We need a fundamental rethink of land ownership and value

Coillte’s deal with a multinational asset company spotlights bigger questions about the role of semi-state bodies here and the centrality of land within efforts to address climate change 
We need a fundamental rethink of land ownership and value

The deal with Gresham House hopes to raise €200m in investment capital, and will see the semi-state purchase and manage 123,000 acres of land in Ireland on behalf of international investors.

This month, Coillte announced the ‘Irish Strategic Forestry Fund,’ a deal with multinational asset management company Gresham House.

The deal, which has attracted investors including Ireland’s own sovereign development fund, hopes to raise €200m in investment capital, and will see the semi-state purchase and manage 123,000 acres of land in Ireland on behalf of international investors.

While on the surface this represents a private ‘investment’ towards achieving Ireland’s Climate Action Plan, Coillte’s deal with Gresham House spotlights bigger questions about the role of semi-state bodies in Ireland and the centrality of land within efforts to address climate change and biodiversity loss.

The Coillte/Gresham House partnership calls to mind the development strategies of another semi-state with an enormous land bank and a renewed ‘green’ remit: Bord na Móna.

Both organisations trace their large land banks to post-Second World War Irish state development strategies to build resource and industrial independence, tied into national ideologies surrounding the centrality of rural land and culture to burgeoning Irish modernity.

Today, these semi-states are responsible for 7% and 1% of the Republic’s land mass, respectively.

The 1980s marked an important shift in the organisation and operations of Ireland’s semi-state bodies.

Coillte established as a commercial, semi-state company in 1988. The aim was to put forestry on a commercial footing, responding to criticism that it was not market-oriented enough. 

From its outset, Coillte sought to make forestry profitable, not just for small farmers but for institutional investors such as pension funds.

Bord na Móna over-expanded in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis and found itself under financial pressure in the 1980s. 

In response, Eddie O’Connor was installed as chief executive director in 1987 with the intention of making the peat industry more competitive. 

Mr O’Connor’s measures, which included cutting the workforce by 50%, could not halt the decline of the industry, which also faced early pressures of society-wide decarbonisation efforts.

Rebranded as 'green'

From the 1990s, Coillte and Bord na Móna entered an era of EU-led economic liberalisation and competition, bringing with them huge land banks that had been acquired during a period of state-led national development.

Over the past decade both have rebranded themselves as ‘green’ companies, advertising ‘land solutions’ and ‘climate solutions’ respectively to address climate change and biodiversity loss.

The ‘green’ conversion of these two semi-states is significant as both have historically been associated with environmentally damaging extractive activities. 

Coillte's so-called 'forest assets' now also relate to the value of atmospheric carbon stored by trees.
Coillte's so-called 'forest assets' now also relate to the value of atmospheric carbon stored by trees.

But, while this rebranding appears to break with the past, what hasn’t changed is the commercial requirement to make these new activities profitable.

Coillte’s ‘forest assets,’ as they refer to them, are no longer just about the value of timber, but the value of atmospheric carbon stored by trees. 

Creating new forestry has thus become a cornerstone of EU and Irish climate strategy. 

The target of 17% tree cover by 2030 (compared to 12% today) is key to explaining the Gresham House investment — private finance is seen as the quickest way of meeting EU climate commitments, and investment funds are keen to invest in ‘sustainable’ projects.

Coillte partnerships

As well as investment funds, Coillte has also partnered with multinational companies, including in 2015 selling an Athenry woodland to Apple for the (now aborted) construction of an €85m data centre. 

Coillte has also developed several wind farms on its land and in 2021 partnered with ESB as FuturEnergy to expand their wind holdings.

Bord na Móna is delivering ‘climate solutions’ on its land bank primarily through the development of alternative energy. BnM opened its first wind farm in 1992.

Today,Bord na Móna owns six wind farms and is expanding its capacity in the Midlands with over a hundred planned turbines. 

It also looks to sell land assets as development opportunities, including through its ‘Energy Park’ model, intended to incorporate renewable generation, energy storage, and ‘large energy users’ like data centres in multi-purpose complexes stretching across former industrial holdings.

While currently under-developed, peatland carbon sequestration will also grow in importance as state strategies for carbon markets advance. 

As with Coillte, this carbon offsetting and storage market promises financial returns for Bord na Móna.

In this way of managing and promoting land assets, Coillte and Bord na Móna have become ‘asset management’ companies, their green governance strategies inseparable from the interests of energy companies, tech companies, and investors looking to diversify their portfolios. 

Contradictions

While presented by successive Irish Governments (and the EU) as a ‘win-win’ for the environment and the economy, this market-led strategy lies at the heart of many of the contradictions we see arising within biodiversity and climate policy, particularly as experienced in rural areas.

The anger and controversy surrounding the Coillte/Gresham House deal is rooted in a fundamental contradiction between the kinds of sustainable forests that environmental groups and local communities want versus the high-yield interest bearing plantations that investors want.

Coillte claims 20% of its forestry is managed with biodiversity as an objective. 

However, this is disputed by environmental groups who do not even recognise Coillte’s sitka spruce plantations as ‘forests.’ 

Groups such as Save Leitrim and the Woodland League have campaigned for years against state- and Coillte-led afforestation projects, highlighting the ecological damage caused by sitka plantations.

The social impacts, including social isolation, loss of light for those living beside plantations, and depopulation caused by inflated land prices and the displacement of small farmers, are not being addressed due to an inaccessible and top-down forestry system. 

Residents are increasingly losing a say in the future of the places they live and work.

Bord na Móna's story is similar, as contradictions arise between just transition commitments and the large-scale infrastructural projects planned for and built on cutaway bog. 

Wind farms and data centres do not offer sustained employment or local development opportunities.

Environmental contradictions also arise as large industrial infrastructures are incompatible with requirements to rehabilitate and re-wet cutaway bogs.

Alternatives do exist

Alternatives do exist in both forestry and peatland management. 

Environmental and community groups propose agroforestry and sustainable farming as a way to encourage holistic, regenerative land-uses sensitive to bog landscapes and the needs of local communities. 

In the Midlands, local development and community organisations seek to promote eco-tourism and develop local amenities based on industrial heritage and bog restoration, such as Lough Boora Discovery Park. 

The problem (for Bord na Móna and Coillte) is that these projects don’t yield any return on investment. Sequestering carbon, supporting communities, and encouraging biodiversity is not enough — they need saleable assets.

Climate action and responsibility filtered through a lens of multinational investment and large-scale, carbon-centred projects do not typically align with what people who live in these places care about or what is most ecologically appropriate. 

We are faced with the recurring problem that profit, mapped onto large-scale climate considerations, is held as the essential factor over livelihoods and biodiversity.

Coillte’s deal with the Gresham Fund has rightly been criticised by opposition parties, ENGOs, and community groups. 

But as we have illustrated, the deal is the logical outcome of state environmental policy which seeks to meet quantifiable climate targets by turning land into a series of bankable ‘green’ assets.

We need to understand the centrality of land within these climate finance politics.

Who owns the land? What is the land for? Who benefits from the land? These are old questions that return with new urgency and significance in the context of climate change. 

A truly just transition will require fundamentally re-thinking land ownership and value. 

One way or another, the semi-states responsible for managing hundreds of thousands of hectares on our behalf will be a key part of that.

Dr Patrick Bresnihan is lecturer in the Geography Department, Maynooth University

Dr Patrick Brodie is lecturer (Ad Astra Fellow) in the School of Information and Communication Studies, UCD

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