6 May 1999 Edition
EU is funding the depopulation of Leitrim
Councillors need to do battle for additionality and development
``One hundred years ago, there were 5,000 people living in Drumshambo. Now there are 800.''
That has been the story of Leitrim: no viable livelihood on the land, no jobs, forestry relentlessly creeps over the villages, closing them down: the rivers run sour from acid of spruce trees, fish die, lakes are polluted, young people leave for bigger towns and other countries, leaving no young families. Shops, facilities, schools close, houses fall into disrepair, social life in the towns disappears and a community dies. ``Everyone in Connaught knows this story,'' says Hugh James Gallagher.
Hugh James is following in the footsteps of his father, John Gallagher, who along with John Joe McGirl, as young men in the 1960s, went in to Leitrim Council to do battle for the county.
``But things have moved on'', says Hugh James. ``In those days, land sold for £4 an acre. Now it is between £1,500 and £2,000. And then there were 150,000 people in the county; now there are 25,000. Our life in Leitrim, as generations have known it, is dying.''
Most people blame the forestry. In the days of the old Land Commission, it was possible for farmers to stop the planting of trees. Farmers in the congested areas needed the land for viable farming, and the commission was in a position to redistribute the land to them. That put a stop to encroachments from forestry.
But then Fianna Fáil governments ran down the Land Commission and neglected to redistribute the land to farmers who needed it. Thereafter, if a farmer stood in the way of forestry, he could be subjected to court injunction which rendered him liable to costs incurred through delay in planting by the forestry. No farmer could afford that risk.
Robbed of legal means to oppose the forestry, farmers resorted to illegal means, but in the end, the trees came in, and the people moved out.
But it wasn't just the trees which came in. It was investors who bought up the land at prices which local farmers could not afford, which, as Hugh James explains, brought Leitrim back to the days of the absentee landlords once more.
New absentee landlords
The main absentee landlord is Coillte, the semi-state forestry company, along with Irish Woodland, and Greenbelt, and a relative newcomer to the field, the Irish Forestry Unit Trust, (IFUT) which is a joint venture company set up with Coillte, Allied Irish Bank Investment Managers and Irish Life in 1994.
The EU wanted farmers out of cattle and sheep, because of overproduction and because it costs the Germans too much to keep them in it. Consequently the EU, in the 1990s, offered considerable support to forestry.
There are forestry grants of £1,800 per hectare which cover all the costs of drainage, planting and fencing. In addition, there is a annual grant of £115 per hectare, pledged until 2025, which was specifically intended to compensate farmer-owners, those ``practising farming as a main occupation'', for the loss of revenue on planted land for the 30 years until the trees reached maturity. The EU funds 75% of this money. The residue is funded by the Government.
Misappropriation of EU funds
So forestry became a very profitable investment. Coillte and other forestry investment companies are drawing down not only the planting grants, but also the annual acreage grant, which was intended for the small farmers. Coillte, according to Minister Woods last year, received £30.9 million in EU funding over the previous five years, and a further £13.8 million was awarded to investors.
Altogether since the introduction of the CAP forestry programme seven years ago, Coillte has received £225 million in planting grants and a further £47 million in annual premium payments, according to James O'Grady of the Waterford IFA Forestry section.
Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) complained to the European Court of Auditors last April. They invited the EU Court of Auditors to investigate the take up of these funds by investors, rather than by the small farmers the funds were meant to assist.
Last week, Joe Higgins, TD asked Minister Woods if the department had received any enquiry into the allocation of this funding, from the EU Court of Auditors. The minister replied that `he didn't know of any'.
``Isn't that amazing, one year down the road after the original complaint. Misleading the Dáil is a serious misdemeanour,'' comments Tony Lowes of FIE.
Declan Kennedy, the IFUT fund's promoter, a Mayo man from Seanvalleybeag, who won an Entrepreneur of the Year award for his forestry endeavours, boasts that a once off £500 investment in the unit trust should bring back a tax free return in the region of £17,000 in 30 years. Depending on the rate of inflation, he offers a projected return of 14.4% tax free per annum, according to an advertisement for investors headed ``Making Ireland's Natural Resources Work For You''.
But whoever `You' refers to, Leitrim people don't think it was them.
No planned development
``It's not the trees that people object to,'' says Owen Carron, who teaches in a one teacher school with 17 kids, which 20 years ago had 60 kids, and 100 years ago 180. ``It is not so much the trees, it's the fact that they are all Sitka spruce. It is a mono-culture. This is not afforestation, it's plantation.''
``No one asked us who live around here what we wanted. Why didn't the local council talk to us about a plan for forestry - what trees to plant, where, how, and how to cut them down. Nor was there an integrated plan for downstream small industry for the area. The council has let us down badly. Why did they let Coillte and outside investors plant Leitrim over our heads?''
The needles from the pines make the run-off into the lakes and rivers acid. It kills the fauna. The only animals living under spruce are vermin: magpies, crows and foxes. The phosphates used to run off into the lakes and cause algae, destroying the fish population. ``When I was a boy, you'd get six or eight trout out of a stream here. Now you'd get none,'' says Johnny McAuley, a director of the Leitrim Partnership.
