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Wood for the trees

Explainer: Why is a deal between Coillte and a British firm so controversial?

Here’s a breakdown explaining the deal, why it’s controversial, and what happens next.

WHILE PASCHAL DONOHOE may have attracted most of the political attention in Leinster House this week, another source of discord has taken root in the Dáil.

A plan for land to be bought by investors for forestry in a deal between Coillte and a British investment firm has garnered cross-party criticism, as well as backlash from environmentalists and the sector.

Here’s a breakdown explaining the deal, why it’s controversial, and what happens next.

What is the deal?

The deal between Coillte and Gresham House involves the purchase of both planted and unplanted land from private landowners to increase forestry cover.

Coillte is a semi-state agency that manages around 440,000 hectares of land, while Gresham House is a UK asset management company with an office in Dublin. 

The deal between the two involves a new Irish Strategic Forestry Fund that is seeking investors to secure €200 million for the purchase of land and planting of forestry.

The forestry operations are to be handled by Coillte, while the land the forestry is planted on would be owned by the Fund.

Coillte has been restricted from buying land for new forests for 20 years due to EU rules on state aid funding – prompting calls for Ireland to push for a change to the rules rather than “outsourcing” the purchase of land to investors. 

An investment director in Gresham House’s forestry division wrote an op-ed for the Irish Independent defending the deal, saying that it is “not in the business of forcing anyone to sell their land”.

“We’re not, as has been mistakenly reported, engaging in any form of privatisation,” Joe O’Carroll wrote.

“We will buy land, at agreed market prices, from farmers and non-farmers who want to sell. Anyone who has worked in forestry knows it’s a long-term investment that needs expertise, patience, market knowledge and a commitment to doing things right,” he said.

We’ll focus on biodiversity across the forests we acquire or create, with a strong mix of broadleaf species that ensures the climate resilience of our forestry portfolio.”

However, environmentalists, politicians and sectoral stakeholders have all expressed discontent with the proposal for several reasons. 

Why is it controversial? 

The Irish Wildlife Trust has criticised the plan, with campaign officer Padraig Fogarty outlining that there is a fear any investor “will just want to get the cheapest land that’s available” with the tree species that produces the highest return. 

That species, sitka spruce, is non-native to Ireland and has been the target of criticism due to concerns it leads to a  “monoculture” environment, impacting the biodiversity of the area it inhabits.

“From an environmental point of view, what’s most important to us is what anyone does with the land,” Fogarty said.

“Our fear is that they’re just going to plaster it with more plantations of Sitka spruce.” 

A 2020 Noteworthy investigation found that Ireland has one of the highest rates of plantation forestry in the EU and the highest share of forest area dominated by introduced tree species, with large plantations of mainly Sitka spruce -  native to North America – making up just over half of our entire forest estate. 

PastedImage-29186 Conifer plantations in the Slievefelim to Silvermines SPA Will O'Connor Will O'Connor

Politically, TDs from across the spectrum are also staunchly against the plan. 

During the Dáil’s first sitting last week after the Christmas recess, many used some of their speaking time dedicated to giving statements on the Climate Action Plan to voice their dissatisfaction with the forestry move.

There were calls for Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue to intervene, with Sinn Féin TD Matt McCarthy saying the minister should instruct Coillte to halt the plan and state categorically that it would not permit taxpayer money to be used to “facilitate” a “land grab”.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett called the move a “disgrace” while Rural Independent TD Carol Nolan said that “stakeholders need to be listened to” and asked the government to step in. 

The issue surfaced at the weekend among ordinary citizens too at the final meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss, which convened to discuss sector-specific recommendations to put forward to the Oireachtas.

Members discussed a recommendation suggesting that “State-owned woodlands should be recognised and managed as a strategic long-term national asset for the benefit of the common good”.

What happens next?

Sinn Féin is bringing a motion to the Dáil this evening demanding that the government stop the plan.

In a statement, TD Matt Carthy TD said: “The Ministers for Agriculture and Public Expenditure are the shareholders, on behalf of the Irish people, of Coillte. They can, and they should, instruct Coillte to immediately stall this plan.”

He said the motion would address “the underlying issues that have led to the collapse of afforestation by directing government to publish a new forestry strategy as a matter of urgency and ensure that the new strategy prioritises afforestation undertaken by local communities, farmers, landowners and public bodies above investment management ventures”.

Though the government is unlikely to back the motion, it will not be the last time it will be forced to confront the issue in Leinster House.

Tomorrow, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue and Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity Pippa Hackett are due to appear before an Oireachtas committee.

The Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine will quiz the ministers about the plan at 5.30pm in a meeting that will be available to view online.

And on Thursday, two and a half hours have been set aside in the Dáil for a debate on Ireland’s forestry strategy.

At the same time, a protest - organised by an alliance of groups including the Woodland League, Friends of the Irish Environment, Extinction Rebellion and People Before Profit – is planned outside the Dáil to call for the Gresham House plan to be halted.

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