Sweden had to reverse privatisation of State forestry, expert says

Scandinavian state’s experience a “mistake” ahead of Cabinet’s decision on Coillte’s harvesting rights

As the Cabinet moves closer to a decision on the sale of Coillte’s harvesting rights, a Swedish forestry expert has outlined how his country had to reverse its privatisation of State woodlands.

Failure of industry to take responsibility for regeneration of forestry was one of the main reasons for the recognition that privatisation had been a mistake, Mr OlOf Johannson, vice-president of Sveaskog, told The Irish Times . .

Threats to the public’s right of access to forestry was also a factor, he said, even though right of access is guaranteed to both public and privately owned woodland under Swedish law.

Mr Johannson, who was speaking at wilderness conference hosted by Coillte this week in Westport, Co Mayo, said that he was not in a position to give advice to the Government on a proposed sale of harvesting rights here.


However, the experience of privatisation in the 1990s in the Scandinavian state where forestry is a major natural resource had been negative, and the buyback in 2001 cost the taxpayer, he said.

The sale of some 65 per cent of nationally owned forest holding and associated industry was completed in 1993 when it was floated on the stock market, with almost half of the shares being retained in State hands, he explained.

When the buyback took place in 2001 and 100 per cent State ownership was restored, a new company, Sveaskog, was established, similar to Coillte here, he said.

Sveaskog manages 4.5 million hectares of land, of which 3.4 million hectares is productive forest,and is a leading supplier of sawlogs, pulpwood and fuel, with annual sales of 6 billion Swedish kroner.

The move back to State control helped to create a better balance on the timber market, he said, and provided an opportunity for responsible environmental management and protection of heritage areas – which had suffered during the privatisation years.

“Separating land ownership from the right to harvest [ as proposed for Coillte] has occurred in some countries, but there is always a risk in terms of best management of new forest,”Mr Johannson said.

“If you sell the concession to harvesting, no one takes responsibility for regeneration and replanting,”he said.

Mr Johannson was one of a number of international speakers at the Coillte wilderness conference, which was held in partnership with the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht and Mayo County Council.

Coillte and the department recently signed a memorandum of understanding that designated some 11,000 hectares in the Nephin Beg range of west Mayo as Ireland’s first wilderness area.

The Cabinet may make a decision as early as next week on the Coillte issue, amid growing opposition. Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte recently told the Dáil that the "mooted privatisation of Coillte looks more unlikely every day".

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times