Estonia is famous for its forests – but it may soon become famous for their destruction; across the country, the Estonian government is leading an extraordinary effort to cut down swaths of the country’s forests.
It’s a cold spring morning and I’m watching a tour guide in the Old Town of Tallinn. With her back to a park built on a city block destroyed in the Second World War and facing a set of medieval buildings not far from the old town square, head in a warm beanie, she’s explaining Estonia to a group of cruise ship tourists.
“Over 50 percent of Estonia is covered in trees”, she says. “Estonians have a great connection to nature. We feel it spiritually, and it’s common for us to visit the countryside or go for a walk in a forest or bog. We have one of the most forested countries in Europe and it’s very precious to us.”
I don’t interrupt to tell the tourists what’s really going on.
The forest is being cut down
The village of Lehetu lies about 50 kilometres (31 miles) south of Tallinn, a few kilometres off the highway. Dating back to 1241, it’s mostly known for the Saida farm, whose cheese can be found in supermarkets all over the country. Driving in, there’s a long road with forest on both sides. After turning a corner, the village opens up.
There is a car parts warehouse, oddly out of place, but then apartment buildings and a beautiful green common with a large oak and a lake in the middle. On the other side are picturesque wooden houses before the road changes to gravel and heads off into a mix of farms and forest. It’s a deeply forested area.
The dairy farm plus a few grain or canola fields are the only nearby industry, and cycling down the roads leading out of the village takes visitors to an abandoned wooden farmhouse where, in spring, a vast field of wild garlic grows under spruce trees. You can take another road through deep green forest to a spot where trees are covered in moss, resembling a scene out of “Lord of the Rings”, and if you continue cycling you will arrive at a small stream, brown with peat tannins, a pair of beavers living just upstream.
The Estonians who live in this area have a Facebook group where they share photos of wildlife. Trail cameras capture stags, wild boar, and the shy lynx. Sometimes, those who walk the road to the stream come across wolf prints, and once that of a bear.
This is the forest the tour guide is proud of. And it’s all being cut down.
Estonian connection to nature
The tour guide in Tallinn was right: Estonians do feel a deep connection to nature. Many Estonians moved to urban areas roughly one or two generations ago, thus many have family connections to the land. Many Estonian families have a “country house”, the wooden farmhouse their ancestors lived in, now shared among the children or grandchildren and visited often in summer.
Deep in the Estonian forest are the old places of spiritual connection, sacred boulders and sacred trees, both of which were central to Estonian religion before Christianity was brought to the country. Estonia was one of the last Christianised populations in the world, and it’s commonly reported as an atheist country. Instead, many Estonians consider themselves as spiritual, looking for connections with nature: maausklikud, “earth-believers”. Often centuries old, the land’s sacred trees are visited as a kind of pilgrimage.
In Lahemaa, the country’s most famous national park, I visited one sacred tree in summer 2020. Lying just off a small road, and with multiple tree-trunks grown as the one tree spread over time, it was covered in ribbons carefully tied to the branches.
But the connection to nature Estonians feel lies not only in ancestral spiritual tradition. Ignoring religion completely, Estonians visit nature regularly. When coronavirus hit, so many Estonians went hiking to get away from people that the forestry commission recorded overcrowded trails, so crowded that one article warned hikers to keep a safe distance to reduce risk of virus transmission – outdoors.
Many Estonians visit the forests during the warm months to pick mushrooms or berries, and the good spots for harvesting wild produce are often kept secret, handed down between family members or close friends.
In 2019, I was taken to one of these local spots, a forest near Lehetu. Built on land deep with peat, a kind of biomass key to carbon capture, birch and pine trees sheltered undergrowth solid with wild blueberry bushes and, for one week a year, the flowering of rare orchids. An hour with a blueberry picker – a kind of fork-like scoop designed to help harvest blueberries – resulted in a huge bucket of the berries and fingers stained a deep crimson from the juice.
By 2020, the forest, with its birch, pine, orchids and berries, was gone.
This isn’t the only forest around Lehetu to vanish. The final curve leading to the village had a field on one side, but thick trees on another: they too are gone. The forest deep with moss, one of the most beautiful spots I have seen in Estonian wilderness, vanished just within the past month.
Even in winter, during a week when temperatures hit minus 17 degrees Celsius, the sound of logging machines could be clearly heard on the weekend from Lehetu apartment windows, and I walked down to the road and took photos of piles of logs stacked in the snow.
There are no more blueberries, mushrooms or gently growing ancient mossy trunks near the village. Each one of the secret groves has been cut down to bare soil.
Biodiversity and modernity
It’s rare for countries in Europe to have so much forest. Countries further south, like Germany, have intensively used the land for centuries and retain only rare areas of old forest.
Estonia is unique for its amount of land still covered in trees. The Netherlands, a densely populated country, has just 17 percent of its land covered in trees; even Germany, larger and with more opportunity for preserving forest, has only a third of its area covered in either woodland or shrubland (ie, this percentage includes areas you would not view as forest).
Estonia has almost 60 percent of its land covered in forest or shrubland, with half being the amount popularly viewed as genuine forest, and this is reflected in its clean air – the WHO reports it as one of the top five countries with cleanest air in the world – and variety of wild creatures – almost the entire country is regarded as viable for bears, for example, with the animals once memorably even venturing into a suburb of the capital city, Tallinn.
With such diversity of creatures and unspoiled nature, it’s easy to view what makes Estonia unique as something it can afford to lose. Germany, one might argue, gets along just fine with most of its forest cut, with far fewer species, and with some cities’ air quality regularly rated “poor”. Opponents believe that this is not a goal that patriotically values or preserves the country’s unique elements, nor one that aligns with reducing carbon footprint and trying to address the climate problems or human impact we see today.
