Tuesday, 24 January 2023
Forestry Sector: Motion [Private Members]
That Dáil Éireann:
— the Irish forestry sector supports an estimated 9,400 jobs directly and indirectly with economic value of over €2 billion per annum;
— the forestry sector and afforestation must play a crucial role under the Climate Action Plan 2023 in support of Ireland's climate objectives, and that the continued failure to achieve afforestation targets will have compounding implications for the ability to meet 2050 emission reduction obligations;
— forest area comprises of 808,848 hectares or 11.6 per cent of the total land area of the State (Ireland's National Forest Inventory 2022);
— of the total forest area, 397,364 hectares or 49.1 per cent is in public ownership, primarily through the semi-State company Coillte;
— despite improvements in recent years, a significant forestry licensing backlog remains within the Forestry Division of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine;
— there has been widespread concern among environmentalists, farmers, the forestry sector and local communities with the announced joint venture between Coillte and the British investment management company, Gresham House; and
— Coillte is co-owned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on behalf of the Irish people;
— the Government's target is an annual afforestation rate of 8,000 hectares;
— the Government have failed to come close to achieving this target; the level of afforestation in 2020 was 2,435 hectares, in 2021 it was 2,016 hectares, and in 2022 it was 2,243 hectares (by week 50); this level of annual afforestation represents the lowest levels since the Second World War;
— while this crisis has been developing over a lengthy timeframe, with annual afforestation decreasing from 8,314 in 2010 to 3,550 in 2019, under the current Fianna Fáil Minister and Green Party Minister of State, forestry outputs have continued to worsen since this Government came to office;
— despite the extension of the Forestry Programme 2014 – 2020: Ireland by two years, a new forestry strategy is still not currently in place and that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not currently accepting or processing new afforestation licence applications;
— between 2015 and 2020 the number of farmers participating in new afforestation decreased by over 88 per cent, while between 1980 and 2019 81 per cent of private lands afforested in the State was carried out by farmers;
— delays remain in the issuing of licences, especially afforestation and private felling licences, with the Government failing to achieve its own targets in nearly two-thirds of weeks in 2022;
— the Minister of State with responsibility for forestry was aware since March 2021 of Coillte's intentions to use a private investment vehicle to acquire land;
— the proposed joint venture between Coillte and Gresham House has not resulted in increased Government targets for afforestation, and that any new planting could and should be undertaken by public bodies, farmers and farmer co-operatives; and
— there has been a severe lack of public consultation or engagement regarding the potential negative consequences of the large-purchase of lands arising from the Coillte-Gresham House joint venture on a social, economic and environmental basis; and
calls on the Government to:
— instruct Coillte to immediately halt their proposed joint venture with Gresham House;
— publish the new forestry strategy as a matter of urgency and ensure that the new strategy prioritises afforestation undertaken by local communities, farmers and landowners and public bodies above investment management ventures; and
— review their 2022 forestry licensing throughput, set in place an ambitious licensing target for 2023, and commit to meeting licencing targets for both Coillte and non-Coillte applicants.
A good strategy is one that delivers for the environment, for our economy and for local communities. Currently, none is being served. The Government has committed to annual targets of 8,000 ha of afforestation, but under the current Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and a Green Party Minister of State at that Department, afforestation rates are less that a third of those targets and the crisis is getting worse. Since my election to this House, I have been astounded by the ignorance and cynicism of those Ministers on this issue. That ignorance and cynicism was best exemplified when the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, following her meeting with Coillte last week, said this is a hugely exciting time for Irish forestry. It appears, once again, that the Green Party is not only completely out of touch with local communities but also pursuing a course that will undermine our ability to reach our climate action targets.
I have rarely seen a proposal from a State agency that has garnered such widespread opposition as the proposed Coillte joint venture with Gresham House. Environmentalists, farmers, the forestry sector and local communities are all united in their calls for the deal to be stopped. Upon the official announcement of the proposed joint venture, the Government sought to present itself as some form of observer. The Tánaiste said he wanted alternatives to be explored rather than selling land to a British investment fund. The Taoiseach said this was not the Government's preferred model. The implication was that the Government knew nothing about Coillte's intention and that it was caught on the hop. However, the Minister and the Minister of State know that is not the case. As far back as March 2021, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, was informed by Coillte of plans to use such a private vehicle to acquire lands. Even if Ministers did not fully understand the importance of such a strategy at that point, in November last year during a Dáil debate, I and other Members of the Opposition referenced Gresham House specifically and raised concerns about its implications. If Ministers thought we were exaggerating, then the hearing of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine with Coillte in December last surely removed all doubt that Coillte was ready to embark on a deal that would see the wholesale purchase of thousands of hectares of Irish farmland by a British investment fund, and that the Irish taxpayer would be expected to subsidise this land grab to the tune of tens of millions of euro. Throughout all of this, the Ministers cynically sat on their hands. It was only after the public outcry that Ministers sat down with Coillte to discuss its plans, but not to tell it to stop. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine said he was engaging with Coillte to discuss how we can support it to do its work.
This venture is not about climate. It is not even about tree planting. For Gresham House, this venture is simply about corporate profit. The funds delivered through the venture will simply drive up the cost of agricultural land that farmers could and would plant themselves if Government delivered a workable regulatory framework. Indeed, in the past we have seen Ireland actually reach its afforestation targets of more than 8,000 ha a year. Who planted those trees? Farmers did, because they were part of the programme. Rather than disenfranchising and alienating farmers and local communities further through this deal, Government should go back to a programme that actually works. The Ministers for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Public Expenditure and Reform are the shareholders of Coillte on behalf of the Irish people. They can and should instruct Coillte to stall this plan immediately.
Sinn Féin's motion gives Ministers a Dáil mandate to do just that. However, in perhaps the most cynical move of all, the Government is not opposing today's motion, even though it has no intention to adhering to it. Make no mistake, should this motion pass, the Minister will have an obligation to enact it. Just for the record, I will state again what it directs the Government to do. The motion calls on the Minister and Government to set in place an ambitious forestry licensing target for 2023 and all subsequent years, to commit to meeting licensing targets for both Coillte and non-Coillte applicants, to publish the new forestry strategy as a matter of urgency and ensure the new strategy prioritises afforestation undertaken by local communities, farmers and landowners and public bodies above investment management ventures such as Gresham House.
Most importantly, it instructs the Minister of State to instruct Coillte to halt immediately its proposed joint venture with Gresham House. In the interests of climate action, our economy and our rural communities, it is time to do the right thing. The Government should pass this motion and enact it.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Carthy, for introducing this motion on behalf of Sinn Féin. One of the greatest areas of potential for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss is through protecting and restoring our forests. A good forestry strategy can deliver for the environment, local communities and even for our economy.
Part of this could and should be encouraging farmers and farming communities to diversify; a community-centred, inclusive approach to management of our lands. A just transition was said to be an important pillar of the Government's climate action plan in which afforestation plays an important role. However, we now know that the Government's plans are for large tracts of land not to be put to use by local and farming communities, but instead diverted to a British investment fund called Gresham House. That is scandalous and it is not a just transition.
Coillte, a State-owned body, will source the land and plant and manage the trees while international investors and shareholders will siphon the financial reward. That land could otherwise have been the basis of income and livelihood for farming and rural communities. Now, it will be just another asset in the investment portfolio of Gresham House courtesy of this Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party Government. The risk of land price inflation will follow this deal. The risk is very real with some estimating that it could push land prices up by as much as 33% and right up to 80%.
No wonder the Irish Wildlife Trust described this deal as a scandal. It said it is bad for rural communities and that funding that could be invested in rural communities is going instead into the pockets of a British investment firm. Therefore, I ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to stop this deal now on behalf of rural communities and on behalf of Irish agriculture.
We need to increase significantly the planting of forestry to meet our climate obligations and protect our biodiversity. That requires engagement and buy-in from local and rural communities. The Government must then address the issues that have led to farmers withdrawing from this crucial sector. It needs to publish a new forestry strategy and implement the recommendations of the Mackinnon and subsequent reports. Again, I call on the Dáil not only to support this motion but to act on it.
The proposal to allow Coillte to use an investment company to buy up land and plant vast quantities of farmland across the country is another surge to the right, which is where this Government is going. We have a whole lot of issues in farming across the country. We have serious problems in our sheep and suckler cow sectors. I do not see any investment funds coming in to save them. Yet, one of the only parts of agriculture where we have investment funds is the part that is tax free and highly subsidised by the State, which is forestry.
We are creating a situation where multinational corporations and investors will make vast profits on the back of taxpayers’ money. That is what this is really about. It has very little to do with our targets or ensuring we have met climate action targets or, indeed, afforestation targets to produce timber. It is about creating a system in which the Government can move public money into the hands of private investors. It is absolutely scandalous that this Government would consider that an appropriate thing to do.
In the part of the country where I come from, we have very large areas of forestry. In County Leitrim, we have probably surpassed 20% of the available land that people are using. We cannot compete and nor can farmers. At the moment, when they want to buy a piece of land beside them, they find that forestry companies come in and buy that land. Now, we have a situation where Coillte, a State-funded agency, is going to do same thing, backed by a foreign investment company from England called Gresham House. It is preposterous that the Government would consider that this is appropriate.
I cannot for the life of me understand how the Minister of State met representatives from Coillte last week and came out of that meeting saying she was going to encourage and help them in this project. Where is the sense in this? Has the Minister of State no idea where the vast majority of people rest on this issue? I have spoken to farmers and people in the forestry industry. In fact, I heard Ms Marina Conway from the Western Forestry Co-op on the radio last week talking about this very issue. Everybody who is involved in the industry is against it and yet the Government is continuing to go down this road. It simply strikes me that it is not really about forestry or climate change objectives. It is about corporate profits. I do not know who is pulling the strings and where but whoever is doing it, those strings need to be cut. If there is any courage left in this Government, it's Members need to stand up for the ordinary people and ensure that if taxpayers' money is going to be used for the benefit of anyone, it is for the benefit of the people of this country.
If this Government had dealt with the forestry licensing crisis that has been ongoing for some time now and treated existing forestry owners, including those with ash dieback, fairly, more farmers and landowners would plant forestry. Targets set by the Government would actually be met and we would not be in a situation where there is now an attempt to sell off rural communities.