Owen goes on: ``The problem is that they have no overall plan that respects other development, still less the environment. Now they are going for good land. Recently two good farms, 120 acres of good red soil, at Aghacashel, went to the forestry, which increasingly is looking to buy up better land, because it is widely said that 20% of their planting has failed,'' a point confirmed by Tony Lowes of FIE
But of course they do have a plan of sorts - its Mansholt's plan to plant the West of Ireland with fast-growing trees. Sitka Spruce grow three times faster in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe, and timber products are the largest EU import after oil. Ireland is only 9% afforested, whereas the European average is 31%. Leitrim is 12% forested and they want to get this up to at least 20%.
Teagasc reckons that at least 1.5 million hectares (22% of our land) here is marginal for agriculture, and envisages increasing forestry acreage to 1.2 million hectares at least, from its 600,000 hectares at present, 400,000 hectares of which are controlled by Coillte.
Plantation not planned forestry
According to EU figures, Ireland is the worst achiever in terms of environmentally balanced planting, with only 20% broadleaf species as opposed to some countries like Italy and the Netherlands, which have 95% broad leaf. The EU Commission has already begun proceedings against Ireland on foot of a complaint by Ray Monahan, from Ballyseedy, County Kerry, that Ireland is in breach of the EU convention on biodiversity.
Coillte, however, in an internal report last year, states that there has been nothing wrong in the 400,000 hectares of forestry they administer - ``the only thing which needs changed is our Public Relations.''
But to talk about broadleaf trees is to get away from seeing forestry as plantation with a high economic return in the short run, and a product only useful for posts and pulp. Instead, it is to talk about downstream, highly labour intensive, often small scale industry such as furniture manufacturing, which ironically, at the moment, has to import its timber. It is to talk about people and their land, and not about tax-free financial returns to absentee landlords - the financiers and pension and insurance-fund managers.
Alternatives for development
``Look'' says Hugh James, pointing out across the beautiful Lough Allen, with the Sliebh Anierin behind, where iron was first mined back in Celtic times. ``Look at the potential for tourist development around the lough - but there is nothing. Not so much as a mooring, a shop, a pub, or a restaurant. There is a 10th Century monastery on the island. No one goes there.
``The lough could be full of fish. The ESB owns all the fishing rights of the Shannon lakes, but what are they doing with them? Where is the eel project that the ESB investigated back in the 1970s. As many people will tell you, there is good money to be made in eels. As things are, they are processed in Holland. Why not in Leitrim?'' Hugh James asks.
The lough can be reached directly from Carrick. ``Waterside development, a marina, which people from Drumshambo and Drumkeerin have been fighting for these years, imagine what this could do for these towns, which at present are dying on their feet?''. And Hugh James shows the line of shop fronts in Drumkeeran which are closed down, and empty.
``Sinn Féin fought hard, along with others, for these border counties to get Objective 1 status within the EU, to secure the higher funding levels which the impoverishment of these border regions and Western counties need. But what good is it if the funds are not spent for the benefit of the people, the development of the county, but instead are used to fund of financiers, pension and insurance funds, `investing' in the county to its detriment? It makes no sense.''
Additionality needs strong local government
``It's the principle of additionality, that the additional EU funding should be spent in this region and not be used to susbtitute for existing government funding. And that this funding be spent, not on planting the county for the benefit of financiers, but to develop viable livelihoods for the people who live here, and want to stay.''
As Seán MacManus, Sinn Féin's candidate for the European elections in Connaught/Ulster has often said, to ensure that these funds are really spent on the projects which could develop our regions will take strong EU representation and strong local government. ``Local government has failed this area. Let us hope that the present band of councillors, who never wanted to rock any boats, take their scrappage deal offered to councillors and bow out, and leave the field to those who are determined to see the development of this region.''
``Nevermind about rocking boats, and rocking chairs, what we want to do is to see some boats up here,'' comments Hugh-James.
And there is no doubt that he is right. ``You have only to look at Manorhamilton, or Carrick, and how they have benefitted from development of tourism. As it is, there isn't a hotel in North county Leitrim which can accommodate the tourist parties who want to visit for an open-air holiday, with fishing, boating and country walks - all of which this area can offer if only the funding was channelled into the region to develop the essential services and facilities for sustainable development.''
Johnny McAuley has worked hard on the partnership's community committee over the years and has helped many small village community groups to get off the ground. ``What have we achieved?'' he asks. ``Perhaps not big development projects, but these small groups have empowered people. They won't sit by any longer and accept the decimation of their towns, their county.''
Battle for development
Hugh James, like his father before him, is ready for battle on the council. The battle is for the survival of Leitrim itself.
``Leitrim is often called the jewel in the crown. It is a county of contradictions.'' Johnny sums it up. Leitrim has the highest suicide rate of any county in Ireland, but it also has the highest percentage of its population engaged in third-level education. These are our resources: the land and the people. This is the source of change to come if democracy reigns and people do battle.''