The revelation that the state forestry body, Coillte, has formed a partnership with a British investment fund, Gresham, which will entail the practical transfer of ownership of Irish land to that entity has attracted quite a deal of criticism.
On Friday, the first transfer of 12,000 hectares was confirmed.
Coillte is probably the most significant state company remaining in existence. While it appears to have little impact on the daily lives of most people, it controls 440,000 hectares of land which equates to 7% of the land mass of the 26-county state. The value of that holding runs into more than seven billion Euros, but that is a purely notional figure given the current uses of most of that land.
It also, of course, makes it an attractive target for both advocates of privatising state assets in order to realise a once-off windfall for the public finances, and of course, the likes of Gresham and other private entities who see well beyond both the nominal land value and indeed the current stipulations regarding the use of that land.
The story for the time being is that Coillte has apparently agreed a deal that will see the formal ownership of up to 123,000 acres transferred to a fund involving Gresham. On Friday, it was announced that an initial 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) will be transferred to the effective control of the fund involving Gresham.
There are a lot of semantics involved, and the government will no doubt still attempt to deny that public assets are being sold to private entities. On February last year, in response to a question about the possible sale of forestry lands in west Cork, the former Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that he was “uncomfortable with Coillte selling valuable woodlands of the kind in question given that, to me, Coillte, Bord na Móna and other state agencies must now be leaders in respect of climate change.”
This was consistent with Martin’s previously stated opposition to the plan by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition to privatise Coillte which they backed away from in 2013. His former colleague, the late Brian Lenihan, went so far on April 11, 2011 to state that any privatisation of forestry would require legislation.
It seems that whereas paying the vig on the EU/IMF extortion deal was the excuse ten years ago, it is now the great idol of Climate Change that may be the Trojan Horse that allows both Coillte and the state to justify what in historical terms might be described as another phase in the overturning of the land settlement that followed the Land War of the 1880s when ownership of most of the land of Ireland reverted to native ownership.
This time it will not be a Tudor adventurer like Lord Gresham financing the bloody theft of our land, but a state agency selling it to an entity bearing the same name “in order to reach our Climate Action Target.”
Or so Coillte CEO Imelda Hurley and Managing Director Mark Carlin told the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee on December 13 last. Hurley stressed that Coillte’s strategy now – rather than utilising the land under its control for the benefit of the Irish people – is almost totally focussed on solving the “climate emergency.”
Hurley waxed lyrical about how the creation of another 100,000 hectares of forest by 2050 would “capture” 18 million tonnes of carbon. It was only when Michael Fitzmaurice and two of the Sinn Féin TDs, Browne and Carthy, questioned herself and Carlin more closely that some of the details of how this was to be achieved were revealed.
When pressed on how this glorious targets was to be met, Hurley referred to the “international investors” who are now part of Nature Partners which was established on November 1, 2021. This is connected to the Nature Trust which seems to be the happy, clappy, smiley, save-the-melting-iceberg, face of this business venture. At the bottom of the Nature Trust page telling you how they are planting trees to save polar bears you find a reference to “Nature Partners CLG trading as the Nature Trust.” For some reason, Lord Queensberry’s provocative card left for Oscar Wilde sprang to mind.
The Nature Trust is crucial because it, as a “not for profit,” can access the premiums and grants to support the growing of trees which EU regulations ban Coillte from doing. Which in effect, as Fitzmaurice and others have pointed out, means that billionaire investment funds will be competing with Irish farmers for ownership of the land and for available funding.
Central to all of this from the perspective of Gresham is the promise of the tree huggers to provide “exceptional leadership and experience, while receiving independently verified data to support sustainability and ESG reporting.” ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance and basically requires that companies comply with various EU regulations. This makes certain types of investment, such as forestry, very attractive as a means to basically avoid any penalties and make some clean green bobs. © © 2021 Nature Partners CLG trading as the the Nature Trust
Credit where it is due, had it not been for Fitzmaurice, Browne and Carthy it is unlikely that Coillte would have volunteered the information that has made this into a story and excited some unease it would appear even among Government TDs. Not least being the Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee, Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill, who on hearing the exchanges intervened to state that he could not understand “why we are losing control of that land.”
Which, all the sleight of hand apart, is what the deal with Gresham effectively means. It would also appear that the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConologue may not have been aware of all of what was taking place until “recent months.” McConologue as Minister is actually the sole shareholder of Coillte, which is ludicrously described as a “private company.” In common with all his predecessors, McConologue has resorted to this any time anyone asks him something awkward about Coillte and its operations.
That previously provided a convenient cover for the period following the bank bailout when the privatisation of Coillte clearly was on the table. It had already been recommended to be sold off in whole or part by Colm McCarthy’s Bord Snip in 2009 and McCarthy was also part of the State Assets group that was established to find ways of paying off the EU overlords.
As late as March 2014, a director of the European Central Bank, Pierre Van Der Hagen was claiming that selling Coillte was central to the EU/IMF plan, but public pressure here had already led to Labour Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin, informing the Finance Committee in June 2013 that the proposed sale, and no one ever denied there had not been a proposal, would not go ahead.
Prior to that there had been reports that a Chinese trade delegation in 2012 had expressed interest in buying up Coillte lands, and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was revealed to have been chairman of the International Forestry Fund which had visited China in September 2010 and had discussed how the Chinese might wet their beak in the “fundamental forestry asset.” What the Bert’s qualification for this is anyone’s guess, but it was speculated that Irish forestry was one of the key targets.
In December 2012, then Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris had also raised another element of the possible sale of Coillte – that is, OUR land – when he asked Coillte representatives about the potential value of mineral resources that might lie under land under its control. They admitted that they had a “ballpark notion of where potentially valuable mineral deposits are to be found.”
Indeed, and you can bet your last green euro that the boys from the investment funds have a ballpark notion about all of this too. It would be ironic if the nonsense about carbon capture and saving the polar bear becomes another excuse to force us into another deal that will prove to be to our detriment. The notion that any of the potential “green investors” give a somersaulting sustainable fart about any of that is as credible as all of the other “environmental” rationales for everything from Georgian “asylum seekers” to pricing you out of a home and a car.