Long reads

Citizens Confront Estonian State Over Excessive De-Forestation

A few months ago, Estonia's deforestation problem was relatively unheard of. Today, however, small concessions by the government to forest industries are increasingly visible. A nationwide discussion has emerged in concern and is now forming a forest movement. The Minister of Defence has labelled this movement "an unknown and well-organized threat." Linda Mari Vali offers a general anatomy of the situation.

A group of older gentlemen and a young woman sit together around a table. The woman speaks a great deal, anxious, and the men listen with boredom. A random spectator may think she’s wasting their precious time. In actuality, we’re witnessing negotiations over an amendment made to a forestry law between the Ministry of Environment and Liis Kuresoo, a forestry expert from a leading natural conservation association (Estonian Fund for Nature or ELF). Whereas the state should be involving environmental associations throughout the process, in reality it is only cutting off such associations from lawmaking as much as possible, while acting favourably towards representatives of the wood and forest industry.

The more Kuresoo speaks, the more she feels like a hot air blower adorned with ELF’s emblem. There doesn’t seem to be any function to her “involvement” other than warming the office air.

Fast forward some weeks and it’s springtime during 2013. Kuresoo writes about her “experience of involvement” and the superiority of industrialists regarding forestry decisions in an opinion piece for one of the more popular dailies, the Postimees. A day after the article’s publishing, she receives a call from the Estonian Internal Security Service.

“Could you come for a talk?”

Kuresoo can’t. She’s pregnant with her first child at the moment and the due date was already a few days ago. The drive to the capital would be far too exhausting, and thus the matter’s concluded.

In spring of 2016, an amendment was adopted that lowered the spruce felling age and loosened restrictions with no consideration for forest biodiversity.

Three years later, in spring of 2016, another forestry law amendment is to be adopted. The draft unnerves environmental societies all over Estonia for being even more industry-oriented than previous ones. The lowering of the spruce felling age and loosening of various cutting restrictions are to be forced into law with no consideration for the protection of forest biodiversity. The people of the community, aware of the situation, buzz about it like bees in their hive.

In March of the same year, the environmental associations summon a forestry roundtable. Surprisingly, a score of forest-owning industrial enterprise leaders also arrive. The dictaphone has to be closed while they present their case, but the foresters’ worry is haunting enough: the politics of the National Forestry is tilting towards damnation. The conifer stands, nature reserves are being endangered, leaving our children with bare clearings.

Even forest industrialists have begun to fear it.

National State Audit’s Warnings Ignored

In March 2011, a new forestry development plan is put under consideration at Riigikogu (the Estonian parliament), and the National Audit Office, environmental associations, and ordinary citizens alike speak out against it. A popular environmentalist movement, “For the Estonian forest!,” promises to picket at Toompea until autumn. A few weeks earlier, environmental journalist Ulvar Käärt writes on the opinion page of Eesti Päevaleht that the new development plan poses great danger to Estonia’s forests: “By lowering felling ages we spit on many endangered insects, plants, birds, and animal species…the area of old forests in which they make their home will decline steadily.” The National State Audit is critical both towards the plan to increase cutting capacity and the one to loosen conditions for cutting permits, finding that the forest increment has been overestimated and is not based on national stocktaking data. The latter finds that the growing forest reserves have been in constant decline.

Tõnis Kõiv of the Reform Party has declared that ‘the forest is foremost a source of revenue,’ while interests of citizens have been declared null and void.

The State Audit’s opposition notwithstanding, Riigikogu adopts the development plan. MP Tõnis Kõiv of the Reform Party is straightforward about the matter: “The forest is foremost a source of revenue.” This statement is in direct contradiction with the Ministry of Environment’s official policy, which states that the ministry should strive for balance between the interests of environmentalists and industrialists.

In reality, the interests of citizens, being protective over the environment and mindful of the future, have been declared null and void.

