The current approach to large-scale forestry plantations is already having serious effects on communities across Ireland, writes Dr Louise Fitzgerald, Department of Geography

Many of you may have seen coverage of the controversy around the recent launch of the Coillte-Gresham House deal. The deal involves the establishment of the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund, which will acquire a portfolio 12,000ha of land and mobilise €200 milion (including an investment of €25 million from the Irish Strategic Investment Fund), for forestry.

Louise Fitzgerald
This is taking place in the context of the Irish Government seeking to increase afforestation rates to 8,000ha per year, to meet the target of 18% forestry cover by 2050. The announcement was met with criticism from many organisations, and members of opposition parties, with a protest taking place outside the Dáil.

Some have queried the process by which the deal was organised, whilst others have sought to highlight risks to rural communities, such as raising the cost of land.

This controversy is a chance to reflect on the current approaches to forestry in Ireland, the already existing impacts of which underpin criticism of the deal by rural communities. The current central approach to forestry is industrial, involving monocultures of non-native plantations, predominantly Sitka spruce, to be harvested for a 'crop' of timber.

This highlights that the underlying imperative is economic. Evidence of the environmental and ecological damage of such plantations are well documented by environmental organisations; including loss of biodiversity, loss of water quality in our freshwater systems and soil erosion.

But what about the people?

However, social impacts of forestry very often get overlooked. As part of ongoing research. I have spent over a year interviewing people in Co. Leitrim who have a long experience of forestry impacts. What they tell me has been less visible in the debate about forestry.

People living nearby the plantations describe the impacts of the loss of light, feelings of isolation due to being cut off and no longer able to see their neighbours, and their land in the shadow of forests turning to moss. Community members have also shared the emotional impacts of the significant changes to their local environments, in the form of dense plantations, and then the impacts of witnessing land impacted by clear-felling.

There is also a significant socio-economic cost. I've heard about and spoken with farmers who have been unable to access land as it is going straight into forestry with no chance for them to purchase it. Furthermore, community members also say that farmers were unable to access credit for farming in their communities, but that loans were more freely available when buying land for forestry. Overall, communities speak of the loss of agency and control over what is happening in their local areas.

The socio-economics and demographic dynamics of land use

To understand these concerns better, it is worth reflecting on how land ends up in and stays under forestry. People explained that land in these areas comes into sale due to an aging farming population resulting in land being sold by next of kin, or perhaps the owner themselves selling the land ahead of going into a care facility.

Previously, land would have been split up between local farmers for agricultural use with the economic benefit going back into the community. People I spoke to for this research outlined that increasingly it is being channelled into forestry and that this in turn is driving up costs of land.

In recent years, an increasing number of private companies, such as foreign investment funds, have been buying land to plant forestry and draw down the forestry grants available. The market is driving forestry to be undertaken where land is cheapest, meaning that certain areas of the country are being disproportionality impacted. In Leitrim, for instance, 20% of land is covered in forest, the majority of which is conifers, and contrasts with 11.6% nationwide.

The scale of time of these developments is also important to bear in mind. A forestry plantation might be for anything from 40 to 50-plus years, and felling licenses entail a commitment to re-plant the land. Once land is planted, it is taken out of the community for generations.

Communities experiencing such impacts express frustration at having few channels to share their concerns. Whilst licenses do need to be sought for afforestation and felling, which people can appeal, legislation passed in 2020 means it now costs €200 to appeal a license. With the volume of licenses, communities are struggling to afford to use these channels, which they see as limited, in order to try block further forestry developments.

Are there alternatives to consider?

It is important to note that many of the issues described here aren’t new and areas have been impacted by forestry for decades. Communities with an experience of forestry, such as in Co. Leitrim, have important lived experience of the impacts of current approaches, and place-based knowledges on alternative solutions which could work in their areas. But because land-use decisions are mad through systems of planning and politics, these ideas have few channels or platforms to be heard.

Ensuring justice as we navigate pressing environmental and climate issues means that communities impacted by forestry decisions must have a meaningful say in those decisions. It is important to listen to impacted communities on the shortcomings of current approaches, and their identified solutions, drawing on their knowledge of and connection to their local environments.

The current approach to forestry is already having serious impacts for communities across Ireland.

This calls attention to the need for ensuring local and regional input on planning around how and where forestry is to be pursued in Ireland within our national climate commitments. This is highlighted by the Save Our Forests, Save Our Lands alliance who have launched an online petition which underlines the need for a Just Transition for Forestry amongst other demands.

The current approach to forestry is already having serious impacts for communities across Ireland. The outcry over the Coillte-Gresham House deal has highlighted shortcomings in the way we make decisions about land. But it also shows a potential path forward and a chance for a more successful, sustainable and just approach to forestry in Ireland.

The author's research on forestry is supported by a Maynooth University Department of Geography Research Incentivisation Award.

This article was first publish on RTÉ Brainstorm.

Photo Irina Iriser Unsplash