City fights against pulp mill threatening Estonian forests

UPDATE JULY 2018: The Estonian Government decided to cancel the plans for constructing the pulp mill after citizen protests. Read more information here.

In May last year, the Estonian government published a plan for a giant pulp mill to be located in Viljandi and Tartu counties. The company Est-For Invest would develop the pulp mill, which would become the biggest in the country. The cost of building the pulp mill would exceed 1 billion euros, and it would heavily threaten the Estonian forests and waters. However, the city council of Tartu demands that the government call off the plan. Tartu residents collected 8 000 signatures from persons opposing the construction. The council recognises that the potential for emission of pollutants is extremely high, endangering the city’s future itself. Additionally, the city council states that the whole process of evaluating the pulp mill project has not been transparent or inclusive enough.

“Due to the unlawful and questionable nature of current procedural steps, the implementation of a national special plan is forbidden and the procedure for the drawing up of a national special plan must be called off.”

according to the Tartu city council.

Please read also: Estonian forests are at stake

Environmental impact threatens Estonian forests

Estonia is in the top 4 of the most forested countries in Europe, trees supposedly cover almost half of the land. It includes Soomaa Wilderness, member of the European Wilderness Network, with 11 530 ha of strictly protected land without human intervention. According to the plans, the pulp mill would process 3 million cubic meters of wood per year. This is more than 25% of the entire country’s annual yield. According to Estonian environmental organisations and even competing investment companies, this demand is unsustainably high with respect to the logging rates and available commercial timber in Estonia. The logging rates are already high in Estonia. Satellite data indicates a gain of 90 000 ha tree cover, while losing 285 000, mainly to the forest industry. Hereby, Estonia is following the trend of dramatic deforestation in Romania.

‘Not signing an advance agreement is absurd’

There are questionable circumstances regarding the pulp mill plans. Internal documents revealed in February that the State Forest Management Centre (SFMC) and Set-For Invest prepared for prior arrangements. The arrangement included a guarantee for 50% of the State’s pulp wood for a 15-year period. This guarantee would be worth over 300 million euros, according to ERR News. Competitors and the general public raised questions about unlawful state aid and conflict of interest. The lawyer who prepared the agreement is supposedly representing Est-For, while counselling the SFMC. The same law firm also prepared documents for the government, regarding the pulp mill plans.

Officials from the SFMC proclaimed, however, that they followed the rules. According to the pulp mill developers, the main reason is to boost the Estonian economy by processing timber on own soil. Estonia already has one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. They claim it would be absurd if Estonia’s largest wood producer does not sign an advance agreement with Estonia’s largest future wood processor. But the conflict of interest may run deeper.

Conflict of interest

Mr. Mati Polli, who was until recently a member of the supervisory council of the State Forest Management Centre, is one of the key investors in the new pulp mill project. Mr. Polli’s son is currently also a board member in the company Est-For Invest. The company was established 3 months before Polli sr. left the supervisory council of the Forest Centre. Only a month after he left, the government presented the plan to build the giant mill.

What is next?

According to the Environmental Agency 2010, Estonia holds 43% primary forests. About half of this is planted or modified over the recent decades, while less than 3% is natural forest. Currently, Estonia strictly protects 12% of the forests, while using 75% commercially. Environmentalists and NGOs, like Estonian Forest Aid continue to direct their efforts to the conservation and protection of these forests. In the meantime, Tartu city council gave the government until May 1st to provide an answer to their demand for calling off the pulp mill plans. The first response of the media claims that the Tartu city council is too emotional. The prime minister acknowledged that the State continues with studies to determine the pulp mill’s capacity. This happens despite the protest of Tartu.

This topic was brought to our attention by Estonian Forest Aid, which provided us with insights, details and images on this matter.

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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