this larger forest area is of concern to local and national nature conservation NGOs particularly in relation to impacts from forestry. A number of NGOs and environmental specialists are arguing for an enlargement of the strictly protected areas as well as for an enlargement of the World Heritage property on the Polish side of the border.