Forestry plan is not universally popular

February 7th, 2023 11:40 AM

By Southern Star Team

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IT seems the government is stumbling from one crisis to another since the new year set in.

This week the focus is on who knew what about the decades-long strategy regarding the State’s exposure to nursing home back-payments.

And now disability allowances have come into focus, too.

And while it will be difficult for either main party to create any substantial distance between themselves and this latest controversy – given they have both been in government for lengthy periods over the 30-year timeline – at least it is not a crisis directly of their making.

But there are many others that are.

And one of those exercising many minds in West Cork is the whole debacle over Coillte’s deal with UK-based Gresham House on forestry.

The deal, launched early last month, was hailed by Gresham as a bid to ‘create new forests’ and make ‘a significant contribution to Ireland’s Climate Action Plan’. 

What it did instead was make a significant contribution to the public’s ongoing suspicion of quangos.

Coillte has had a rocky relationship with farmers for some time, and this latest move, which appears to have been unveiled as a fait accompli – with no ability to change or improve the deal in any way – has certainly not helped to mend any part of that relationship.

The deal between Coillte and Gresham House, dubbed the ‘Irish Strategic Forestry Fund’, will also acquire existing forest assets and, when fully deployed, will represent a portfolio of approximately 12,000 hectares of new and existing forests.

Clonakilty woman Imelda Hurley, the recently-appointed chief executive of Coillte, said the forestry authority was happy to work with Gresham House on the plan.

‘There is an urgent need for Ireland to meet stretching climate action targets and creating new forests is integral to the achievement of these targets,’ she explained. 

‘The government’s national afforestation target is 8,000 ha per annum and the long-term target is to achieve 18% forest cover. Currently forest cover in Ireland is 11.6% compared to an EU average of 40%. The new Irish Strategic Forestry Fund represents an important first step towards accessing the capital required to enable the creation of new forests which will deliver the multiple benefits of forests for climate, nature, wood and people.’

So the entire deal was presented as something that was good for nature, for ‘wood’ (?) and for climate change. 

It was also to benefit forests ‘for people’.

But the large crowd that attended a meeting in Dunmanway on Monday night to voice their opposition to this plan, and the general direction of government forestry policy, must not, therefore, have been among the ‘people’ this plan was aimed at benefitting.

The phrase ‘tone deaf’ has been over-used in recent years, especially with regard to some government decisions.

But there are few Irish people who don’t realise how sensitive the ownership and use of land is, in this country.

Farmers are at the forefront of that knowledge.

And for a UK-based firm to be involved in a done-and-dusted deal concerning Irish land, without any advance warning to those closest to it, is one of the greatest examples of the State being ‘tone deaf’, in recent years.

Quoted in this paper this week, a Drimoleague farmer makes the point that the fund will benefit from forestry grants which will come out of an agriculture budget, the fruits of which will now be going to foreign investors, ie leaving the country.

Yet Coillte have persisted in saying the deal will be good for Ireland. In other words, they suggest that its critics cannot see the wood for the trees.

Yet there are so many elements to this deal that scream ‘wrong’ to so many Irish people already invested in forestry. But there is also an eerie feeling that, on this deal at least, the axe has already fallen.

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