This was first published on our website in the Tara Foundation monthly magazine (January 2007 Volume 2, Issue 1). It is relevant to the Irish Government's present bid to offload state forests to an investor fund.
Coillte Teoranta, the Irish Forestry Board, was formed in 1989 and
“owns”, or rather has custody over, 441,000 hectares, of which 350,000 are
forested. Despite the fact that Ireland has perfect conditions for tree production,
with broadleaf species growing faster that elsewhere on the continent, Coillte’s
policy is to plant sitka spruce, to the exclusion of other tree varieties. However,
the wood from sitka spruce trees is the lowest quality wood commercially
available, unsuitable for any purpose other than compaction into pallets.
The susceptibility of pine trees to insect infestation and disease, when
compared to broadleaf, means that they require a higher rate of pesticide
usage. Coillte have responded to pine weevil outbreaks by spraying chemicals
containing high quantities of dioxins. Pollution of groundwater by fertilisers,
and the acidification of soil by the trees themselves, are both problems which
are created by this forest monoculture, not to speak of the year-round exclusion
of natural light from the forest floor, which prevents the flourishing of
undergrowth and of associated animal and insect species. What is astounding is
that this scorched-earth approach to forestry is being applied across the board,
not simply on peat lands or scrub.
The unspoken State policy seems to be twofold: to prevent the large-scale
growing of native broadleaf trees, and to prevent the development of a strong
native industry based on wood products. The State’s notion of “competition”
seems to be to eliminate any threat which domestic industry and fuels might
present to imports. But it seems that the State plan is more ambitious than
simply preventing the Irish people from benefiting from their own natural
In effect, a State body has been masquerading as a private company, for the purposes of (illegally) seizing publicly owned land and transferring it (also illegally) into private ownership.
Coillte’s role in “managing” the nation’s forests has been put in the
spotlight recently by issues surrounding the transfer, in 2001 and 2004, of a
total of 400 acres of Coillte-managed land at Bellinaboy, Co. Mayo, to Shell,
and the sale of part of the national monument at Rath Lugh, near the Hill of
Tara, to the National Roads Authority, and the subsequent destruction of
broadleaf trees there. Despite the fact that Coillte has been given Forest
Stewardship Council (FSC) status by Britain’s Soil Association, it has been
consistent in its refusal to comply with any of the principles of sustainable
forestry or the rights of local communities, principles which winners of FSC
status are supposed to uphold.
In 2003, the European Court of Justice ruled against Coillte’s claim to be
paid €50 million of compensation grants, to which only farmers (using part of
their land for forest cultivation) were entitled. The ruling stated that Coillte
misrepresented itself as a “private-law legal entity”, whereas they were in fact a
“public entity wholly owned and controlled by the State”. The pretence by Coillte
that it is a private company has been echoed by the Minister for Agriculture and
Food, Mary Coughlan.
Coillte has been falsely represented as a private company by the State for
a very good reason: so as to pretend to have a legal title to lands it does not, in
fact, own. The forests of Ireland belong to the people of Ireland: this position
has been established in law. Coillte’s statutory role is as a caretaker of the
property of the people of Ireland. It has no legal entitlement to transfer the land
in its care to private ownership, nor receive money in payment for it.
The consequence is that, in selling (or handing over) land at Bellinaboy
to Shell, and in transferring land at Rath Lugh via Compulsory Purchase Order
for the construction of the M3 Motorway, Coillte has acted illegally. Any
contracts which it has signed to effect these transfers are, legally, null and void.
In effect, a State body has been masquerading as a private company, for the
purposes of (illegally) seizing publicly owned land and transferring it (also
illegally) into private ownership.
Coillte, then, is a State body whose aim is, not to protect or promote the
national forests, but to appropriate public land, render it unsuitable for growing
trees which might be of any economic, social or environmental benefit, and
handing over those lands for purposes which can be of no benefit to the people
of Ireland, to whom these lands belong by right.