Department’s Shady History

In May 1980, two young men graduate from the Estonian Academy for Agriculture simultaneously, a forestry graduate, Andres Onemar, and a forest management one, Andres Talijärv. No one at the time could have anticipated that after the restoration of Estonia’s independence, these two career-hungry young men would gradually become the major players in Estonia’s forestry politics – Onemar as the General Director of the Environmental Board and Talijärv as the Chancellor of the Ministry of Environment).

In the mid-nineties talk of grandiose plans for establishing Kõpu National Park at Hiiumaa spreads. At this time, Andres Onemar is still employed as the local head forest chief. Although Onemar doesn’t publicly oppose the national park – it is, after all, the idea of his superior, the then Minister of Environment, Heiki Kranich – the Hiiumaa’s resident’s inner circle whispers that Onemar and his entourage are behind setting up local forest owners to botch the noble plan. The forest owners are told that after the national park’s establishment, they won’t be able to cut firewood from their own forest, although in reality the planned park did not encompass private forests. Environmental officials who have faced Onemar do not dare speak of it publicly out of fear of losing their jobs, or worse. Onemar’s public profile stays as clean as a fresh sheet of paper.

As the people of Hiiumaa’s distrust for Onemar grows, the man’s career as an environmentalist soars. In 1999, Onemar starts aggregating former forest districts, forest schools and hunting grounds, merging them into State Forest Management Centre. He will later become the leader of that newly created power centre for the purpose of centralising state forest management, and two years after that, he’ll become a member of the neoliberal Reform Party.

At the same time, Onemar’s graduating classmate Andres Talijärv is also pursuing a career in forestry, leading the Forest Board after the restoration of independence, and for a short while, he’s also an adviser to the Ministry of Environment. In 2002, he starts to work as the managing director at the Estonian Forest Industries Association, whose aim is, as they put it themselves, “the representation and defence of their membership’s interests and contribution to creating legislative and economic conditions necessary for the development of chemical and mechanical forest industry.”

When Reform Party’s Jaanus Tamkivi rises to the position of Environment Minister, he vigorously advances both Onemar’s and Talijärv’s careers. Two years later, Tamkivi will start another power-centralising project in the environmental department, which serves to neutralize 15 county level environmental services, the State Nature Conservation Centre and the Estonian Radiation Protection Centre. 82 people lose their jobs during the process, but Andres Onemar is appointed as the General Director of the newly created office by the minister.

The Environmental Board is led by him to this day.

At the same year, Tamkivi leads Andres Talijärv from the association representing the forest industry’s interests to the role of Underchancellor of the Ministry of Environment. During his transfer between institutions, Talijärv states publicly that he doesn’t see it as a change of field: “I have always been in the same boat, really – one time I row, the other time I’m at the rudder and then I show the course.” Four years later, the next Reformist Environment Minister, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, will just a few months later find herself in the center of a complicated corruption scandal, and will promote Talijärv to the position of Chancellor of the Ministry of Environment.

He still holds that post. With Onemar, they form the two sides of the forestry political coin of power. On its edge stands the Minister of Environment, Marko Pomerants.

Ministry Jeers at Environmental Associations

The Environment Minister, Marko Pomerants, has exclaimed that ‘there’s no point to owning forests just to hug trees.’

Environmental associations, forest industrialists, and leading scientists concerned by the forest law amendment convene in April 2016 at the Forestry Roundtable mailing list. Organized by the Estonian Fund for Nature, the aim of the round table is to involve all interest groups in the amendment’s consultation process. Although the former “experiences of involvement” have left a bitter taste in many mouths, the cornered “opposition” – there’s no other way to refer to opponents of liberal industrialists anymore – try to continue work despite everything. They also try to turn a blind eye to the mocking remarks made by Environment Minister, Marko Pomerants. Amongst other things, Pomerants exclaims that “there’s no point to owning forests just to hug trees.“

Photo of Keretu swamp forest, now under threat by a military training ground’s expansion. Taken by Martin Luiga. Reproduced with permission

The forest industrialists who joined the round table send their propositions to the Ministry. At the end of the letter, foresters find that forest management should be sustainable and preferably conservative, in the sense of cutting less. The deforestation planned for the new forest law amendment will largely be made at the expense of the future, and according to assessments of industrialists, will end with the contraction of Estonia’s forest and wood industry.

