Ceisteanna–Questions. Priority Questions. - Afforestation Programme.

Paul Connaughton

Ceist:

5 Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources if he has satisfied himself that the new strategic plan for the development of forestry will entice more planting; the achievable targets for planting on an annual basis over the next five years; if his attention has been drawn to the anger of 12,000 forestry farmers who are refused top-up payments for land planted prior to 1999; his views on whether this decision will militate against the planting targets set out; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17568/01]

The planting targets are set out in the 1996 strategic plan for forestry, Growing for the Future. The plan envisaged annual planting levels of up to 25,000 hectares up to the end of 2000 and 20,000 hectares thereafter.

As the Deputy is aware, these ambitious targets have not been met in recent years because of a number of factors, including competition with agricultural schemes and premium levels. The shortfall in planting levelsvis-à-vis targets and the need to get planting back to the target levels was reviewed in the context of the formulation of the rural development plan, 2000-06. It is envisaged that planting levels in the next few years will be of the following order: 2001, 16,000 hectares; 2002, 18,000 hectares; 2003, 20,000 hectares.

As indicated, it is expected that the planting level of 20,000 will be reached in 2003. Significant funding of around £540 million has been provided for afforestation under the rural development plan. Last year I announced average increases of around 30% in both the grant and premium levels. This has had a positive impact in terms of planting in 2000. I have also secured agreement in principle on the inclusion of a mid-term review under the rural development plan. Given the combination of these factors, I am confident that planting levels will increase on an incremental basis.

I also remind the Deputy of the revised framework in which forestry activities are undertaken. Last year my Department published a suite of environmental measures. These included an Irish forest standard, a code of best forest practice and five environmental guidelines. This is further evidence of my commitment to ensuring all forestry activities are carried out in accordance with the principles of sustainable forest management.

Additional Information.The Government's recently published national climate change strategy recognised the strategic importance of forestry and called for an intensification of the planting programme. On the issue of backdating of premiums for those who planted pre-2000, I have sought to secure increases for the people concerned. It was not possible, despite our every effort, to persuade the European Commission, which remained steadfast in its opposition. The possibility of the Exchequer bearing the full cost for such was considered. However, in view of other calls on the Exchequer, it is not possible for the Government to do so in the current year. I will continue to pursue this matter. I am confident that future prospects for the forestry sector are good, given the particular considerations to which I have already referred.

I will give the Minister of State a simple answer as to the reason there was a big dip in the acreage for planting this year. He knows it as well as I do. In fairness to him and the Department, a useful range of financial grants have been made available for planting but is it reasonable to assume that the very year those came into operation there is a huge dip in the amount of land being made available for afforestation? I and many others believe farmers have lost confidence because of the way the Minister, the Minister of State and the Government have handled the commitment given to the 12,000 farmers who were told they would get retrospective payments for before 1999. No matter how one analyses the reasons the target has not been met, that is the main reason and it will be around for a long time.

No commitment was given on predating.

It was awful like it.

No commitment was given on the predating of the premia. When I secured the increased premia of 30% last year I also got a guarantee of a three year review. That was a weakness in the previous programme. Regarding that programme, farmers and other forest owners signed a contract to the effect that they were satisfied with what was on offer.

What was said beside?

They signed a contract. Because there was a 30% increase—

The Minister of State is hiding behind the contract.

—they expected to get backdated payments, which I favoured. We went to Europe and as Deputies Connaughton and Dukes will be aware, the European Commission said no way, that a contract had been signed and that that was the end of it. We came back and asked the Exchequer about this but to date no agreement has been received. Lest anyone feel I should go further in declaring a confidence, I will not, as people will say I guaranteed it today.

The Minister of State has gone a good way down that route already.

I will not but I would like to see the people concerned get that backdated payment and will continue to fight for it.

Peter denied himself three times as well.

My senior colleague fought a tough battle at Exchequer level and particularly at European level, as we all did. The beauty of this is that last year, after I secured a 30% increase, the amount of land planted in the current year is way up and I hope it continues to go up. The reason for this is farmers are businessmen and when they see extra money – 20 years of guaran teed income increased by 30% tax free – they know it is good.

The Minister of State is the Galilean.

That concludes priority questions.