Coillte's plans will take over thousands of hectares of farmland in rural communities to line the pockets of a foreign investment fund. This will be of zero benefit to our rural communities. Such a deal will also see this investment fund competing with locals, including young farmers, when it comes to purchasing land. Locals will not have a hope, as if farmers were not under enough pressure already. We have seen this happen already in housing.
We already know forestry contributes more than €2.3 billion annually to our economy and in rural communities, that is the local economy, the local shop, butcher and co-operative. That is not where this money will go under this proposed deal. Not one red cent of forestry premiums or grants should be paid to investment funds. This is taxpayers' money.
Rural proofing has been spoken about in this House for decades. My party introduced legislation on this in 2016 and I re-introduced that legislation with colleagues in 2021. The Government decided to produce its own mechanism and we are still waiting. An issue like this is precisely why we need a rural proofing mechanism. We need to put a stop to this attitude of indifference to the impact that policy decisions will have on those of us who live in rural communities. Forestry is already a contentious issue in some rural communities and that is usually down to poor engagement or lack of consultation. That is another reason why we need a forestry strategy. It is important that the Government does not underestimate the level of anger that is out there with regard to this issue. This is a bad deal that should be stopped.
Since the Coillte and Gresham House arrangement first emerged, it became clear that more was known by the Department than was being let on at the time. While the Project Woodland working group was convening, the arrangements with Gresham House were being put in place. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, was aware of this as far back as March 2021. She and the Minister appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on several occasions and totally disrespected us by not informing us or the working group about this arrangement.
Effectively, the stakeholder group that was being consulted on the way forward for the industry was being kept in the dark about an arrangement that will fundamentally affect its members' livelihoods. One such stakeholder told me, "This makes a farce of Project Woodland." I was also told by a forester that he developed suspicions about such an arrangement when landowners began telling him about being contacted by fund representatives who were interested in buying them out.
Because of the way the forestry service has been mismanaged, the Department has no chance of achieving its afforestation targets through conventional means. This is the way the Government wants to get it done, by sidelining our foresters, contracting out the work to a private investment fund and handing over public money when all it has in mind is profiteering, not what is in our interest.
The Irish Farmers Association, IFA, expressed the concern that a large proportion of new forestry programme funding will be redirected from farmers in rural communities and instead paid out to investors, and it is absolutely right. The Government is using Coillte to try to keep this arrangement to redirect public funds at arm's length from the Department. However, it expects the benefit from it nonetheless while farmers take the hit. It is fooling no-one, however. One forester told me of his fears that he will be unable to compete for land given the deep pockets of funds. He referred me to the UK Forest Market Report 2022, which outlined the surge in land prices experienced in Scotland where, incidentally, funds are quite active. The Government is selling out foresters and rural communities.
Also concerning to me is a reply I received to a parliamentary question in which the Minister of State told me that while Coillte is providing management and land acquisition services to the company concerned, it may have procured these services other than from Coillte. Who else is the door being opened for here? Can the Minister of State please elaborate on that? How many more entities like Gresham House, which have no obligation to Ireland or its biodiversity targets, are waiting in the wings?
Instead of masking the Government's failings by selling out this sector, I demand that the Minister of State directs Coillte to halt this proposal. She should instead fulfill her brief by immediately publishing the new forestry strategy, clearing the remaining forestry licensing backlog while continuing to process new licences and implementing the Mackinnon and other reports that are gathering dust on the Department's shelves.
The forestry strategy in Ireland has always been geared in the wrong direction. A core weakness has been the failure to look after our national parks and native woodlands. Overgrazing by deer and sheep and infestation by invasive species like rhododendron are the norm in many of our native woodlands. While the forestry industry plays an important role in the economy, our forestry strategy cannot avoid the environmental impact of placing huge swathes of Sitka spruce on our hillsides.
Our lack of respect for our biodiversity is astonishing. The curlew is reckoned to be at risk of extinction in less than a decade and a quarter of all bird species in Ireland are disappearing. Anyone who walks in a spruce plantation will tell of the utter silence as you walk through the trees, the orange carpet of fallen leaves the only sight among bare trunks. There are no mosses on the ground, no plants and no birds. They are ecological death zones and there is more biodiversity and life on a motorway embankment. The volunteers and young people who take part in stepping stone forests in my constituency will tell the Minister why this is a flawed strategy. Biodiversity is the key and buy-in from communities is vital.
The Government’s target is annual afforestation of 8,000 ha. When the Green Party was in opposition, it advocated 15,000 ha. Not that it matters, because the Government has failed to exceed a quarter of its pathetic targets. We are planting the lowest level of forestry of any time in the past 80 years and the idea we can increase our forest cover from 11% to 18% by 2046 is laughable considering our poor performance and lack of ambition. The proposed joint venture between Coillte and Gresham House has resulted in increased Government targets for afforestation. There has also been a complete lack of public consultation and engagement regarding the potential negative consequences of large purchases of land arising from the venture on a social, economic and environmental basis. This is a time when we must be hypervigilant about what trees we plant and where we plant them. The Government must publish the new forestry strategy as a matter of urgency and that strategy must prioritise afforestation undertaken by local communities, farmers, landowners and public bodies. We need green corridors through our cities and villages.
The reason we are here is not because we oppose investment in the forest sector, which is badly needed, but because of the type of investment. The State through Coillte should not be incentivising or underwriting investments for vulture funds at the expense of family farm incomes or viability. There are also legitimate concerns that investment by such vulture funds will inflate the cost of land, as it has done in other sectors like housing. Local farmers in rural communities could be priced out, just as many renters have been priced out of living in the areas in which they grew up.
This is a bad deal that facilitates the sale of thousands of hectares of Irish land to a British vulture fund and the Government is again doing its all-too-familiar innocent bystander routine. It is remarkable that Coillte’s annual reports make constant reference to the need for shareholder approval when it comes to big decisions like this one. Who are its shareholders? Where are they hiding? They sit on the Government benches of this Chamber. They are the Ministers, Deputies McConalogue and Donohoe. The former appoints the board and sets out its terms of office in writing. The board’s responsibilities include the approval of contracts in excess of a value of €1.5 million, approval of disposal of assets in excess of €2 million, and managing investments in excess of €3 million. The current deal establishes a fund of more than €200 million. Will the Minister confirm that he vests his confidence in the board and the approval of this decision? It is a board the Minister appointed and which he has the power to remove. It seems to me this is a bad deal whatever way you look at it. It is curious that a public-spirited board would want to enter into such a deal.
This comes from a Government which recently produced a White Paper about how it wants to support indigenous businesses. What will Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s next bright idea be? Will it be selling off our rivers and streams? The Ministers need to put a stop to this. The people are against it for valid, clear reasons. If the board will not listen to the Ministers, then they need to tell the board what is what.
Genuine concerns about forestry have been raised in recent weeks, particularly in relation to the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund. It is because of those concerns that I am happy to have this opportunity to speak about the upcoming forestry programme, the forest strategy, and the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund.
Government policy is to increase our forest estate from 11.6%, to 18% by 2050. To reach this target, we will have to create an additional 450,000 ha of new forests by 2050. Last November, the Government announced funding of €1.3 billion for the new forestry programme, subject to state aid approval. This is the biggest and most farmer-friendly forestry programme in the history of the State, and it will play a crucial role in meeting our forestry targets under the climate action plan. Under the programme, farmers will receive 20 years of premium payments, compared with 15 years for non-farmers. In addition to receiving 33% more premium payments, farmers who plant new forests will receive their basic income support for sustainability, BISS, payment on land converted to forestry, whereas other private landowners will not receive that payment. Under the new programme, the incentives for native broadleaf forests, agroforestry and continuous cover forestry will be significantly increased, and there will be support for a new forest type, emergent woodland. A further example of our farmer- and biodiversity-friendly approach is that organic farmers will be able to receive organic farming payments and agroforestry premiums on the same plot of land.
Roughly two thirds of the landmass of Ireland is farmland. Therefore, if we are to meet our 2050 forestry targets, we will need to count on a massive effort from our farmers. They will be the primary drivers of our afforestation efforts and the primary beneficiaries of the €1.3 billion programme.
Last April, Coillte announced its strategic vision for 2050. Half of the new forests Coillte will enable by 2050 will be native woodlands. The other half will be forests for quality timber production, which will be used in large part to displace emissions-intensive building materials such as steel and cement. More timber for use in construction is a positive thing. I want to be clear that those new forests that are more focused on timber production will not be monoculture forests. The days of State-funded monoculture forests with inappropriate setback distances on the wrong soil types are over. Any forests planted under the new forestry programme for timber production will have a minimum 20% broadleaf content and a minimum 15% area for biodiversity enhancement.
The motion calls for immediate publication of the forest strategy, and we will be doing so in the coming weeks. The draft strategy was informed by extensive engagement with the public and with stakeholders, and that draft text went to public consultation last October until the end of November. Our officials are in the final stages of working through the submissions to that public consultation to finalise the strategy for publication. I think all Deputies will agree this is a critical step to get right to ensure our forest strategy is reflective of the views of the public. This strategy will deliver for climate, biodiversity, water quality, communities and rural economies.
In relation to licensing, let us be clear that the crisis is over. We have made substantial investment in licensing resources, especially in relation to ecology, and forestry licensing output performed excellently throughout 2022, with turnaround times significantly improved. In summary, last year we issued 4,713 licences, which is 1,154 more licences issued than applications received. The 6,700 licences we had on hand in total in August 2021 is now at just over 3,000, and this continues to reduce every week, even when new applications are factored in. Licences for timber felling and forest roads in 2022 were both at record levels for a single year. Finally, there are now more than 1,000 approved afforestation contracts with 7,343 ha ready for planting. It is clear the Government is serious about making progress in forestry, and it is clear from Sinn Féin’s motion this evening that, unfortunately, as with many areas of climate action, that party is not serious about forestry.
Deputy Carthy wrote today in the Daily Mailthat this fund could receive up to €2 billion in subsidies from Irish taxpayers. This is utterly untrue. Deputy Carthy and his party know that this particular deal represents less than 1% of the Government’s targets for new forests by 2050. Sinn Féin knows that the vast majority of the €1.3 billion forestry programme will go to farmers. Sinn Féin also knows that the Government does not interfere in contracts made by commercial semi-States such as Coillte and the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, nor should we be moving to a space whereby Ministers, or indeed Opposition politicians, can retrospectively interfere in contracts that semi-States have lawfully entered into.
