Bertie, Coillte and the Enclosure of the Public Forest


There is an increasing likelihood that the state owned forestry firm, Coillte, will be part of a rushed fire sale of semi-state companies. Last year, the government asked “An Bord Snip Nua” economist Colm McCarthy to head a semi-state privatisation group and produce a new report, which is believed to be almost complete. The original 2009 McCarthy report recommended the selling of Coillte “with a view to realising optimal return through rationalisation, asset disposal and, possibly, privatisation”. Thus, the prospect of a sell-off of Ireland’s entire public forest estate is now on the cards.

Coillte employs approx 1,100 people and owns 4,450 square kilometres of land, of which 79% is forest. It owns 70% of forests within the Republic, 7% of the land in the state. In other words, an area equivalent to two county Meath’s could be sold into private hands.

According to the Department of Finance, Coillte is the most valuable state asset, coming in at over €1.2bn. Coillte’s first act on its establishment in 1989 was to commission a geological survey of its lands, the results of which are not available to the public. Its actual value includes its land and buildings, trees, minerals, and carbon credits. The public is not privy to this information. Thus the governments valuation, only €1,000 an acre, is certainly incorrect and an underestimate.

The implications of a sale are many, including job losses, ownership by a large private monopoly, carbon offsetting, restricted public access to forestry lands and rivers for fishing and further loss of biodiversity. Some of the most treasured native woodland sites will be threatened while private firms may inherit rich mineral deposits.
One possible outcome of a sale of Coillte is that a little known company, based in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, International Forestry Fund (IFF) could own 7% of Irish land. The International Forestry Fund (IFF) is backed by Helvetia Wealth AG of Switzerland and chaired by ex-Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. The IFF posits itself as the equivalent of an offshore bank account with the added benefit of the notoriously lax regulation of both Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

Last Autumn, on a trip to China as chairman of IFF, Bertie Ahern met with the president of the Chinese Investment Corporation (CIC). The CIC was set up by the Chinese government with a view to investing in cheap overseas “natural resources”. Ahern met with Chinese forestry officials, but denied that IFF had an interest in Coillte, which is contradicted by a statement from one of IFF’s directors.

On the 31st of January this year, Coillte posted a tender for an ‘Evaluation of the Public Goods Value on Coillte Public Estate’ on the public procurement website. As with Coillte’s mineral deposits, getting information on the reasons behind the tendering is not easy. Coillte is excluded from FOI (Freedom of Information) legislation and its employees operate under the Official Secrets Act.

Irrespective of whether we get FG or FG/Lab, the IMF/ECB/EU’s deal stipulates: “State authorities will consult with the Commission Services on the results of this assessment with a view to setting appropriate targets for the possible privatisation of state-owned assets.” The IMF/ECB/EU has supervised Greece’s recently announced 3 year sell-off plan – the cookie-cutter plan is the same – simply change the country’s name on the heading. So Coillte is only the beginning and the vultures are circling already. Asset prices are on the floor and a sell-off would cut semi-state dividends to the state with the proceeds from the sales wasted on the banks and the interest on the bailout.

So what do we do? In the UK, the Con/Dem government proposed to sell off 2,580 square kilometres of public forests in a policy that was not on any manifesto. Their attempt at forest privatisation has floundered in the face of a diverse and concerted movement against it. Thousands protested throughout the country, a petition attracted more than 531,000 signatures and one poll suggested 84% of the country opposed the sale. We need to emulate this and build a broad oppositional movement against the mass sell-off of state assets.

We received the following letter as a response to this article

Dear WSM - in relation to your web-article - thank you for highlighting this issue. We are continuing to work hard to bring this to wider public attention and as a small organisation need all the help we can get. The Woodland League will appreciate it if you could point your supporters and followers to our website and also the Save Ireland's Forests petition site and for WSM to back our campaign in any other way possible.

We have collated approx. 30 000 signatures to date and need more.

Thank you very much.

Lyn Mathero.b.o. the Woodland League