QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

as asked by students and answered by Estonian Forest Aid’s communication and cooperation coordinator Linda-Mari Väli at the Tallinn University in Autumn 2019.

What signs of biodiversity loss can be observed in Estonia?

There are different signs. The rapid decline of the flying squirrel population has been a hot topic for a long time, and as an indicator species of old aspen forests also refers to a general worsening of ecosystems related to old aspen forests. Scientific research from the University of Tartu have also noted a decline in the ecological health of old spruce stands, including polypores, and in current year the fresh data by the Environmental Agency confirmed that our forest bird populations are in a continuous decline, assuming that one of its main reasons is constant habitat loss, which is the result of intensive clear cutting policy (A recent climate progress report by the European Commission noted that at the entire European Union logging is overly intensive in terms of climate policy, Estonia was the 2nd most intensively logged country according to the OECD environmental performance report of 2017, and the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 interim report estimated that the EU-s forestry as a whole is unsustainable biodiversity-wise). 

When it comes to preserving holy grounds in the forests, how is it possible to make their importance more tangible to present their necessity? How can one measure their importance to present their significance?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature or the IUCN designates the natural holy sites as the humanity’s oldest nature preserves which have been carefully preserved for tens of thousands of years. But it is not only a spiritual, but even foremost a material heritage, as these are the ecological communities which have developed without interference for the longest time. Thus protecting natural sacred sites in the spirit of the indigenous peoples helps preserve and even restore the natural and spiritual wealth of the world, whose importance should be increasingly obvious on that century of the ecological crisis for every conscious world citizen.   

Deforestation isn’t talked about that much in Estonia. Mainly we hear how 50% of Estonia is covered in forest. On scale of 1 to 10, how worried should we actually be about the deforestation in Estonia? Why?

When discussing forests and their protection, it is best if we use most precise definitions. Deforestation is one thing, the other is forest biodiversity loss. They are both problems, but quite different ones. Deforestation as land use conversion is mainly a problem of the global South, where rain forests are converted to plantations Our main issue is the effects of forest management on the biodiversity and ecological sustainability of the forests. Right now we are losing old forests to intensive management on a faster pace than we are losing forest land to mines, quarries, polygons and real estate development.

And the general situation of forest management in Estonia is most worrying at the moment. We are one of the most intensive forest economies in the EU, which itself as a whole has problems with both the carbon sink and biodiversity, both are taking damage — so that means our problems are especially deep. We have double the logging intensity of Brazil right now, and we’ve all heard how bad it is down there. Globally it’s a smaller deal of course, as Estonia is about 200 times smaller, but then again it is rather much easier to destroy a small place than a large one. Scientists have estimated about a quarter of our forests is currently under direct threat from logging, which would lead to local extinction of a number of forest species and the condition of many others worsening. 

So on a scale from 1 to 10 I’d say we should be worried by the maximal amount. 

What do you feel, as an environmental activist and Estonian Forest Aid founder, are your biggest victories regarding saving Estonian forests?

As a matter of fact I don’t feel like we have achieved that much yet. The few dozen hectares that we’ve saved and the additional 1% of state forests we helped get protected don’t compare with the destruction I have had to witness in those same years. Our last old forests are being felled before my eyes and our own predictions from a few years back are becoming a reality – the logging pressure on nature preserves is growing and forests are logged at the moment of which no one could have thought that they could be logged with tractors for profit, back when I was a child. Now I have to witness the destruction of once proud forests with my own eyes.

How to find balance between economic growth and nature conservation?

I think we cannot speak of any “balance” if we presume the continued economic growth on current terms, which is the intensifying consumption of natural resources. Already the fact that nature has to be protected with specifically designated areas points to an unbalanced management. Sustainable management means a sustainable use of natural resources, which should also mean that natural resources are not used over the limits that this environment is unable to bear. The best nature protection would be one that would take no specific effort — people would by default treat the natural resources with adequate respect and awareness, using them as invaluable treasures but not as raw materials to pointlessly throw to trash, without knowing which fish will eat them or which garbage island will they end up on. Our societal development should not be guided by misleading economic parameters, but by technological innovation, health of the environment and the shrinking of inequality and class divides.

It is important to understand that “economy” means foremost the management of natural resources and the industry that accompanies it and nature is not in any way separate from that but its very subject. And as we can not work and strain ourselves beyond the extent of our bodily resources, so we can not as human kind manage and consume beyond the tolerance of the environmental conditions which are needed to sustain our own lives.

Have you ever seen or felt environmental injustice towards a certain group or community in Estonia when it comes to deforestation? If yes, has the issue become more relevant in time?