What I will say about this motion, however, is that I welcome that we are discussing forestry and the role of Coillte more generally here this evening. In the context of Coillte’s further direction, it is important to mention first a key constraint on Coillte’s ability to engage in afforestation without private involvement, namely, EU state aid rules.
A 2003 EU state aid decision ruled that Coillte, as a public authority, could not receive state aid in the form of annual forestry premium payments. Our officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are assessing the extent to which the State might be able to fund Coillte’s afforestation efforts directly, either through capital funding or through grant and premium payments under the new forestry programme, without breaching new state aid guidelines adopted on 1 January this year.
More broadly, though, this is a timely debate. We are shortly moving to phase 2 of the land use review and among other things, this will look at how we can further streamline the forestry licensing process by adopting a plan-based approach. Among the bigger land use questions we have to tackle is the question of what we as a State want from Coillte and where its focus should lie. Coillte, under its existing commercial mandate, has committed to a 50:50 split between forests for nature and forests for wood and I believe this represents real progress from a place where Coillte traditionally had an 80:20 split in favour of forests for wood. Certainly, my own party was clear in its general election manifesto in 2020 that we should look at a broader mandate for Coillte, which would deliver multiple benefits, including environmental and community objectives, as well as the production of high-quality timber and this remains our position. I will continue to pursue this with my Government colleagues.
I have always wanted a broader mandate for Coillte and if this debate can bring that forward, it will be a good result. I note the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss discussed Coillte over the weekend and made a similar draft recommendation. I look forward to examining the final recommendations of the citizens' assembly when they come to Government and to exploring the merits of those recommendations with my coalition colleagues. I understand that the citizens’ assembly also expressed a concern that the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund should not result in the sale of any existing Coillte forests and I can categorically say that is not on the cards.
The fund will not seek to purchase any public lands and any land purchased by the fund, whether it is an existing forest or bare land, will already be in private ownership.
Despite Deputy Boyd Barrett again repeating inaccurately that the fund could plant up to 100,000 ha of new forests, I want to clarify that this fund will plant roughly 3,500 ha over a five-year period, meaning an average of approximately 700 ha per year. Deputy Boyd Barrett has consistently repeated a figure that is over 28 times the area that will actually be planted by this fund, and this level of misinformation really does not serve anyone.
As the Taoiseach said earlier today on the floor of this House, the fund is not the Government’s preferred model to reach its afforestation targets. This is one small model of afforestation, representing less than 1% of our overall target for 2050. The Government’s preferred model of afforestation is one where farmers plant trees on their land, which is why we have designed the new forestry programme in a way that will pay farmers 33% more in annual premium payments than any other landowner, on top of the basic income support for sustainability payment, which non-farmers will not receive.
That said, Coillte, as our State forester, has an important role to play in contributing to afforestation targets, alongside farmers. There is enormous potential for Coillte to establish new native woodlands for biodiversity on lands already in public ownership and suitable for forestry. Coillte is already working closely with local authorities and State bodies to identify such land. Coillte and Bord na Móna planting native woodlands on former industrial cutaway peatlands is a great example of this approach. Coillte is also planting new native woodlands through the not-for-profit Nature Trust. I know the Tánaiste has said we should examine the possibility of the State purchasing land for Coillte to plant further native woodlands. This is something I am open to, as well as a wider Government discussion over the coming months around what it is we want from Coillte, to ensure that it delivers for climate, nature, water quality, wood production, people, the wider economy and rural economies.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion this evening and I thank Deputy Carthy for bringing it forward.
At the outset, I remind the Minister of State that she is actually supporting the motion she is criticising here tonight.
To be clear, this is a bad deal for Ireland. It is spelled out. It is a bad deal for Ireland because it will increase the price of land. More importantly, it reflects a complete lack of vision on behalf of the Government. There is no strategy. Forget about strategy; there is a lack of vision. There is an opportunity here to bring communities with us and what is the Government doing instead? It is isolating them and alienating them. It is completely unacceptable but it is no surprise at all, given there is a coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and their ideological partners in the Green Party.
Communities are being isolated. Farmers are being isolated. The price of land is being driven up. There is a real opportunity in forestry, and the Government does not have to imagine where communities are, because there has been a Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss. The Department has consulted with communities. It has spelled it out in the public attitudes presented in the survey on forestry. Communities want to play their part. They want forestry in urban and rural areas. They want it to be alive. They want a richness in biodiversity. Instead, what are Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party doing? They are selling it off for corporate profit and shame on them all.
I say to the Minister and the Minister of State that the proposed deal between Gresham House and Coillte is nothing short of a land grab. This time, it is not English landlords with an army in front of them clearing off the peasants but the Government, which is facilitating the transfer of hundreds of millions of euro to a British company to snap up large tracts of Irish land and to put it out of the reach of rural communities. See how this goes down in Camross and Clonaslee if the Minister of State thinks that people are behind her on this. The failure to meet targets to increase afforestation has been caused by the failure of the Government to put a proper framework in place and to sort out problems in the sector. The amount of land being planted has collapsed dramatically from 8,314 ha in 2010 to just 2,244 ha last year. We are way off target on climate and timber. Huge delays continue in obtaining felling licences and the Minister knows that. Some have been waiting for up to two years. We must do better. For commercial reasons, for the supply of commercial timber, for environmental reasons and to meet our climate targets, we need to plant a minimum of 8,000 ha per annum. We need to increase the variety of trees that are planted.
Coillte is a publicly-owned company. The Minister, the Minister of State and the Government are the sole shareholders acting on our behalf. As for the idea that the owners have no say, have their hands off the wheel, are asleep at the wheel and cannot stop this, it is a ludicrous suggestion. This Government and the deal with Gresham House follows a pattern of moves by conservative Governments that use investment funds to control social housing and health services to run a lottery.
They tried it with water - that is what they were lining up next - and now they are trying it with forestry. This is straight out of the playbook of Margaret Thatcher and the British Tories, and Senator Hackett should be ashamed of herself, as a Green Party Minister of State, to be going along with this right-wing move.
People in rural Ireland and the midlands value semi-State companies. Alongside this, farmers want to be involved in sustainable and efficient farming programmes that deliver our needs in commercial timber and meet our climate targets. The Minister must stop this land grab, implement immediately the recommendations of the Mackinnon report and a new forestry strategy, and start clearing the backlog of licences for forestry in the system.
Once again, Fine Gael has shown its true colours. It is the party of privatisation, its political allies are rich investment funds and the only reason it cares about the environment relates to whether it can make a euro out of it. I am deeply concerned, as are many of my constituents. I recently dealt with Coillte in regard to a forest near Watergrasshill that has been sold to a private company, which will turn the forest into a site for agricultural composting. The locals who walk in and explore the forest with their families and children are very disappointed. Coillte told me there are non-native trees in this forest and that it has exceeded its carbon life span and will begin to do damage to the soil. It told me it will replant trees to replace the ones that were felled, but not in my constituency. We are talking about forests of which my constituents want to be part being lost to both them and future generations. Rewilding projects can have a significant impact, and while many of them are in their infancy, we can see their clear potential.
What the Minister and the Minister of State are doing is like what Fine Gael tried to do when it tried to privatise water and what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil did when they tried to privatise housing. People cannot buy houses now because vulture funds and cuckoo funds are buying up entire developments of apartments and houses for profit, and that is on those parties’ watch. If people who are watching this debate want to know what the difference between us and them is, it is that Fine Gael, supported by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, will sell the future of the people to investment funds. Why? It does not make economic sense. This land belongs to the people and the Government is selling it and giving it away, in the way it tried to do with water and has done with housing.
To conclude, I say shame on the Green Party. It is supposed to stand up for ordinary people, but by supporting Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael it is selling out its true supporters and members. I ask the Minister of State to reconsider her party's position on this.
Over the past week or so, dozens of people have contacted my office about this joint venture with Gresham House and about the subsidisation, collaboration and corporate takeover by this UK equity fund. Many people who contacted me raised the sell-off of telecoms, housing and bins, the attempted sell-off of water, the sale of the national lottery and now the sale of our forestry. Some of them had lived abroad, such as in Germany and England, and had seen what had happened there following similar sell-offs to vulture funds. A man from a hill farmers' organisation asked how people in his line of work, who are not wealthy people, were expected to compete with this type of investment fund. Throughout Kerry, people talk about Sitka spruce and the damage it has done. In Knocknagashel and Brosna, the rivers have, in effect, been poisoned. The brown trout that used to swim there, along with other signs of biodiversity, have gone. The same is true of Lickeen Wood and Glanteenassig. A man from Glencar told me it is similar to the way the Caragh river has been blocked off to locals, who cannot even swim in it without someone saying it has been taken into private hands.
The widespread demand of all the people who contacted me, comprising a coalition of farmers, forestry people and environmentalists, was for a forestry strategy that will deliver for the environment, local communities and the economy, but this subsidised, grubby joint venture will deliver none of that. The venture appears intended solely to circumvent the rules that prohibit Coillte from receiving its subsidies for afforestation and partnering with a company that will be motivated primarily by profit, and that is not good for the selfsame farmers' groups, forestry people and environmentalists. The Government should be upfront and it is not too late for that. It should try to halt this joint venture and publish its new forestry strategy as soon as possible.
I am sharing time with Deputy Sherlock.
I had a bit of déjà vu when I found out about this proposal. To be fair, I am not sure how, in a sleepwalking way, it just appeared in front of the Government. I appreciate Coillte is autonomous but it has to report to the Minister and the Minister of State. I predict this will not happen because I can sense a public outcry building up about it.I am surprised by the attitude of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party because I recall what happened when Fine Gael tried to sell Coillte. I am one of the few Deputies left in this House, along with my party colleague to my left and perhaps one or two more, who remembers that because the then Minister with responsibility, Pat Rabbitte, prevented it. He prevented a lot of privatisation efforts that had been proposed by Fine Gael leading up to 2011.
I understand, as does the Labour Party, that a new approach has to be taken to forestry. We are nowhere near meeting our targets and do not have a hope of doing so, but this is not the solution. It will be opposed. We can see already the concerns being expressed by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste but also by many Government backbenchers and, dare I say it, other public representatives throughout the country. This concern is based on real issues. I have a lot of questions about Coillte's role here, which I do not have time to go through today, as to the origins of the proposal, the make-up of it, the role of the Secretary General and the assistant secretary who is responsible for it, and the manner in which it came about, all of which will have to be outlined, but in essence it is privatisation by the backdoor. It is a slide we do not want to go down and the Government is going to have to reverse it. It is going to have to call Coillte to heel.
