“That Dáil Éireann:
notes, with dismay, the Government’s intention, under the troika deal, to sell the harvesting rights to our national forests;
— Ireland’s publicly owned forests are one of our most precious natural resources and a priceless part of our culture and heritage, that must be nurtured and protected in the interests of current and future generations;
— since Coillte was created it has already sold over 40,000 acres of forest land; in 2009 it sold €33 million worth of forests, in 2010, €38 million and in 2011, €37 million;
— the national forests represent 11% of the landmass of Ireland, 745,000 hectares, 1.6 million acres; and that the Coillte estate owns and runs 7% of the landmass, which includes maintaining 11 forest parks, 150 recreation sites and 23,000 km of roadways;
— according to the Irish Forestry and Forest Products Association, IFFPA, in 2010 Irish forestry and the forest product sector generated €2.2 billion in annual output, 1.3%of GDP, and forest products to a value of €286 million were exported;
— the sector employs 12,000 people across the State;
— over 18 million individual visits are made to the national forest estate each year and according to IFFPA total economic activity generated by domestic users is an estimated €286 million and overseas visitors a further €138 million;
— in 2008, 517,000 tourist visitors participated in forest walking while holidaying in Ireland, spending an estimated €364 million;
— according to IFFPA, for every 15,000 hectares planted, 490 jobs will be created, indicating enormous potential for employment creation;
— much of the State’s forest land and associated industry and employment is based in rural Ireland and is a vital part of the rural economy;
— the percentage of afforested land in Ireland, at 11%, is well below the European average, representing an enormous unrealised potential for the State and its citizens to generate thousands of jobs and a reliable source of income;
— Ireland has agreed to the Europe-wide target of 30% forest land;
— a country such as Switzerland, which is half the size of Ireland, through prudent and sensitive management of their forestry, employs 100,000 people in the forestry and forestry related sectors, setting a standard that Ireland should seek to emulate;
— no other country in Europe has privatised state forestry or harvesting rights and higher levels of afforestation and related employment have been achieved where the state retains substantial ownership and management of the national forests;
— in Sweden part-privatisation of state forestry was recently reversed and the sector taken back into public ownership;
— in the United Kingdom recent proposals for the privatisation of state forestry were abandoned after there was enormous public outcry, leading to the establishment of an independent committee which recommended greater community participation and development of native species;
— there has been no consultation with stakeholders on the planned sale of Coillte harvesting rights and the potential impact of privatisation in terms of amenity loss, security of supply, environmental impact, job losses and other social and economic consequences;
— the intergenerational commitment implicit in the creation and stewardship of forests means that they are best owned by altruistic and long surviving institutions such as nation states;
— forests play a huge role in mitigating climate change and regulating the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and, as a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, Ireland is committed to reducing CO2 emissions; and that Irish forests stored 2.2 million tonnes of carbon in 2010 alone;
— the specific habitats of Irish forests will be threatened by privatisation, and it is unclear how the Government intends to address reforestation, species mix, environmental design, forestry inventories and other regulatory environmental issues which, if not planned, will have a detrimental knock-on effect on wildlife;
— privatisation of some state forests in New Zealand has led to major problems with public access, job losses and contracting of the wood processing sector;
— the 745,000 hectares, 1.6 million acres, of forests in Ireland represents an integral part of our heritage which should be developed and expanded; and
— the reported valuation by NewERA of Coillte harvesting rights of €700 million, which equates to approximately €580 per acre of trees, is almost certainly a gross undervaluation of these forests;
believes that the commercial pressure to make immediate profits that would be on any private investor who might take over the harvesting rights of Coillte would critically militate against the imperative to maintain public access to our forests, to invest in long-term sustainable management of those forests in the interest of the public and to generate much needed employment; and
calls on the Government to:
— abandon any plans to sell the harvesting rights of public forest lands under the control of Coillte;
— maintain Ireland’s public forestry in full public ownership in perpetuity;
— establish a major forum involving all stakeholders and concerned groups on the future of Irish forestry;
— rapidly accelerate afforestation in Ireland to at least the European average over the next ten years and to meet the existing targets of 30% forestation;
— establish a major programme of public investment and public works in Irish forestry with a view to creating jobs in this sector and boosting the ratio of forest related employment to forest acreage from the current low level to levels similar to countries such as Switzerland;
— put a particular focus on developing and expanding the cultivation of native hardwoods and developing local community involvement in the development of Irish forestry;
— improve the utilisation and development of public forestry with an emphasis on increasing our low forest cover with our native hardwood species which would help alleviate flooding, maintain soil fertility and reverse the acidification caused by conifers; and
— increase the use of timber as fuel for local communities by coppicing; protect water sources; and restore rivers and lakes to bring back freshwater fish stocks.
I will be sharing time, by agreement, with Deputies Catherine Murphy, Finian McGrath, Pringle, O'Sullivan, Tom Fleming and Mattie McGrath.