The Ministry remains undeterred by the letter.

The Estonian Fund for Nature (NGO Eestimaa Looduse Fond, ELF) then directs the Minister’s and Chancellor’s attention to the forest law amendment’s substantial shortcomings in a new letter, finding that the new law in no way furthers national climate goals. It is further asserted that all references to the contrary – of which there are many – should be removed from documents concerning the law’s development. ELF also categorically opposes lowering the felling age of fertile spruce forests, drawing attention to the poor condition of precious habitats. Furthermore, it is argued that as the new amendment is influential on many people, more citizens should be involved in the drafting process.

That letter also fails to warm up the Ministry.

The Head of the Chair for Natural Resources in Tartu University, Asko Lõhmus, whose scientific work largely concerns the biological structure and diversity of forests, participates consistently at the Ministry’s consultation meetings. His letters show more and more concern as time passes.

On May 16th, Lõhmus writes on the Forestry Roundtable list, while on his way to discuss the lowering of spruce trees felling age at the Republic’s Forestry Council: “I think that today’s meeting is strategically central in the sense of understanding whether the state even wants to have a substantial discussion about sustainable forestry, or whether a Russia-like propaganda machine has risen in our environmental field. I just looked at an influential parliament member’s blog, who suggests that there are actually no differences in opinion: ‘In the question of forestry, it has happened so that on the one side we have the State Audit and two Tartu University scholars, but on the other side there’s the entire forest faculty of the University of Life Sciences, forest owners, industrialists and officials.'”

Two days later, the Ministry finally consents to making an agreement; participants from the Roundtable calm down. At the beginning of June, Pomerants announces this decision to the public, promising in a press release that “with the lowering of the felling age of fertile spruce forests there will be clear steps towards covering the deficiencies in the strict defence of nemoral and mesoeutrophic forests.”

Alas, no one could foresee that the agreement was made just to buy time and placate the opposition. A few months pass by in relative silence; the Ministry is on summer vacation. Thus only in October does the Environment Ministry send its draft to other ministries for their coordination.

Only in October did the Ministry send its draft to other ministries, giving them a mere ten workdays to get acquainted with it.

It unexpectedly transpires that the state has backed off the agreement made in springtime. The Ministry does try to prove that in every way that they took clear steps towards covering the deficiencies in the strict defence of nemoral and mesoeutrophic forests, but environmental societies do not agree. They are given a mere ten workdays to get acquainted with the voluminous draft, despite the common, courteous consultation period being at least four weeks.

The Forestry Roundtable is teeming with umbrage. The editor-in-chief of newspaper Maa Elu (Country Life), Peeter Raidla, writes about the bleak cutting numbers: “As they have felled about 3.5 per cent of the total of private forests in a year, then if the tendency continues, we should have a treeless land in 28-29 years. Even more so if we start from the presumption that a spruce will grow into cutting maturity in 80-100 years and a pine in 90-110 years.” Asko Lõhmus sends an indignant letter to head of the Environment Ministry’s Forest Department, Riina Martverk:

“I am still categorically opposed to forest management’s treatment of the forest as a mere tool for realising wood profits. I find that in the present form the agreements reached in the Forestry Council and with environmental societies taken separately have both been broken. It is hard for me to understand, what is behind such a trust-betraying style of conduct, but it has nothing to do with developing sustainable forestry. It is possible that decisionmakers have not acquainted themselves with the principles and criteria of sustainable forestry.”*

The Environment Ministry does not take the voices of of these increasingly unsettled parties under consideration.

Enough is Enough

The Environment Ministry sends the Forest Law amendment to the Justice Ministry in November 2016 to establish coordination, despite complete opposition from interest groups. The Ministry tells the public that it has put a lot of effort into involving environmental associations. Alas, neither the Minister nor officials take into account that the public’s patience is wearing thin.