I accept that Coillte has claimed it cannot meet the scale of investment required. That is a legitimate point for the agency to make and the Labour Party and I accept it, but the Government should support it directly through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, or through the investment of new capital rather than outsource all the profits to the private sector. In a way, this is a siphoning-off of funds from the public purse into a small number of private hands. These funds would be used to far greater effect by both increasing our level of afforestation and supporting Irish farmers to develop their own forests on their own lands.
I have heard a great deal about why this could not happen and why Coillte is not partnering with Irish farmers despite it having such great expertise in this area, which I believe to be true. I have heard this would not be possible under EU law, but the Government is in government to help change that kind of thing. When I was an MEP working with a Government of whom my party was not a part, we were able to change state aid rules and a number of other rules because we thought they were unfair. How is it fair, proportionate or right that supposed EU rules such as this one can be used to justify such an approach when everybody can see that putting that money directly into afforestation and working with farmers and landowners would be the right thing to do?
If the Government has to shame the EU in relation to bad policy, it should do so. We have done it before and achieved proper change.
On another remaining issue, it would be handy if the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, got off her phone but I do not accept that she will have control here of the pendulum which is financial considerations versus biodiversity and climate concerns. That control is lost once this is signed. Finally, an issue that has been lost is that in many parts of rural Ireland, like my own county of Tipperary, land values for communities, for small farmers and for developing farmers will be hugely affected as a consequence of this. Trust me, that will be an issue of concern particularly to those in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
I thank Deputy Kelly for sharing time.
The Coillte-Gresham House partnership seems wrong on many levels. It is an arrangement which, on the face of it, facilitates the expatriation of millions of euro from Irish taxpayers' pockets into the hands of fund managers and on that basis, let me state that we vehemently oppose this arrangement. The taxpayer will not benefit by one penny from this entity and the language used to describe how much land will be acquired has varied from anywhere between 3,000 ha, such as we have heard here tonight, to 100,000 ha when Mr. Carlin started talking about this two weeks ago. We do not know exactly how much land will be acquired. Moreover, as I understand it-----
-----and I have the right to speak here through the Chair, the upper limit on how much land will be acquired has not been absolutely and definitely defined. Who knows how much land will be acquired and it will have the effect of displacing farmers from farming activity. It is on that basis that we absolutely oppose it. In other words, this entity is hell-bent on acquiring as much land as it can grab and right now, neither the Irish taxpayer nor the Government has any say or control whatsoever. The Government was asleep at the wheel on this one. It would not have happened on anybody else's watch within this House. The Government let it happen and did not put a halt to it and it now seems that it is signed, sealed and delivered. It is an awful travesty that we would facilitate in this country a situation where a financial house from the UK could come in and acquire so much Irish land or have the potential to do so. It will walk away with the premia, let there no doubt about it. The foresters are the people I feel sorry for in all of this, because they will end up being price-takers even though we know they plant all of the forestry in this country at present. Once you start acquiring more land, you start acquiring control of the means of production and once you start controlling this, then you can set the price. Before we know it, private foresters will end up being price-takers and many of them will become enslaved to this new entity. That is the danger I fear around what is being created here. It is a beast over which there will be no control.
The dubious assertions of the Ministers, Deputies McConalogue and Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, that Coillte is needed to reach the 8,000 ha afforestation targets, may be true. I do not think anybody would argue against that but it is a fallacy to assert that the creation of this Gresham House-Coillte entity is the way forward to achieve the 8,000 ha afforestation targets. We know the national afforestation programme is carried out each year by the private forestry sector. Here you have a Labour Party Deputy standing up in defence of the private forestry sector because we see chapter and verse what it is doing on the ground in terms of putting plants into the ground and how they are trying to manage against the teeth of a forestry service that is, quite frankly, not fit for purpose. The metrics are proof of that because only 4,779 ha have been approved for planting but 44,766 ha have been approved for felling. We are cutting down more trees than we are planting in this country, and it pains me to say it, on the Green Party's watch. That is the sad reality of it. The facts speak for themselves. If you read the dashboard that everybody reads, which is the stated documentation that everybody agrees is the industry standard-----
----their figures are there.
I will finish my speech uninterrupted, if I may, because I have only 25 seconds left. The Government fell asleep at the wheel on this one. They are out the gap on this one but there may be hope for the Government to politically use whatever might and main it can to pull this back from the brink because we do not want a situation where taxpayers' money by way of premia, ends up in London or wherever, on the backs and through the sweat of the Irish forestry sector. If the Government works with farmers and with the Irish forestry sector, it can deliver on its targets and within the means it has at its disposal but it must be looked at. I ask the Government to please revise this decision.
The proposed partnership between Coillte and a UK-based investment fund is a bad deal for multiple reasons. It is also symptomatic of this and the previous Government's disastrous approach to forestry. The forestry sector has been in crisis for years. The Government is only reaching one quarter of its own afforestation targets and its agricultural policies are pushing farmers away from forestry. The planned Coillte deal has been opposed by the Irish Farmers' Association, called a scandal by the Irish Wildlife Trust, and the Irish Forest Owners have described it as being not in the best interest of rural Ireland. This begs the question in whose interest this deal is because it is not in the interests of the general public and rural communities. Why is the Government allowing this deal despite the wide-scale opposition? It is another worrying sign of increasing privatisation and the prioritisation of investment funds profit over the national interest. Every day we see how this trend plays out with disastrous consequences for ordinary families in housing and in healthcare. Forestry is now next. Some €25 million of public money is going into an investment fund's pocket when it should be given to rural communities. It is also a regressive step for our climate and biodiversity targets. It flies in the face of a fair transition. It will force land prices up impacting farmers and local communities. Coillte is co-owned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, on behalf of the Irish people. This plan is opposed by the public and stakeholders. The Government has to use its position to immediately halt this incredibly bad deal. It is a misuse of public money, it is harmful to rural communities and to our biodiversity. It is a disgrace that the Government is supporting it and it is almost difficult to watch the Minister and the Minister of State in the House defending it.
The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, said there was not any publicly-owned forests being sold and it reminded me of a local issue in Cork. Coillte are willing to sell off a massive section of Ballymartle Woods because a private party wanted it. There is no sense of the public duty to hold and develop our woodlands for the people. Unfortunately, none of this is surprising. The Government's forestry policy has been so disastrous that it is scrambling for any kind of project that will enable tree planting no matter the cost or the consequences for rural areas. The programme for Government sets out a target of 8,000 ha of new forests per year. Currently, it is reaching about one quarter of this. Afforestation rates have actually decreased further under this Government, even with a Green Party Minister directly responsible. Forestry should be area where Government can make considerable progress. It is in everyone's favour if done correctly. It has enumerates benefits but official mismanagement has threatened the viability of the sector and thousands of jobs involved as well as failing miserably to reach afforestation targets. This is simply a national disgrace. Presumably, in some sort of attempt to address its failing policies, the Government is content to let private investments funds boost the official figures of tree planting; never mind the cost to local communities and to the Irish forestry sector.
The Government seems to have no appreciation of how bad this deal is and the message it sends to rural Ireland. There are glaring and well-established problems in the forestry sector.
First, the licensing system is still failing to facilitate the commercial sector and afforestation policy. While there have been improvements, the backlog and waiting times are a significant deterrent both for commercial activity and for farmers and rural landowners pursuing tree-planting.
Second, Government policy is disincentivising farmers from engaging in afforestation. The schemes and payments in this area are not competitive with other farm subsidies and schemes. Hard-pressed family farms make decisions on the basis of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s policies. If it makes more economic sense to go into dairy and beef, then obviously people will. The Government then acts surprised when these schemes are not taken up and we cannot reach our targets. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of farmers participating in new afforestation fell by 90%.
Under the Food Harvest 2020 plan from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the ambitious milk target was met in 2017 and the beef target was met almost immediately. In contrast, the highest the forestry target reached was 50% in one year and it has been decreasing every year since.
For years forestry and farming organisations have highlighted the need for more incentives to assist farmers in planting while the 2019 Mackinnon review mentions delays, uncertainties and perceptions of excessive bureaucracy as disincentives to farmers.
When I raised this matter with the Tánaiste in the past week, he said that farmers will have to be the biggest drivers of our afforestation effort. Government policy completely contradicts this. Farmers are being pushed out and deterred from afforestation.
At a time when the Irish forestry sector has been screaming for years for reforms and a proper licensing system, and farmers are calling for more concrete and easily accessible support, this deal is just beyond belief. Not only does it ignore all of these legitimate and long-standing issues but it directs public money to this partnership rather than to the existing sector and to farmers. It shows that the Government has no idea how bad things are and no concept of the frustration out there. The Government seems clueless to the reality on the ground.
Millions of euro from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is being used to subsidise this partnership between Coillte and the UK-based investment firm. This investment fund will also be able to profit from grant aid in order to grab large amounts of land. Public money is basically being given away to this private interest rather than to the Irish forestry sector and to family farms. The chairperson of Irish Forest Owners body has made that exact point saying:
... instead of this money going to farmers and staying in the local economy, the forest premia and single farm payments associated with the land acquired for planting will leave the country and go to corporate investors.
Likewise, the Irish Farmers Association has highlighted that and stated that, "Any income (forestry premiums, carbon value, profit) will not be spent in the local community or the local economy, as it would be if farm families or local people afforested these lands." The Social Economic Environmental Forestry Association and other stakeholders have pointed out that this proposal is, "Giving investment funds an unfair advantage at the expense of existing farmers, new entrants, and young farmers, essentially pushing farmers off the land. Farmers could be competing with Coillte for one in every three acres." Not only is this deal greatly benefiting the profit margins of a private investment fund; it is blatantly damaging rural areas.
The glaring question still remains as to in whose interests is this deal? It harms the existing forestry sector, farmers and rural communities and is practically universally opposed. Why then is the Government insisting on this hands-off approach? The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, together with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform own Coillte on behalf of the Irish people. Now they need to fulfil their obligations to people and to rural families to halt this deal. We need a very significant increase in afforestation. It is clear that this Government is not capable of providing it. Timber is being imported to meet construction and other needs when we have the capacity for Irish companies and farmers to produce the required materials. This also means that we are missing out on current and future bio-based industries which will require additional harvested wood.