Our forests are one of our most precious resources. They are a priceless part of our national heritage and they are an invaluable economic asset. The Government's proposal to sell the harvesting rights to 1.2 million acres of public forests would be nothing less than a national betrayal and an act of cultural, economic and environmental sabotage and vandalism that is utterly unacceptable. There can be no justification for the selling off of our public forests, but to sell them off to pay off the gambling debts of bankers, speculators and bondholders represents an utter obscenity. More obscene, if this priceless asset is to be sold it may well be the same bankers and bondholders who helped to ruin our economy and the European economy that would end up owning our forests.
This is not scaremongering. Since Coillte was established by Ray Burke and Bertie Ahern, no less, it has sold 40,000 acres of public forest. By all accounts this has been done to plug a major deficit in the pension fund, a deficit that was probably generated as a result of speculation on the property bubble. The purchaser of much of that 40,000 acres of public forest was a body called the Irish Forestry Unit Trust, which includes Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish Banks and Irish Life, institutions which helped to ruin the country. Incredibly, now that the harvesting rights of the public forests are for sale it is possible that the banks which helped to ruin the country and whose debts have forced us to consider selling the forests could end up owning the forests. That would represent an obscenity beyond all obscenities. Another likely bidder if the harvesting rights go up for sale is a Swiss bank that manages wealth for the world's billionaires called Helvetia Wealth, a subsidiary of which, the International Forestry Fund, is headed up by none other than Bertie Ahern, the same man who set up Coillte and began the process of selling off public forestry. The idea that the former Taoiseach, responsible for the ruination of the country, could be a possible frontman for the takeover of Irish public forests by a Swiss bank is simply beyond belief. One possible outcome is that the banks which bankrupted the country and which have forced us to sell State assets could also force us to sell our forests and then the same people could end up owning them. One could not make it up; if this were in a novel anyone would say it was unrealistic.
More Government spin about ending bank guarantees, such as we heard today, or cries of triumph over the so-called IBRC deal will ring very hollow if, at the end of the troika programme, our country and economy have been stripped of some of our most vital natural resources, State assets and national heritage.
It says everything that if Ireland were to sell the harvesting rights to our public forests we would be the only country in the European Union to do so. In Britain, when David Cameron's Government attempted to discuss the idea of selling off state forests, there was a national outcry which forced Mr. Cameron to back off quickly. Indeed, as a result of the public consultation held in that country, as part of which 40,000 public submissions were made, almost every one of which was opposed to the plan to privatise British forests, the British Government was forced to develop a new strategy to invest in public forests and to begin to develop native species of trees to improve the management of the forests in the interest of the public. Sweden, a country which only partially privatised its state forests, was forced within a few short years to take them back into full public ownership because of the public outcry and the failure of private owners to manage them properly.
Let us consider what happens outside of the Continent. Even in New Zealand, one of the countries often held up as an example of where privatisation has occurred, only a small part of the state forestry was privatised and the results have been very damaging indeed. There have been major problems of public access to New Zealand's now-privatised state forests. Thousands of jobs have been lost. Major damage has been done to the sawmill sector. There has been a considerable outflow of profits from the country, moneys which used to stay in New Zealand.
There is absolutely no doubt that if the Government takes the unprecedented step of selling the harvesting rights of our State forests we will see the same damage done to this vital natural resource and element of our heritage. Such a move will threaten public access. It will lead to job losses. The Irish Timber Council stated today that it estimates there could be 2,500 direct job losses if this plan goes ahead. It will endanger security of supply to the sawmill industry. It will endanger biodiversity and the environmental integrity of our forests and natural amenities. It will seriously endanger our climate change strategy, as part of which afforestation and the use of forests to develop carbon sinks is a key component.
As Peter Bacon pointed out today it is likely that the State would actually pay financially to pick up the tab for what would be left of Coillte in terms of the deficits and debts the company has. At every level we stand to lose, economically, culturally and socially, if we privatise the forests. There is simply no argument whatsoever.
There is also a serious question about the undervaluation of this vital asset. The suggested figure for the sale of the harvesting rights is between €600 million and €700 million. For 1.2 million acres this works out at approximately €580 per acre. Even I, as someone not familiar with land values in rural areas, understand that €580 per acre represents a giveaway price for a valuable resource. It is absolutely unconscionable for us to do this.
The alternative is to retain the State forestry in public hands and to develop and expand public forestry. We should develop a major public works programme that could put thousands of people back to work. We know that hundreds of jobs can be created and we have figures showing that for every 150,000 hectares it is possible to create approximately 600 jobs. If we set out to meet the 30% target of afforestation to which we have signed up, we could create tens of thousands of jobs and we could probably get money from the European Investment Bank on the basis of putting forward a business plan to meet that target.
We could be creating jobs, increasing revenue and safeguarding our forest heritage and a vital natural resource for this State.
I appeal to the Government to back away from this proposal and protect our State forests. People will be gathering outside the Parliament tomorrow to appeal to the Government to do that. I hope the Deputies opposite will support our motion and withdraw their amendment.