Zoning could be key to the future of forestry, said Commissioner Phil Hogan speaking this week in the European Parliament.
The commissioner was speaking after MEP for the Midlands North West, Matt Carthy, raised the "failure" of Irish forestry policy at the Parliament’s Agriculture & Rural Development committee.
Speaking after the hearing, Carthy said: “The EU states as its main principles for forestry is that they serve environmental, social & economic purposes.
“Irish forestry policy, if you would be generous enough to call it a strategy, doesn’t address these three criteria. Having worked with communities, particularly in the West of Ireland, that have borne the brunt of forestry expansion I’d go so far as to say that it fails on all three counts.
“Environmentally the concentration of non-native Sitka Spruce plantations, that are regularly clear-felled and often planted in peat bogland areas often means that they actually harm the environment.
“The incentives provided by government and organisations such as the EIB to the private sector results in huge levels of land-grabbing and the transfer of land ownership from local communities to multi-national corporations, meaning that the forests are socially damaging. This further means that any economic benefit does not accrue to the communities in which the forests are planted. In essence this means that Irish forestry policy is an outright failure."
Commissioner Hogan accepted that there are concerns over forestry, especially in Leitrim,
"I think the planning process has to play a greater role in zoning particular areas that are appropriate - I think in the future this is one way of looking at how we can target areas that are appropriate for forestry.
Commissioner Hogan called for "investments" to be "more ordered and structured" and for appropriate "governance structure".
He added: "Forestry is not suitable for everywhere, certainly if it has a high level of concentration."
Matt Carthy MEP continued by outlining the current position where planning is not required for forestry in Ireland.
“It was interesting that, in his reply to me, Commissioner Hogan stated that the planning process should be utilised in order to address these concerns. But, at present, planning permission for afforestation in Ireland is not required for plantations under 50 hectares. This makes up the bulk of plantations and has led to private entities purchasing peat bogland, which otherwise should be contributing to carbon sequestration, in order to plant large, commercial plantations.
He continued: “My Sinn Féin colleague, Martin Kenny TD, has proposed legislation to ensure that planning permission would be required for any plantation over 5 hectares. The government supporting parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael must put on the record their support of this move as one important part of the substantial changes in Forestry policy that is required.
“Regional development cannot take place independently of public policy tools that include community consultation and proper zoning. If forests are to serve the environment and the social and economic needs of our communities then a radical rethink is required. That rethink must begin now”.