Most significantly, afforestation is very important for Ireland’s climate goals. This sector has the potential to make a very significant difference to our emissions budgets, especially in offsetting agricultural emissions. Planting native broadleaf species must be a core pillar of this process. The agriculture committee’s report on the forestry sector from March 2021 recognised that native broadleaf species provide greater social, cultural as well as enhanced environmental benefits than non-native species and the committee called on the Department to deliver a specific strategy to increase the proportion of native broadleaf afforestation.
A proper afforestation programme has multiple interconnected benefits which improves national economic resilience, local prospects in rural areas, and has climate and biodiversity benefits. Against these overwhelming advantages, it is disgraceful that the Government has consistently failed to promote and facilitate afforestation on the scales required. This deal between Coillte and the UK-based investment firm is bad in and of itself but it is symptomatic of the Government’s larger very clueless approach to forestry. By any measure, this Government’s forestry policy has been a failure, making sweetheart deals with private investment funds just further compounds that issue.
Existing forestry companies employing thousands of people and farming organisations are crying out for support but who gets the millions of euro of investment first? It is a private investment fund which is only interested in profits. Instead, the Government could invest in rural communities. Stopping this deal is the Government’s chance to show the Irish people and the sector that it is serious about its reform and taking a new approach. I ask that it does not pass that opportunity up.
I thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward this motion opposing the disgraceful deal entered into between Coillte and Gresham House. It seems that there is no crisis where the Government does not think that equity funds is the solution. With housing and climate; who does it call? It calls equity funds. Its neoliberal mantra is that private capital and profit making are the solution rather than the problem in both of these areas.
The Government has claimed that the reason for this deal is to help reach the afforestation targets required under the Climate Action Plan of 18% of forest cover. As the motion points out, Ireland has among the lowest levels of forest cover in all of Europe, with only 11%, compared to a European average of 40%. One has to barely scratch the surface to realise that this deal is not motivated by the environment but by cold, hard profit. Coillte's press release on the deal tells us that, "The fund is designed to generate profits from the business of forestry and timber production."
Likewise, a spokesman for Gresham House said, "Our aim is simple,to produce a consistent supply of certified timber for the Irish processing sector." From neither the Government nor Coillte, nor, unfortunately, from Sinn Fein in this motion, is there any mention of the impact on biodiversity. That is left to environmental activists, including Friends of the Irish Environment, the Woodland League, Croí na Cré, Save Leitrim, Save Cavan, and others. They have all condemned this deal and have pointed out that not all forests are the same. Trees alone do not a forest make. A real forest is a complex biodiverse ecosystem not a lifeless monoculture of Sitka spruce. In supporting this deal, the Government literally cannot see the wood for the trees.
Likewise the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss reacted to the deal by calling for a fundamental reassessment of forestry legislation to ensure that biodiversity and positive ecosystem services are core objectives for Coillte. One could be forgiven for assuming that the public body responsible for managing our forests would already have biodiversity as a core objective. Unfortunately, successive governments have ensured that is not the case. Coillte was saved from privatisation in the past by a strong environmental campaign involving People Before Profit, and many others.
I remember speaking at a major rally alongside Deputy Boyd Barrett and others at that time. However, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and now the Green Party have made sure their main goal, like that of too many publicly owned companies, is simply to ape the private sector in turning a profit regardless of the public good. In the case of Coillte, this has meant planting vast monocultures of Sitka spruce to go with the vast monocultures of grass that make up most of the rest of this green country.
Gresham House is on the record as saying it intends to continue to do that by planting up to 80% Sitka spruce, continuing a form of ecocide that has turned our forests into graveyards of biodiversity rather than guardians of it. All genuine environmentalists should vehemently oppose the deal, yet the Minister of State and the Green Party are shamefully endorsing and greenwashing it.
I call on everyone to support the protest against this deal outside the Dáil on Thursday. I am sure this will be the first of many until this is stopped. We need to bring together genuine environmentalists, communities, small farmers and public bodies like Coillte, which should be acting in a very different way, to democratically develop a radically different model of forest and woodland management. This new model must be an ecocentric one, with biodiversity and rewilding, not profit making, at its heart. We must aim to restore and protect nature in a way that supports communities and small farmers, rather than box ticking carbon offsets and lining the pockets of international investors.
I want to voice my strong opposition to the deal between Coillte and the UK-based asset management fund Gresham House. This is a deal which is bad for the environment, PAYE taxpayers and rural Ireland. Coillte will purchase and plant the land and manage the forest. Taxpayers' money will go into that. The asset management fund will put in cash, and will own all of the land and draw down millions in grants from the Government.
I am not at all surprised that Fianna Fáil is standing back and backing the deal, and has said there is nothing it can do and it will go ahead. Fine Gael does not surprise me either. I wish I could say that I was surprised at the Green Party in respect of this, but this is just another sell out on the Green Party's watch.
Reference has been made to the plantation of new forest. Can the Minister of State describe these as forests? It is not a million miles away from describing a golf course as a nature reserve. In the main, these will be the same type of forests that the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine said in 2020 were net carbon emitters because of the massive bias towards monoculture, trees being cut down far too young and harvesting practices. From a climate and environmental point of view, this is far from a good deal. It is a backwards step and I support the campaign and protest that is due to take place tomorrow.
I refer to Coillte's record on planting new forest. In 2021, 50 ha were planted. In 2022, 200 ha were planted. Let us compare that to what needs to be done. There is a target of 450,000 ha to be planted by 2050, with Coillte directly responsible for 100,000 ha of that. That would give the State 18% cover - in other words less than half of what is currently the EU average of 40%. The targets are too low and Coillte and the State are not coming within a million miles of the targets.
EU law is a barrier. The Government needs to challenge and, if necessary, break that law on these issues. If we are to reach our climate targets, the idea that we are boxed in and Coillte cannot direct State investment on this needs to be challenged. This deal needs to be abandoned. The mandate of Coillte needs to be changed and there needs to be a new and sustainable forestry model which moves away from Sitka spruce monoculture.
In November, an investment of €1.3 billion in Irish forestry was announced for the next forestry programme. This represented the largest ever investment by a Government in tree planting which, as well as providing a valuable addition to farm income, promised to tackle climate change by contributing to improved biodiversity and water quality. I welcome these contributions, especially given the decline in water quality in the Dundalk water supply, with Irish Water admitting an incredible increase in manganese.
However, despite the extension of the forestry programme 2014-20 by two years, a new forestry strategy is still not in place and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not currently accepting or progressing new afforestation licence applications. Furthermore, while the investment comes at an appropriate time and reflects the seriousness with which we view the climate change and biodiversity challenges, concerns are now being raised as to why the Department was adamant to keep the non-farm rate of premium at such a high level.
In correspondence received from the Social, Economic and Environmental Forestry Association, SEEFA, and the IFA, concerns have been voiced about a new €200 million Irish forestry fund which has been launched by a UK listed asset management company, Gresham House, backed by Coillte. They have claimed that for years the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has deprived farmers and private forestry companies of afforestation licences to plant trees, resulting in low levels of afforestation of only 2000 ha per annum. However, instead of addressing the ongoing forestry licensing scandal or supporting farmers with ash dieback, which are obvious ways to increase confidence in the sector, the path of choice was to facilitate a joint venture between Coillte and Gresham House.
Replacing farmers and private foresters with a UK investment company is a kick in the face and, quite frankly, morally wrong. We would advance foreign and national investment funds to transition 100,000 ha of Irish farmland out of local farm ownership for afforestation by funds. We are selling rural Ireland to investment funds, which will disadvantage existing local, new entrant and young farmers. When foreign investors come in and buy land for forestry, the land market is distorted and it makes it incredibly difficult for local farmers, particularly young farmers, to compete.
Although Irish and international investors will be able to access direct financial support via the new €1.3 billion forestry programme 2023 to 2027, the focus of our planning programme and Exchequer spending should be on farmers planting, which will have the greatest positive impact on our economy. The majority of the money generated from forest premiums and timber sales by farmers planting is spent locally, fuelling economic growth and supporting jobs and businesses in towns across Ireland.
In contrast, the economic benefits when an investor plants or buys existing forest is significantly less as a majority of the money leaves the local economy. More important, the proposed joint venture has not resulted in increased Government targets for afforestation. This cements the fact that any new planting could and should be undertaken by public bodies, farmers and farmer co-operatives.
When questioned in October 2022 on the projected loss in financial output to private forestry companies who cannot engage in business due to the next forestry programme not being marketable, the Minister reiterated his commitment to support the sector. He acknowledges that the draft forest strategy and the forest strategy implementation plans were published on Tuesday, 18 October, and were then subject to a six-week consultation process. With one week left in January, we are still waiting.
I am not prepared to turn my back on rural Ireland. Coillte needs to immediately halt its proposed joint venture with Gresham House and seriously consider the social, economic and environmental consequences of a large purchase of land. More important, the new 2023-2027 forestry strategy needs to be published urgently and ensure the prioritisation of afforestation undertaken by local communities, farmers, landowners and public bodies.
The history of forestry in Ireland is wrapped up in many ways with the history of the Irish people. We were heavily deforested by the British as part of centuries of colonial asset stripping and now, as a result, we are one of the least forested countries in Europe. This has obviously damaged Ireland immeasurably and we are a poorer country as a result. It is quite ironic, therefore, that what we are seeing 100 years after independence is an Irish Government, unable to replace those forests, outsourcing the job to a British vulture fund. Many times in this House I have found it very hard to understand the complex solutions the Government comes up with for what should be simple projects and this is one such example. The Government's intention is to sell State-owned property and Ireland's carbon credits to a British vulture fund is one example of a Gordian knot. Why do Government solutions always have to include a vulture fund? Vulture funds are, in many ways, an invasive species in Ireland. They distort markets for both suppliers and customers and they put those markets out of kilter. They have grossly negatively affected the housing sector, have turned many communities against the building of wind farms and solar farms, and they repatriate billions of euro of profits from this country. The fact that this Government sought to introduce vulture funds into this area of Irish society and to try to sneak it in under the radar is incredible. It will do enormous damage to land ownership in this State. It will also do enormous damage to the farmers in our communities. That is before one makes the point that this is the people's land. It is our land that is being sold.
