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The Haanja Forest: Estonia's Logging Problem - Mihael Gubas

The strictest natural forest reserve in Estonia is uncontrollably cutting down the forest that is home to 29 protected animal species. Yet, instead of criminal prosecutions of perpetrators, this logging occurs quite legally, thanks to loose European regulations that in 2015 allowed wood to be included in biomass combustion and all categorized as green and ecological bio-practice. This futile European attempt to demonstrate concern for man and nature was to be a way to end the use of coal. But when green reforms in one of the world's richest unions are carried out "cheaply", without providing the technology and infrastructure for a green transition, the results are generally the opposite of what is desired.

The problem of uncontrolled deforestation has become an increasing problem in recent years, certainly in the Balkans, and now we find out that it is the same in Estonia. But this is a problem that is poorly talked about in the general public. There is no information in the media because everyone involved in the story does not want to stand in front of journalists, and a lot of it is legal. Part of it is also illegal and extremely harmful to everyone. Trees are being cut along, and across Europe, especially the eastern countries, and organizations that are supposed to protect and maintain forests are also allegedly involved in illegal logging.

The forest in question is Hannja in the southern county of Võru, the strictest nature reserve in Estonia, protected by all European reference directives and regulations of the NATURA 2000. Simultaneously with the protection, incentives are being developed for biomass, and thus for its cheapest form: wood that is exported to Denmark, the Netherlands, Great Britain, etc., where it is processed into pellets and sold as a green and publicly subsidized clean alternative coal. According to some data, half of the felled wood from Estonia and Lithuania is exported to the three countries.

In 2015, the Estonian government allowed logging in certain parts of the Haanja Nature Reserve by adjusting park conservation rules to allow logging of up to one hectare at a time in some nature reserves. According to the Guardian, in the field, "the practice involves removing entire areas of mature forest and removing entire trees." And the permitting of logging came after a jump in international demand for Estonian wood, which was preceded by the adoption of European renewable energy policies.

Protected areas are governed by the legally binding provisions of the 1979 EU Birds Directive and the 1992 Habitats Directive. But logging is regulated by domestic law, and Estonia allows it until it damages swamps and other special habitats or falls during the mating season of birds, writes the Guardian. Environmentalists and activists trying to protect the area point out that "Estonia, by allowing intensive deforestation of Natura 2000 sites, violates the Habitats Directive and undermines the EU's climate goals." The non-profit Estonian Nature Fund (ELF) believes that "there is a direct link between subsidized growth in the biomass industry driven by EU renewable energy policies and the increasingly rapid and unsustainable deforestation of the Baltic forests." The Council of Estonian Environmental NGOs (EKO) has lodged a complaint with the European Commission alleging that Estonia has breached its forest conservation obligations.

Condition research has shown that tree felling accelerated after 2015. "Across Estonia, between 2001 and 2019, Natura 2000 sites lost more than 15,000 hectares (37,000 hectares) of forest cover, an area more than twice the size of Manhattan. The last five years make up 80% of that loss. To make matters worse, further rule changes are planned in other Estonian national parks," writes the Guardian.

The consequences of these practices have already caused a cascading effect: "this acceleration seems to take a toll on bird species such as black grouse, woodpeckers, and others. According to national records, forest birds are declining at a rate of 50,000 breeding pairs per year." But this is not the only harm, as logging reduces the capacity of Baltic forests to store carbon and could undermine climate targets by reducing the chances of Estonia and Latvia achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

EU subsidies for renewable energy have boosted the economy, so there is now an entire EU-funded economic supply and demand chain that, instead of increasing the continent's resilience to climate change, has the opposite effect. The problem of the European Union is, in fact, the only one, and it materializes through the negative effects of European regulations in countless ways, limited only to the human imagination to overturn the rules. That problem is visible in this example as well.

No matter what EU rules are adopted, they are always so principled that their transposition into local legislation does not have to be carried out in the spirit of the law. Because how else can it be explained that according to European rules, forests are both protected and cut down.


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