I surely have. But we have to define what we mean under “deforestation” If we mean a land conversion to another use, then our main problems are polygonization, mining and real estate development. But if we widen the term to include the intensive management of forests, meaning clear cutting the forests using heavy machinery and creating new, orderly production woodlands, then the circle of interest groups and communities facing environmental injustice grows even wider.  In every mentioned issue, one can see the rights of people facing environmental degradation ignored and the development of a political situation in which things are done in a way that’s decided “upstairs” and the people have to accept it without any of their objections taken into actual account, however well they may argue. I would say this is an increasingly critical problem in our society, as while the number of people suffering from environmental injustice increases, the political apparatus still tries to put up a democratic front for the public by conducting fake involvement events, provoking the feeling of double betrayal, deepening of skepticism and antagonizing official state structures in the people suffering from environmental injustices. With no change of course we are facing impending escalation of the suffering opposition and widening protests on all levels, including the media and the public space.

What have been the downsides of being an environmental activist for you?

Taking an active stance in defending the environment means contradicting the prevailing political mentality in our present (world) political situation. That means that an environmentalist is quickly and rather thoughtlessly branded as an “extremist”. This label follows environmentalists constantly, making the political debate very difficult, as the stereotypical image of an environmental defender as an extremist does not let the prejudiced parties give deep thought to the arguments nor “accept” them. As the media makes short-term “click” benefits from disseminating a conflictual image like that, then one of the largest problems for an environmental activist is precisely how to break through the stereotypical prejudiced belittling and finding the room of discussion for arguments and cases in which they can be analyzed without constant misleading demagoguery and protecting themselves from an inflated, defamatory rhetoric such as “the forest activists don’t let a single tree be cut” etc.

At Tartu Planning Conference Metsakogu was presented as an example of public involvement in MAK2030 planning. What are your thoughts on that?

Metsakogu is surely an example of making a make-believe show of inclusion. I will not analyse in detail right now how Metsakogu was conducted and whether the people were democratically included there, I will just point at the fact that as I have been a part of the FDP2030 process both before and after Metsakogu took place, I know that practically everything that Metsakogu decided on was unmade at the later discussions on the grounds of ’no consensus’ so that leaves me with a question: why is the Ministry wasting peoples’ time, media’s attention and state funds to promote Metsakogu as the crown jewel of democracy, when in reality the Ministry of Environment is clearly uncaring and arrogant towards the work done there.

Do you think that in Estonia, environmental activism is a privilege for people with higher education? What is your background?

Firstly, this is a question of which kind of environmental activism we are talking about – if it is environmental organizations, which are in the business of observing the status of the environment and may also start protecting it as a result of their findings, as they are likely to witness a worsening of the environmental conditions, then these types of “environmental activists” have to have a higher education.

But when we talk about the kind of environmental activism which I myself practice and which also forms the basis of the citizen’s initiative Estonian Forest Aid, then we are dealing with a spontaneous, popular environmental movement, which does not begin with the educationally-grounded work’s specifics (as is the case with specialists belonging to environmental NGO-s), but from citizen’s personal experience with managing environmental resources and the state’s role in guiding that management.

I myself have been enrolled at the Tallinn University twice (first time cultural science, second time Estonian philology) but I didn’t find forest protection activism as a result of my education, but by my journalistic investigation. When I first started investigating and covering Estonian forest politics in 2015 as a fellow worker for Müürileht, I could not have guessed that I would be officially an “environmental activist” four years later. It was a spontaneous radicalization, borne out of the things I saw and experienced during my investigation, and becoming aware of the injustice in our environment, media space and politics.

Are your methods deliberately more aggressive than methods of other Estonian environmentalists’ or is it just something that your opponents and media try to keep their focus on?

I do not think our methods are much more aggressive, I think that the specific type of organization that we represent is just new to Estonia. Organizations like the Estonian Fund for Nature or the Estonian Ornithological Society should be just representative organizations for environmental specialists, but the situation has demanded that they also have to actively promote environmental protection. Estonian Forest Aid on the other hand was purely borne out of the people’s experience with environmental injustice, so it’s much more clearly a kind of a resistance movement. It is also true that the media has spread a number of untruths about us, refuting which is one out of many additional tasks in that already difficult struggle.

What have been the biggest surprises? Negative / positive?

The biggest negative surprise was realizing how strongly our forestry policy is dominated by the interests of industry and business and how that imbalance crushes the interests of every other interest group, whether it be the representatives of nature or the people.

But the largest positive surprise, I guess, is how many people in Estonia care very deeply about their home environment and are ready to debate state offices for its protection, study laws whole nights long and strain themselves in every way, mentally as well as physically and materially to protect the places they love.

What action has been / can additionally be taken in the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea region to mitigate and decrease the pollution of the Baltic Sea?

This is a difficult question and one which I am not fully qualified to answer, but it is clear that the main polluters of the Baltic Sea from the Estonian side are the oil shale industry and agriculture, and by my estimate, not much has been done to eliminate those impacts and the problems are accumulating. It is clear that the state should already actively cut down on energy consumption and transfer to innovative renewable energy sources to cut down on the oil shale industry, and from the other side, the use of fertilizers and plant protection chemicals and intensive farming should be substantially restricted. 