Irish farmers are the primary stakeholders of Irish land. Rural Ireland does not have a future without the family farm and Irish farmers should have been the vehicle to deliver solutions in relation to Irish land. Farmers have the best record in terms of afforestation in this country. Given that the incomes of farmers have been reduced so significantly for so long in this country, it is shocking that the Government did not seek to roll out this particular project through farmers in order to ensure that the income generated accrued to them. Irish farmers must be the vehicle of afforestation here. It is also vital that carbon credits accrued from planting should be for the benefit of farmers as well.
Another important issue is that when this land is purchased, the amount of land available to farmers is reduced. Obviously, the price could of land could increase. Furthermore, if that land is taken out of food production it will have a negative effect on farmers' ability to function. Afforestation, especially with native trees, should have a significant positive effect on biodiversity and I welcome the fact that the Minister of State indicated in her speech that the Government will seek to ensure a 50:50 breakdown between native trees and trees for industry and timber production. That is positive but in terms of this particular vehicle, that is not going to be the mix vis-à-visthe types of trees planted.
Farmers should be the guardians of the biodiversity that exists within this country. We need farmers and the health of our land to be in a symbiotic relationship. Biodiversity can also have an economic benefit to society. In my own county of Meath, the Dunsany estate has done a significant job in increasing the biodiversity on the estate which has attracted a lot of interest from people. It is visited regularly by people who want to see what can be done to reverse biodiversity loss.
The fact that the Government uses the excuse that Coillte is a semi-State body is deeply frustrating. There is an instinct in this Government to outsource decision-making to other organisations. Coillte is a semi-State body but the Government sets the parameters by which it functions and can change those parameters at any stage. It reminds me of the situation with regard to the ESB. Before Christmas people were rightly giving out about the fact that the ESB was making super-normal profits at a time when people were suffering in a cost-of-living crisis but the Government shrugged and said that the ESB is a semi-State body and that it could do nothing about the situation. Blame is also often outsourced to the EU and I heard the Minister of State do that on this occasion. We must put the self-determination of this country first, especially in the context of vehicles that do good in our society, such as the planting of trees and the building of houses. For too long, this State has sought to be the best boy in the class when it comes to the EU and the disastrous effect this had on our sugar industry is just one example of many. Think of the ethanol that would have been available right now to replace carbon fuels if sugar was still grown here. The Government must remember that it is our representative in the EU and not the EU's representative here.
I stood in Soloheadbeg last Sunday, the place where Tadhg Crowe and Seán Treacy, among others, fired the first shots in the War of Independence. The Government is going around the country commemorating our independence, as is the Sinn Féin Party, and reading the Proclamation. What a neck to come in here then and bring this forward. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is not even elected to this House. She has the privilege of sitting at Cabinet but she has been an utter disgrace in relation to afforestation. The licence figures she gave tonight are totally inaccurate and misleading.
The Government is blackguarding every individual farmer with regard to licences. Sin scéal eile. Sugar beet was mentioned previously. What about our fishing industry? Are we going to sell out everything that we have? It is nothing short of a sell out. It is a scandal and it cannot be accepted. The Irish people are growing sick and tired of this, particularly when they see our Taoiseach and former Taoiseach heading out to the World Economic Forum, WEF, a secret body that is dictating policy here. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, was here earlier today talking about his own issues but he has been batting for the banks, bankers and all of the big finance houses and the so-called funds all of the time.
Before the Minister of State does another thing on this issue she must address the fact that hundreds of farmers have public private partnerships with Coillte. They entered into contracts with Coillte 25 or 30 years ago and they are being blackguarded. They were wronged with regard to those contracts. They were misled and they are not being paid. Some are going to arbitration but the arbitration process is being frustrated. It is nothing short of a disgrace. One poor woman in Kilkenny called Alice went to her death cutting a tree, she was so distracted. I met many such farmers over the weekend and my goodness, they are so angry and cross because they have been double crossed by a Government that is supposed to represent them. The Government would sell out the very clothes we are wearing and every last vessel that we have. I cannot believe the Government will not accept this motion tonight, or that Sinn Féin will accept that. We will not accept it. We will be calling a vote on behalf of the people we represent.
Ireland has experienced a major crisis in its forestry licensing system in recent years. The crisis has been caused by a number of factors but is mainly driven by a lack of support at Government level, including a lack of funding for the regulatory agency responsible for managing the country's forests. A shortage of skilled staff and a backlog of applications for forestry licences has led to long delays in the processing of applications. Many people have been left in limbo as they wait for their licences to be approved.
The recent revelation that the State forestry body, Coillte, has formed a partnership with a British investment fund, Gresham House, which will entail the transfer of the ownership of Irish land to that entity has rightly attracted quite a deal of criticism. We now understand that the first transfer of 12,000 ha has already occurred. I am totally opposed to the proposed sell off of 123,000 acres of Irish land to Gresham House, an investment fund based in the UK. The proposal to sell Irish agricultural land equivalent to the size of over 1,500 average farms or 50,000 football pitches could see the average price of an acre of land for forestry rise from €5,000 to €9,000. This will price many Irish farmers out of the market. Furthermore, this land will most likely be used to plant profitable monocultures of Sitka spruce instead of native Irish broadleafs which are vital for biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Once this land is gone, it is gone forever. It is wrong to sell off large tracts of land to international corporates and vulture funds which are only interested in making fast profits from destroying nature and our beautiful countryside. Ireland needs more native woodlands and sustainable forestry, not more mass plantations. Rural Ireland needs balanced afforestation that protects communities, farmers and biodiversity. Large-scale corporate-owned plantations will accelerate the destruction of liveable communities and nature.
I thank Deputy Carthy and Sinn Féin for tabling this important motion. I was up in my office listening to the debate. It was ironic to hear the Minister of State criticising the motion her Government is going to support. If Deputy Carthy is going to accept that and not call a vote, the Rural Independent Group will call a vote on the motion on behalf of the people of Ireland, who are totally outraged. This potential deal with Gresham House, a private British investment firm listed on the London Stock Exchange, to privatise Irish woodland managed by Coillte has been the cause of outrage and genuine concern among people across the country.
To be fair, it must be difficult for the Minister to sit alongside the Minister of State, knowing that she is the biggest failure as a Minister with responsibility for forestry since 1946. I told her that before. There has never been a Minister in charge of forestry who has failed so much, done so little and driven forestry into the ground. She should ask the people the length and breadth of the country who own or are involved in forestry -those who sought permits to make roads, thin forests or clear fell - what they got from her. The answer is nothing.
The Minister of State held a briefing session recently in the audiovisual room. I was very much looking forward to asking her a couple of questions that I had written down. What did she do when I had no more than sat down? She got up, walked out and did not take any more questions. She was the one who invited us there.
Wherever she went, she certainly did not answer the questions that day; just like she will not answer them here tonight. The Minister of State should not think she will shout me down. I have a couple of minutes to ask her a few questions. I remind her that in 1946 we had a person who was worse than her. It was that long ago. She is a failed Minister. God help the Green Party, God help her and God help forestry. It is a disgrace.
Instead of trying to solve the problems encountered in forestry, the Government has run to the UK. We saw what the UK did to us. I refer to the investment in firms to solve the issues. Coillte, a semi-State company, owns 7% of Irish land. It has already transferred 12,000 ha to private ownership. To put it in context, that is equivalent to 50,000 hurling fields.
Where is the circular economy? The Government is giving grants to investors instead of supporting the farmers who will spend 100% of the funding in their local communities. Does the Minister understand what a circular economy is? It is when any investment made goes back into the community, but the Government has no interest in that. It has an appalling record of dealing with private individual. Coillte has several confidential agreements signed but how many of its deals are in front of the courts at the moment?
Now the Ministers want to go to ash dieback. They sold out the people who set land for ash dieback. They put nothing in place for them but a pittance. They threw those people to the wolves and left them alone. There is nothing in this for the people with ash dieback either, but the Government wants them to reinvest in forestry, does it not? Does it have any integrity at all when it comes to farmers?
No, it tells them to reinvest in forestry. There is a beetle in Germany that is wiping out spruce trees but, like ash dieback, the Government will sit on its hands until that beetle arrives here to wipe out forestry. At that point, it will throw the farmers to the wolves once again. That is its circular economy.
I am completely opposed to this deal between Gresham House and Coillte. It is nothing other than a sell-out and a further erosion of our sovereignty. It is an absolute disgrace to see political parties in this House supporting such a deal . They are letting down their own people, farmers included. I share the concerns of Macra na Feirme, which knows that young farmers are going to be locked out in terms of land access. Generational renewal is a real issue, but the Government does not care. It does not seem to worry about that.
The problems that continue to plague the forestry sector, particularly the private forestry sector, are so embedded within the system as to almost make a person despair of any kind of improvements being made. I wish to highlight not only the double standard but the hypocrisy that plagues the Government's response to this crisis within the forestry sector. As I pointed out last week, SEEFA, one of the main forestry representative bodies in the country, was left begging for a response to its request for immediate consultation on the Gresham House deal and the delays that are happening in the context of the new forestry plan. The Minister of State can come in here and waffle all she likes about how things are improving. They are not improving. She can waffle about how she recognises that licences need to be dealt with faster and more efficiently but where is she to be found when SEEFA, as one of the main stakeholders in this entire process, calls for consultation? This Government's commitment to the forestry sector is the political equivalent of ash dieback. It is rotten to the core and it is highly damaging.
The people of Ireland are paying a high price for this conglomeration of a Government. I blame Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for taking the Green Party on board and doing this to the people of Ireland. It is all right for them to say they know nothing about it. We know the Minister of State knew about this as far back as March 2021. She knew about Coillte plans to use such a private vehicle to acquire lands. That is why the Government is not granting licences for anything and confidence in the forestry sector is lower than it ever was before.
The Minister presided over the fishing debacle that will wipe out coastal communities and now confidence in farming is going out the window because farmers are being told they must buy more land to have the same amount of stock. How can they buy it now that they are competing with London? The Government is handing profits, money and land over to London after people fighting for 800 years to own land here. What has the Government done? It has let them in again, helped them with state aid and EU grants and told them to come back over to Ireland. Farmers will not be able to increase their holdings.
I remember the poor Coillte workers coming to work at 8 o'clock in the morning. I was there with them and I saw that when they were five minutes late they had to stand back until 9 o'clock. They worked hard and put Coillte in the picture. They did a pile of work but the Government has ensured that confidence in forestry is at its lowest ebb.
