TDs have criticised the controversial forestry deal struck between Coillte and British asset managers Gresham House describing it as “inexplicable, cheap and trashy” in the Dáil on Thursday.
Under the deal, Gresham House will manage the Irish Strategic Forests Fund which will provide up to €200 million to assemble a portfolio of 12,000 hectares of new and existing forests. An initial €25 million has been invested by Ireland’s sovereign development fund, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF).
Over one hundred people took part in a protest, organised by the ‘Save our Forests Save our Land’ campaign, outside Leinster House on Thursday to oppose the deal. Chants of “Our forest - Not for sale” and “Save our land” could be heard outside Leinster House for more than an hour on Thursday.
Sinn Féin TD Réada Cronin told the Dáil that the Government was already selling housing to vulture and cuckoo funds and selling the care of elderly to global corporate markets adding, “here it goes again selling our forests to a foreign investor”.
The Kildare North TD said she had been inundated with emails from constituents and described the deal as “inexplicable, cheap and trashy”.
“Pimping out our land and prostituting it to a foreign investor for its private profit is not only horrifying and nonsensical, it is also downright disrespectful and unpatriotic,” she said.
Her party colleague Matt Carthy said the Minister for Agriculture could tell Coillte not to put €10 million of public funding into the project and instead “use that money to purchase publicly owned land”.
Mr Carthy also said the minister could issue a public pronouncement “encouraging investors not to put their money into the Gresham House deal” and the deal would fall apart without the €200m funding.
Fianna Fáil TD Joe Flaherty said the plan would have “detrimental consequences for rural Ireland at every level” and that it was within the Government’s remit to tell ISIF to “pull funding and if it did, the deal would fall apart”.
“The reality is this deal is wrong, it might have made imminent sense in a corporate boardroom over in London or Edinburgh but it should not have made sense for the directors of a semi-State company tasked with managing one of our finest natural resources,” he said.
“Coillte need ministers to back away from this deal, they need to swallow their pride and whatever losses comes with that and accept this was a massive miscalculation on their part.”
Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore said the unfortunate reality was that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party’s “compass is continually tracking towards corporate profits when it comes to climate action, environment, forestry”.
The Wicklow TD said the deal exposed the “complete hypocrisy” of the Government in relation to forestry, biodiversity and rural communities.
Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan said Coillte as a body for forestry in Ireland was a failure, no longer fit for purpose and should be “wound down or fundamentally reformed”. The Dublin Central TD said the deal with Gresham House was based “on profit above all other concerns”.
Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue repeated that the structure of the deal was not the Government’s “preferred option”.
“Our preferred option is for farmers to plant forest on their own land,” he said.
“That is what we have designed the new forestry programme to achieve. However, this fund is an option Coillte has put in place to help us reach our highly ambitious forestry targets.”
Speaking earlier during Leader’s Questions, Minister for the Environment and Climate Eamon Ryan said Coillte needed to change and that its mandate would change.
Mr Ryan said the €1.3 billion afforestation programme announced last November was “transformative” and that farmers would have a critical role.
“There is a range of new, closer-to-nature agroforestry solutions which we have not delivered in the last 90 years of forestation. It is fundamentally changing and needs to go further,” he said.
“Part of that change will be a change to Coillte. It needs to change. It has done a brilliant job but it was legislated for in the late 1980s when the emphasis and focus was on privatisation and commercial lumber production.
“That has changed. Coillte’s mandate will be changed. It is already changing towards a closer-to-nature model. We recognise that what has been done with forestry, while it delivered acres and lumber, did not deliver better biodiversity or a better nature solution in our country.”