At Finland and Sweden, the pulp and paper industry is also a major polluter of the Baltic Sea, in addition to being a menace to the northern forests’ biodiversity, and cutting down on the old-fashioned paper industry would undoubtedly substantially improve the conditions of the Baltic Sea over time.

Forest is a renewable resource and the biggest profit will be achieved when harvesting at the right time. In your opinion is there an over-harvesting at the moment and will the forest, that grow instead will have the same value?

I would firstly direct your attention that if we speak of forest regeneration in that context, we take it to mean wood regeneration. In terms of the Forest Act, forest is not just trees but also forest ecosystems, which do not regenerate after being destroyed by intensive management. Same applies to the issues of forest degradation or the effects of ditching. 

We are currently clearly over-logging, also exemplified by the need to relax the logging restrictions. It is unclear what the forests will be like which will replace them, depending on whether new productive stands are planted on the clear cut areas with proper after-care or are they left to natural regeneration instead. Both methods have their better and worse sides – planting can lead to monoculturization, but natural regeneration might not even take place in case of large clear cuts. My prediction would be that the forests that are currently growing are rather receptive to different diseases and may face rapid destruction as a consequence of climate change – whether to storms, new diseases or forest fires.

Fighting for Estonian forest – how do you define your fights in a manner of justice – is it environmental justice case or climate justice case?

I think that we should not separate those matters, in this or any case. The phenomenon known as climate crisis is actually a complex crisis, which envelops besides carbon emissions and the need to reduce them also all the other problems, for which carbon emissions are just a side product.The root of the problem is expanding extractive industry, which is responsible for water pollution, land degradation and biodiversity loss alike. Climate is not separate from the rest of the biosphere but resulting and codependent entity,and the same way a river cannot be protected without its surroundings, neither can climate change be mitigated without protecting the natural balance of our common ecosystems. Adequate response to the climate crisis requires a serious reorganization of our entire attitude towards nature beginning with greenhouse gas emission reductions and ending with land and resource use intensity while necessarily accounting for the need for social balance. The balance mechanism will only work properly when universally applied.

What extent must the disruption in our forest management reach to become an international climate justice concern?

It should be an international climate justice concern already, especially given that in the last 10 years our logging has been intensified by the EU-s renewable subsidies which are based on an erroneus assumption that burning wood instead of fossil fuels is a climate neutral and forward-thinking  alternative. Even the forests of the United States are suffering as a result of those subsidies, which are paradoxically shipped over the Atlantic to Western European electric stations. From our own forests more and more material leaves which would never have been logged without the subsidies as it would not have been profitable. 

Eastern Europe is not the most vulnerable region concerning climate change – we do not have to be faced with drastic disasters. Can we define where is Estonia located on scale of the climate justice?

One can conceptualize the scale in various manners. It could be either somewhere in the middle or a lot below still. I don’t see us that much as a global ‘maker’ of either equality or inequality, but rather a victim of the real policymakers. We are tailing with an unsustainable and destructive politics, trying to make it to the rich super-nation team, without understanding that we are actually being used by foreign capital, selling our resources on the cheap with no view to the future. 

According to the authors of an article „Environmental Justice and Sustainability in Post-Soviet Estonia“, Estonia has one of the largest ecological footprints in Europe (in the year 2010). What about today – in year 2019?

We are still number 2, just after Luxembourg, (some sources also put us first) and still largely because of our shale oil industry, though wood industry has ambitions to become the number one carbon emitter here.

What do you think about Estonian government – are they taking forest and other environmental problems seriously?

I think we don’t really differ much from the world’s average. Seems like power holders around the world understand that the measures needed are so far-reaching that they are incapable of enacting them, and thus they have selected the tactic of avoiding doing anything substantial. It also shows a disregard towards the crisis or a lack of imagination, as if the probable consequences of their inaction were clear to them, the rational response to the crisis would be to at least try to find solutions and admit that the situation is critical but instead we see general indifference and replacement activities in face of impending chaos.

Often, the excuse for deforestation is that it generates taxes for the state. Wealthier countries do not need to focus on economic returns. Do you feel that this causes environmental injustice in Estonia?

Once again, concerning forestry it is not precisely deforestation but biodiversity loss caused by over-intensive forest management.

Otherwise, there is some logic to the thought construction and I might have went along with a dialogue of that sort, but right now I have personally come to the conclusion that the intensity of our forestry is caused by the liberalization process of forestry, largely based on the Scandinavian model and not without the influence of Scandinavian industries themselves. It has been calculated many times that the non-timber products make more money in a year than the timber products, also the route of nature tourism has been rather unexplored by Estonia. Lastly, the citizens of Estonia should have a right to decide whether they want to exchange their natural resources against consumer products. Right now it seems that the public sentiment is that they would rather not do that. Also, the Estonian Cell pulp mill pays an effective tax rate of less than 7 per cent and employs less than a hundred people while dealing very considerable damage to our aspen biota. The pellet mills enjoy rather similar privileges. It may well be that Estonia would do better with another development strategy – but we never get to really “discuss” that.