As Deputy Michael Healy-Rae stated, you would have to go back 60 or 70 years to find Ministers worse than those we have now. This is shameful. The Ministers are saying they did not know about it. Just like the finance Ministers knew about the plan to makes banks cashless in the summer, the agriculture and forestry Ministers knew about this deal They cannot deny that. They were involved in it and they did not care about granting of licences to anyone in any part of forestry.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. I thank Deputy Carthy and Sinn Féin for tabling it. I wish it was the Government that was giving us the opportunity to speak on this matter in a proactive manner. Words fails me when I try to describe how important climate change and forestry are. If this is such a wonderful deal, one would imagine the Government would have brought it before the House and pointed to its advantages. Instead, we are reliant on press releases. There was a joint press release from the IFA, the Western Forestry Co-Op and so on, which joined forces to say not to go ahead with this. We eventually got a questions and answers document from Coillte to tell us it is not selling off Coillte land. That suggestion was allowed to fester for a while and then we were told it is not selling off that land but the firm does intend to buy up to 12,000 ha as a start.
In case we are in any doubt about that, let us look to what Gresham House has told us. It stated it had established "an Irish fund for ... attracting a key Irish investor base to underpin growth and access to the Irish forestry market". Company records show that a firm called the Gresham House Forestry General Partnership (Ireland) Limited was established in April of last year. It is interesting and significant that the company has also joined the Irish Association of Investment Managers, a lobbying vehicle, which, I understand, is headed up by a former Fine Gael Minister.
That is a little bit of the background on this. Tonight, I desperately want to work with the Green Party because climate change is an existential threat. We absolutely must have climate change considerations apply to everything because everything is interlinked. Were the Minister and Minister of State aware of Coillte’s plans at the time the motion states they were? Could they confirm that? If they were aware, how were they made aware? It has already been mentioned that one cannot see the forest for the trees in the way they are progressing. It is ironic that after colonisation led to the deforestation of Ireland over 400 years ago, after which we had very few trees left, it took almost 200 years to increase the proportion from 1% to 11%, and we are now relying on our former colonisers to reforest our country, for profit and with the help of the Irish Government and public money. I am referring to afforestation for profit and the setting up of all the difficulties. I am out of time so I will stop.
I thank Sinn Féin for this motion. I thank my colleague Deputy Fitzmaurice especially for opening this can of worms at the agriculture committee meeting before Christmas. At that meeting, he questioned representatives from Coillte. I have read and reread the transcript of that meeting and noted it is completely at odds with much of what has been said by members of the Government here this evening and in recent days. The speed of the backtracking on what Coillte representatives said before Christmas is breathtaking, but it is most welcome because I was appalled by the Coillte proposals, which I described at the time as a land grab. Right now, this whole thing is about as clear as mud. Ms Hurley, CEO of Coillte, stated the following at the committee meeting:
When we launched our vision, we were very clear on the ambition of 100,000 ha. We were also very clear in our engagements that there is substantial capital required in order to achieve the 100,000 ha. It will be up to €2 billion in terms of cost between now and 2050. In our engagements, we have been clear that we will need to access capital to do this. That will require two forms of funds. The first fund has already been set up, namely, the Nature Trust ... The second fund is more focused on what we would call traditional, long-term investors-----
This implies Gresham House. Ms Hurley later stated:
We have said that we would enable the creation of 100,000 ha of new forests. The way we will do that, as we have outlined, is through the traditional investor and the impact investor.
She referred to 10,000 ha and two funds but no farmers, yet we are now told it is just 12,000 ha that will be managed by the fund, with 8,500 ha of existing forestry and 3,500 ha of clean land. As an aside, can somebody please tell me why buying 8,500 ha of standing forestry will contribute to lowering our carbon dioxide emissions by one cubic metre? How is taxpayers’ money, State aid, going to support this kind of investment? I cannot understand it. An article in this evening’s Irish Examinerquotes the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, as saying: "Gresham House has absolutely nothing to do with the purchase or management of land. This will all be done by Coillte." Despite this, Mr. Mark Carlin, managing director of Coillte, stated the following to the committee members before Christmas: "The fund owns the land and, therefore, it draws the grant." What is happening here? Did Coillte go on a solo run behind the backs of our Ministers? All it spoke about was 100,000 ha and two investment funds. No wonder the Tánaiste called for a review, and no wonder every single farming organisation and rural Deputy was shocked that a Green Party Minister and Fianna Fáil Minister could oversee this debacle. No wonder we now read that Coillte is going to engage with farmers. It is late but I am glad to see it. Still, talk is cheap and deflection is sometimes the name of the game. Let us see what plans Coillte has to engage with farmers. Let us see the detail, specifics and funds in place when it addresses the agriculture committee tomorrow. Let us see whether it still talks about 100,000 ha and two investment funds.
I welcome the motion. I understand there will not be a vote on it. Does that mean the whole deal will be stopped and the motion will not stand at all? Are we here talking, as we do most Wednesday nights, while thinking along with the public that something is happening when it is not happening at all? There is something that stinks about this whole scenario from beginning to end, for the simple reason that we are getting different stories all the time. Mr. Carlin referred to clean land on the basis that he was so concerned about Ireland’s climate targets. Now we see that 8,500 ha are being bought. We know land was bought in Tipperary and the name in which it is registered. Newspapers have quoted the Minister this evening as having stated Coillte is now buying the land. First of all, Coillte told us it was buying no land.
Second, he said it is going to manage it. The Minister is right about the management part. Someone is telling us porkies somewhere. I believe we were misled at our committee meeting when all its members, including Deputy Carthy, were present. We were totally misled because the boat had sailed and we were playing catch-up. We were told – the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, can confirm this – that the Minister was made aware last year of what was occurring, but now we have minutes of meetings that state he was made aware the year before. His name is mentioned in all the minutes of the meetings in respect of what was going on between Coillte and his Department. If farmers had faith in his Department, we would solve all the problems concerning its targets in a matter of a few years, provided it had the money to do so. Farmers are sick to the teeth of putting in requests to plant. Applications are left there for two, three or four years and the farmer moves on. Time moves on and farmers move on; they do not wait for a Department that is incompetent to issue planting licences.
We need to know the truth regarding what is going on. Is the deal finished? The Minister can say we are getting €25 million here in Ireland but it is a €200 million fund. I have done the figures. With regard to the hectares referred to, those concerned are on about €7,200 or €7,300 per acre. It is fairly simple to calculate. The figure of €25 million was basically put in as a cornerstone investment. The words used related to bringing in national and international investors. The Minister implied this evening that international does not relate to the UK or anyone else. The money is money from other investors; those interested in investing could be from anywhere around the world. The grants can be drawn down by the investors, for a pension fund or other investment down the road. We also need to know what the deal is and its intricacies. What is Coillte getting out of this? Who is getting the total figure when the timber is ultimately processed? What is the percentage they are on? We know about the Coillte partnership with farmers. We know what went on in that regard and what advertising alone cost; however, we do not know the details of what I am referring to. The Minister and Minister of State will be attending the committee meeting tomorrow, which I welcome, but their Department should be on notice that, by God, we will need answers on this whole matter. We are sick and tired of following our tails on this, and hearing different stories day in, day out. First, the figure was 12,000 ha, with Gresham House owning it, but now the Minister is saying the total opposite. We do not know where in the middle the whole truth lies but we need to find out for the simple reason that, in our opinion, Irish land is not up for sale. The farmers of Ireland deserve to be farming it. They will look after planting if there is a scheme to help them. I ask the Tánaiste to rethink what he said, namely that the State needs to start buying land. Is Deputy McConalogue, as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, saying to me that we should have fewer farmers and that the State will own more land? I will tell you one thing: this country has gone wrong.
I thank An Cathaoirleach Gníomhach, Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, and the Deputies for the debate here this evening. It is very clear across the floor of the Dáil the strong support there is for afforestation and for growing the area we have in the country under forestry. It is not often we have debates on forestry in the Dáil but it is welcome to see that strong level of support for afforestation and for growing forestry.
I will pick up on a couple of points at the start that came from the contributions. I just want to correct Deputy Sherlock on a point he made once or twice, just so it is clear what the situation is. The Deputy was referring to new licences and the level of new licences over the past two, three and four years. He said that the level of new licences is not matching the level of felling and that we were, therefore, not planting as much as we were felling. He said this once or twice. It is very important to get this correct. The level of new licences are entirely new licences, not for those granted before. It is additional to what was there before. If one has land in forestry, whenever it is felled, that felling licence is also a planting licence and one is actually legally obliged to replant it. Every hectare of ground in the country that is under forestry and is felled is automatically replanted. All of the new afforestation licences that we issue - and we need to issue more - are in addition to that. It is extra forestry. One holds what one has but one grows more. For example, back in 2006 we had 697,000 ha under forestry. Just last year that had grown to 808,000 ha under forestry. It has been growing.
Now we are planning targets to grow that further by another 400,000 ha by the year 2050. I just wanted to be clear about that. It is important that people understand that piece.
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae made the point that the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, was the most failed or the worst forestry Minister since 1946.
Let us deal with the facts and let us be proportionate. When both of us came into office, I was a month or two after the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, we both came to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. There was a crisis in forestry. It was on the floor. We had a massive backlog, which had evolved from a change in a court case back in 2017 that meant every licence application took a hell of lot more time and effort, including staff time, to-----
There was a backlog of some 6,000 licences at that stage. This was 6,000 licences waiting for more than 120 days. That is what we faced when we came in three years ago. I remember back to Christmas 2020 when sawmills across the State were running out of wood. They could not get it. I remember the crisis meetings we were having-----
Let us deal with facts. There was a massive backlog. Over the last two years, by addressing the backlog that was there waiting for us when we came in, we took it from a situation where back in August 2021 it had built up to 6,000 licences waiting more than 120 days to be decided. We now have that down to 1,983 waiting more than 120 days. It is coming down every week.
There are 60% increases in premiums. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has done this. In the outgoing programmes there are premiums for only 15 years if one is a farmer or a non-farmer. We have increased it for farmers from 15 years to 20 years.
Farmers now will get a one third extra premium than a non-farmer and can claim their basic payment scheme entitlements under that land too, which a non-farmer cannot do. This is what we have run out. The annual premium per hectare for native trees is €1,137 under the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Government's programme.