On the last day of November, environmental societies start a public campaign, “Help Defend Estonian Forests,” aiming to inform the Estonian people about the unsustainability of the national forestry policy and the damage it causes to Estonia’s wildlife. The Environment Ministry answers to the forest defence campaign with a press release of their own, claiming that environmental associations themselves backed away from the established agreement.

This lie exceeds all limits. The circle of forest defenders is overcome with anger.

The following day influential intellectuals and scholars send a public letter to the Parliament and its ministries. They demand the involvement of environment associations in forestry policy, as well as a state investigation into the MoE’s activities. They ask whether this issue isn’t a case of malicious and incompetent waste of the most important natural resource for the Estonian state and people.

Due to public pressure the Environment Ministry summons interest groups to discuss the Forestry Law’s amendment again. But the press communication still finds that the environmental groups themselves have backed down from the agreement. “There’s been misleading noise around the change in forestry law,” states the Environment Ministry’s Underchancellor Marku Lamp. State media does not reflect on the appeals and goals of intellectuals.

Despite a web-based petition calling for a sustainable forestry policy and an investigation into the Ministry gaining thousands of signatures, state media remained silent.

The following day, a public signing starts on a web-based petition platform, demanding, once again, a more sustainable forestry policy and an investigation into the Ministry’s activities. Within twenty-four hours more than a thousand signatures are collected and a press release is sent out. State media, however, remains silent. Discussions on social media platforms intensify.

The campaign’s instigators receive letters from the Estonian Academy for Agriculture, Luua Forestry School staff**, representatives of the Community of Foreign Estonians, and many other places.

Suddenly, it is revealed that many people have painful stories related to the forest. After all, forest clearings are rampant, and animals and birds become fewer and fewer. All kinds of materials about the bleak situation of forests start circulating on social media. Global Forest Watch, comprised of independent forestry experts, has calculated by comparing aerophoto data, that the forest area of Estonian forests has declined about three times faster than new forest has grown, by measuring the apparent canopy density. . The forest activists groan. National news is quiet.

Escalating Hypocrisy

At the same time, the State Forest Management Centre announces the ordering of 46 million euros worth of clear-cutting over the next five years. Forest activists grumble, but the Environment Ministry’s homepage reads that “the Ministry of Environment is the leader of Estonia’s environmental field, whose main goal is creating a responsible attitude towards nature and preserving a clean and biologically diverse living environment.”

Forest scientists share material about gradual worsening of the local situation of a few dozen bird species. The chicken bee analysis (a close on-spot study of the abundance of Galliformes in a chosen area) shows clearly that the grouse, hazel grouse and black grouse suffer under the “thinning cuts” which have 10-year-long negative consequences. “The complex indexes of Estonia’s sedentary forest birds (21 species) and European field avifauna (12 species) are both in a long-term downward trend,” writes the Environment Agency’s page, which shows that changes in forest management are a possible reason for damage to the biota.

Meanwhile, Marko Pomerants takes part in the UNO Biodiversity Conference and talks about how important the wider recognition of biodiversity’s significance is. In a press release issued by the MoE, the Minister emphasizes that “the care for biodiversity takes no more than political will, knowledge-basedness, plans, strategies, cooperation between relevant actors, a well-informed public and the ‘cash’ so important in politics to carry the plans out.”

At the same time, politically activated citizens are preparing for a picket demanding a more sustainable forest management policy and an investigation over the Ministry’s hypocritical actions and statements. By a will of fate the picket is set on the same date and time as the new meeting about the forest law amendment between the Ministry and environmentalists on December 16th 2016 at 1 p.m.

*This letter was only sent to the Roundtable list, and was not made public. Please contact the author for information on the letter.

** Luua Forestry School management wishes to make clear that they have not contacted Helping Estonia’s Forests in any public function.

Bio

Linda Mari Vali

Linda-Mari Väli is a freelance journalist and activist at the forefront of the fight against deforestation in Estonia. She also writes fiction, literary critiques, and songs.