Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Update on Implementation of National Forestry Programme: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State to the House.
The planting of large areas of land with trees, driven by grant aid and annual payments to landowners, has to be examined for its overall impact on communities and long-term impact on the land and the environment. The reason for very generous Government assistance for forestry is to encourage it as a means of reaching our commitments on climate change, as trees are viewed as the only way to absorb and store carbon. For a farmer struggling to make a living on wet and poor land in the west, it is an attractive option, as indeed it is for investment and pension funds. Land can be bought cheaply and planting it brings the security of State funding and the 15 years of guaranteed payments. As a Government policy, grant-aided monoculture afforestation is successful in getting more land under trees. The permanent change of land use is one of the clear consequences of this policy. However, communities living in areas where forestry is replacing farming as a model of land use suffer negative impacts as there is very little labour involved in growing Sitka spruce. In reality, it closes down the countryside.
Economic and social activity around traditional farming has significant spin-off in the local area, with services being provided to the farm and products and materials traded with the farm. Normal farming activity creates opportunity, which in turn creates more activity. On the other hand, the farm planted with Sitka spruce never needs new gates, fencing or anyone to cut fodder, bale it and gather it or plough land for reseeding. There are no animals to feed or care for, and no need for a vet to look at an animal. There is no need for anyone to upkeep habitat or hedges, fix machinery or maintain sheds. Above all, a farm on which Sitka spruce is grown needs no farmer to go to the mart to meet other farmers or to call on neighbours when in need, because there are no needs. The planted farm becomes deserted, wild and uninteresting. The EU has stated that the main principle for forestry is that they serve environmental, social and economic purposes. As I just outlined, Irish forestry policy does not address these three criteria. The rural community that once survived on the micro-economy, which the activities of farming delivered in an area, suffers decline and also becomes deserted. The economic activity created by the planting, maintaining, thinning and processing of conifers is very low as much of the industry is highly automated. There is about one full-time job per 1,000 ha of forestry.
Another problem created by our afforestation policy is the transfer of land ownership from local farmers to international corporate interests, which engage forestry management companies to thin and maintain the forests. In many cases, when farmers plant the land themselves, they collect the annual grants for 15 years and, when the first thinning is carried out, they are offered a buyout by the forestry management companies on behalf of big corporate funds. Such an offer is hard to resist for ageing farmers as the next payment from the trees is 15 to 20 years away. This move to corporate ownership of forestry land is happening apace and is supported by Government grants for carbon sequestration reasons. We, in Sinn Fein, call for a policy that introduces a 50 km radius limit for establishment grant and forestry premium payments. This means that the recipient's main residential residence must be within 50 km of the forestry site. For companies, this should apply to their main headquarters to ensure that the economic benefits are retained in the local area.
On 15 February, the Minister announced the terms of reference for a Leitrim forestry study, which will be carried out by UCD. The study will cover the social and economic impacts of forestry, the impact on farm incomes and the state of regulation on Leitrim at present. The terms of reference have already been criticised - first, because local groups, such as Save Leitrim and the local branch of the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, were not consulted, and second, because issues such as planning, soil carbon analysis, land prices, tax, local infrastructure and fire risk have been left out. Groups say that the terms of reference have clearly been designed to avoid critiquing the Government's wider forestry policy. I ask the Minister of State to please address these concerns in his reply today. Many groups are anxious to know where the Department stands in response to these criticisms.
At present planning permission for afforestation in Ireland is not required for plantations that are under 50 ha in size, which makes up the bulk of plantations. This situation has led to private entities purchasing peat bogland, which otherwise should contribute to carbon sequestration in order to plant large, commercial plantations. My Sinn Féin colleague, Deputy Martin Kenny, has proposed legislation to ensure that planning permission is required for any plantation over 5 ha. I ask the Minister of State to outline today whether he supports the legislation.