-----whether they can incorporate some forestry into their land and whether they can make income from that. Deputy Healy-Rae is shrewd and has a good eye for enterprise whenever he sees it. I hold out that whenever that forestry programme was announced the Deputy would have been looking at it in good detail to see if there was an opportunity in there with regard to where-----
Fair play that it was 25 years ago. If it made sense 25 years ago then I am sure that Deputy Healy-Rae knows better than anyone that it makes even more sense now and that it pays even better now. For every farmer that income will be tax free.
Our whole message to farmers is that we are backing them and we are providing options. We are providing really good income. If a farmer has an acre or two, or a hectare or two, on the farm, what a farmer could bring in through forestry makes a hell of a lot of sense.
It is all about backing farmers. That forestry programme is the best that has been introduced in the State. It will really see a significant change. We have now moved out of the crisis situation and are now getting into an equilibrium. We are driving down that backlog. It is about driving that along and backing farmers to do it, while putting farmers at the centre.
Coillte also has a strong role to play. That agency used to do a lot of afforestation, but has not been doing it since 2004. Coillte's ten-year strategic plan outlines how it wants to contribute to that again by doing 100,000 ha of the 400,000 ha we plan to do nationally by 2050. Coillte was looking at options, which is within its semi-State commercial remit. It was looking at options for how it would get into doing that. It has explored an investment option as part of that. It has signed up to a five-year contract, which it is now contractually obliged to do. We have engaged with it on this because we want to look at how we can get Coillte to work. It is not our preferred option as to how this would happen, but it has signed up to a five-year contract, which is well within its remit. Operating as a commercial semi-State agency it is absolutely getting on with its job. We have sat down to see how we can enable Coillte to help it work with farmers and also how it can work more closely with the State around actually helping the agency get back into the afforestation space again, as it has been in the past. This is something we will explore with it further. Coillte has signed up to the five-year contract which, in its totality of 4,000 ha of new afforestation, would amount to 1% of our overall national target for new afforestation between now and 2050. It is a small part of our overall target, but we will need to enable Coillte to do it further. We are looking at how we can work with it so it can partner with farmers. We are also looking at how we can work with it on how the State can work more closely with it as well.
There has been the Sinn Féin motion this evening and we will have a really good engagement and discussion at the committee tomorrow, where there will be a lot more opportunity for over and back and discussion. That will be very good. Looking at the Sinn Féin motion it asks for three things. First of all it asks that the Gresham House deal would be done away with. That is contractually already signed up to and it is a five-year contract that Coillte has signed up to. We are looking at how we can enable Coillte to move forward from that to work closely with the State and more closely with farmers. That is the first part. The second part is that we publish our new forest strategy as soon as possible, and an ambitious one. This is what we will be doing. We are working on finalising that at the moment and it will be a really good forestry strategy to go with the unprecedented high premium rate that we already announced just before Christmas.
-----that is what we are doing. Last year we licensed twice as much felling as was harvested the year before. We are doing everything we can to back farmers to do forestry. We are backing the country to help meet its climate emissions plans through forestry-----
-----putting farmers very much at the centre of it and giving farmers the 20-year premiums versus the 15 years, which was there for others, giving them a one third advantage for premiums over anybody else, which had not been there before.
I welcome the strong sentiment from many Deputies across the floor tonight in respect of trying to improve our afforestation in the years ahead. I look forward to working with them and hearing any ideas they have as to how we can try to do that further, not that I will hold my breath.
I am sharing time with Deputies Tully and Carthy. The farmers will make the assessment as to whether the Minister is listening to them or what he is doing for them. I thank my colleague, Deputy Carthy, for bringing this motion to the floor of the House. The Minister is not listening. People in rural Ireland, including Mayo, are completely perplexed and alarmed by what he is trying to do in facilitating this disastrous anti-rural initiative. I am alarmed when he says there is nothing we can do about this, that the deal is already done with Gresham House. It is a major mistake on the part of the Minister, the Minister of State and the Government. It reminds me of when the then Fine Gael Minister for Finance told us we needed the vulture funds to be here because we could not build our own houses. Now the Minister is telling us we need the investment funds here because we cannot grow our own trees. We have thousands of farmers all over the country who are willing and able to do that.
We fought long and hard enough and made too many sacrifices to be in control of our own lands. The Minister is telling us that up to 123,000 acres of that land is going to be given over to investment funds and that somehow they are coming in here to help us out with our climate challenges and climate change initiatives. They are here to make money. At least be honest with the farmers and communities around the country. These funds are driven by profit maximisation and greed. At least be straight with people.
The afforestation target of 8,000 ha per year is very modest. We reached those levels in 2010 and since then the system has been grinding to a halt. In the last two years, we have barely broken 2,000 ha per annum. We need Coillte to have the ability to contribute to and deliver on our environmental targets. The British investment company, Gresham House, has seen an opportunity not only to invest in the land and forestry sector but also to access the public funding for the grant aid intended to compensate farmers for the low income that comes from non-productive land until newly planted trees are mature. They see an opportunity to buy up large swathes of land and to benefit from public money of up to €1,100 per hectare over 20 years. Farmers and local communities are being abandoned and they rightly feel let down by this Government.
I welcome the motion and commend my party and constituency colleague, Deputy Carthy, on his work on this issue and on bringing this motion to the Dáil. The motion aims to put a halt to Coillte's proposed joint venture with Gresham House. I am dismayed by the Minister's answer that the deal has been done. This deal will see millions of euro in public funds used to subsidise the purchase of huge swathes of Irish land by a British investment company. The deal was not transparent and it has rightly been criticised by a broad cross-section of interested parties. Despite what the Minister is saying, it must and should still be stopped. The Government owns Coillte. It must instruct it to stop the deal with Gresham House. Ireland needs to plant significant levels of forestry to meet our climate obligations. It cannot be done without engagement and buy-in from local communities and farmers. Forestry policy should deliver for communities, local economies and the environment. However, Governments and particularly this Government have overseen the disengagement of those stakeholders from forestry, and this proposal will make a bad situation worse.
Over the last decade, the purchase of land by large corporates and the blanket planting and subsequent clear-felling of Sitka spruce and the lack of genuine consultation have meant that many communities, particularly in west Cavan and County Leitrim, have become hostile to forestry. In November, it emerged that Coillte was planning to enter into a joint venture with British investment fund, Gresham House. The Green Party Minister of State with responsibility for forestry knew as far back as March 2021 of Coillte's proposed approach. The primary purpose of this investment is that it would allow Coillte access to state aid via forestry premiums once again, which it had previously lost due to a state aid ruling by the European Court of Justice. It is the wrong approach and will discourage farmers and local communities from engaging in forestry programmes. The climate action plan suggests we need to plant 8,000 ha of new forestry each year. Some suggest the figure should be even higher. It simply will not happen if farmers are not central to the forestry programmes. The Coillte deal with Gresham House will drive them even further away. Instead, the Government should focus on addressing the problems that have caused farmers to flee the sector. It should immediately publish the new forestry strategy, clear the remaining forestry licensing backlog, continue to process new licence applications within a reasonable timeframe on a consistent basis for both Coillte and non-Coillte applicants, and implement the Mackinnon and subsequent reports.
The Minister and Minister of State tonight tell us a narrative that a deal engaged in by Coillte with a British investment fund is essentially something they can do nothing about. They say they cannot instruct Coillte to stop the deal even though they do not like it or, to use their term, it is not their preferred option. That is not true. The suggestion that the Government as the owner of Coillte cannot tell that company to disengage from a multimillion euro contract would be laughable if it were not so serious. Then to go further to suggest that while they cannot instruct Coillte in respect of the Gresham House deal, they have told it to examine other options for the future is cynicism of the highest order. If the Government cannot stop the Gresham House deal, how on earth does it expect us to believe that Coillte will adhere to its directions on anything else in the future?
Both Ministers know the truth. Not only was the Government aware of Coillte's plans but those plans were devised in collusion with the Government. I will put on the record of the Dáil the small text in a reply to a parliamentary question that I received from the Minister today but that he did not repeat tonight. It states, and it is the first time I was aware of this, that a shareholder letter of expectation issued to Coillte on 2 June 2022 which included a direction to Coillte to develop initiatives to support and realise the planting of such forests to a meaningful scale in the years ahead, whether as part of its core business or as a participant in a subsidiary or partnership enterprise. It is clear that the Minister was aware of what Coillte was planning to do and that letter of expectation was the go-ahead and mandate that Coillte needed to approach Gresham House and make the deal.
This is not something the Minister was unaware of. He was absolutely aware of it throughout the process but he kept this House, the agriculture committee, the sector and the farmers of Ireland completely in the dark. Then he comes before us and tells us there is nothing he can do and the deal is already made. It is absolute cynicism. It is the reason we have a crisis in forestry. It is the reason we are failing to reach our targets. What we have now is a deal that will see a venture owned by a British investment fund purchase thousands of hectares of Irish land. Most of that land, as the Minister of State said in defence of it, is already forested. Only 3,500 out of 12,000 ha is new afforestation. Where does that fit in to any climate action plan? This will see prices inflated beyond the reach of most family farmers. This deal will see Irish taxpayers' money, tens of millions of euro, being used to subsidise the purchase of land by a British investment company. The Ministers have cited this notion, this laughable figure that it is only 1% of the overall target. Having faced the challenges we are facing on the first 1%, what hope do we have that this Government has any prospect of reaching the further 99% that is required for us to reach our climate action targets?
Anybody looking at these investment funds and thinking this is stopping at 12,000 ha needs to have their head examined. At the moment across Britain, Gresham House owns 140,000 ha of afforestation land worth €1.8 billion. To suggest it would even contemplate coming into the Irish market for what is in the grand scheme of its operations a pittance is again laughable and does not stack up. The Ministers still not have answered the question. There has been lots of rhetoric around state aid. The Department, as the Minister acknowledged last Thursday at a briefing, has for most of the past year been in discussions with the European Commission around state aid rules. Has the Minister even once put to the Commission the question as to what he needs to do to ensure that Coillte can draw down state aid and not have to rely on a British investment firm? My belief is that the question was not even put. Has the Minister looked at the afforestation programme to see whether he can prevent millions of euro being siphoned out of the country and devise a forestry programme that goes to farmers, landowners, local communities and public bodies but not to British-held investment companies?
That would be a solution. We know how to reach the afforestation rates we need because we did it previously. In 2010, long after 2004 when Coillte was impacted by state aid rules, we matched the 8,000 ha of land being afforested. The people who did this were the farmers of Ireland. We were on the right trajectory, but due to incompetence primarily, bureaucracy-----