The view that forests are not something to preserve, but something to cut down and destroy, fits with the Estonian cultural climate. In many areas, Estonia is having conversations today that other countries had several decades ago: witness this popular Facebook group protesting the Tallinn city council’s planning infrastructure, which prioritises cars over public transport, pedestrian paths, or good cycling infrastructure; or protesting the urban environment that is continually built using visually unpleasant elements – even with Finland, a close cultural relative of Estonia only 80 kilometres (50 miles) away, providing an example of councils working towards urban beauty.
In these links, it is Estonians who push for modernism, not foreigners. And for all of us, native born or coming here and realising what a wonderful country it is, activism for making Estonia better or to retain what makes Estonia unique is built upon a love of the country, on wanting it to be the best it can be.
The attitude to forestry in the Estonian government is similar to the Tallinn city council’s attitude to the city. In the same way Tallinn’s apparently pro-car policies might seem to someone from outside Estonia a view better suited to the 1980s, the growth of logging and lack of preservation of wild land is a battle that has been fought for many decades in other spaces.
The green movement, now a familiar scope for activism in many countries, has its worldwide birth in Australia as recently as the 70s. Tasmania, the Australian state that hosted the birth of the green movement, and the place I was born, has some of the last remnants of Gondwanaland forest in the world. I grew up seeing extraordinary rainforest destroyed, hearing of trees that took several hundred years to mature cut for furniture, and seeing the growth of a population protesting the actions of a government made of the previous generation, one which viewed forest as something to use, not to preserve.
In Tasmania, 50 years of protests to preserve nature have become part of everyday thought. Bob Brown, one of the leaders of the Green movement and a family doctor, started his career spending time in prison for protests; he ended it a senator. Large areas of land are now protected.
This was the result of peaceful protest that gained headlines – protesters would chain themselves to machines, build platforms up in trees so they could not be cut down, and march through the city blocking traffic. Protesters were savvy – logging looks bad and they ensured photos were taken where the damage was unavoidably included in frame. Yet they were also willing to be charged and taken to court – and through that to risk their jobs, their houses and the complete loss of their normal lives – and to publicise it. These tactics worked due to the perseverance of peaceful civil disobedience and the willingness of those who cared about their country to go to jail to protect it.
Yet even after half a century of activism, decades of people arguing to protect their homeland, and many successes, old forests in Tasmania are still logged. Estonia, which is only beginning its anti-logging voice through groups like Eesti Metsa Abiks and Päästame Eesti Metsad, may have a long battle ahead. And in a small country like Estonia, there simply isn’t enough land area for a protracted battle. The grim reality is that if the logging companies can operate with impunity, there will no longer be any reason to protest.
“The average Estonian has a certain hesitation when it comes to holding a poster and being out there on the street. I had a kind of allergy when it came to demonstrations,” says Liina Steinberg, an Estonian who saw logging in her family home’s village and founded the Päästame Eesti Metsad [Save Estonian Forests] NGO in 2020, explaining how like many reserved Estonians she used to feel that activism was an alien activity.
“But at that point, what was happening in our forests and in the village where my family comes from was so bad that I overcame all these different hesitations and reluctances I had, and I was willing to put myself out there with my own name, everything. I was not very active on social media before I did that. I had several sleepless nights. But my red lines were crossed. What I saw was so bad.”
In response, Steinberg has received online and physical threats, including her car windows being broken. “But there’s more and more support”, she says. “There’s more awareness in our society, so I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Burning the forest
Much of the logging in Estonia is to support energy production. Cut trees are turned into pellets used for heating during winter. As recently as September 2021, the Estonian parliament, Riigikogu, bowed to pressure from those who want to use Estonia’s wood for heating in the form of the Electricity Market Act Amendment Bill promoting using “biomass”.
But Estonia’s forests don’t just heat Estonia. One of the main foreign consumers of heating pellets made from Estonian forest is the Netherlands. The Telegraaf, a popular newspaper, describes the Dutch government’s subsidies as “unleashing a predator in Nordic nature”. Yet that “predator” takes only 18 percent of Estonia’s wood pellet production: 65 percent of Estonia’s wood exports are burned to heat Denmark.
The relationship between countries that have been in the West for a long time and those who only recently escaped the Iron Curtain can be exploitative. Estonia’s minimum wage is a mere €654 per month; in the Netherlands, it is almost three times as much, at €1,725 per month.
Estonia often presents itself as a forward-looking country, and it is: with more “unicorn” startups per capita than anywhere else in Europe, and a remarkable IT infrastructure stemming from the Tiger Leap of tech education in the 90s, Estonia is taking control of its future far more than other countries with a comparable recent history.
“It is weird” notes Steinberg, “that when it comes to IT solutions like startups and e-residency, Estonians are extremely proud to be the first. But when it comes to simple steps like not logging trees while birds are nesting, for example, the general response is ‘why should we be the first?’ We are so proud to be the first in IT, but not to be the first in nature protection at a time of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
But while typical news articles – the product of an excellent PR campaign that brought over 100 journalists to the country in 2020 alone – present Estonia in these glowing high-tech terms, and expats living in Estonia rarely focus on the negatives of the country (perhaps seeing it as unpatriotic for their adopted land), to those living here it is a fortunate few who benefit from the vast amounts of money startups generate.
The average wage is less than even the minimum wage in a country like the Netherlands, and 20 percent of Estonians lived in risk of poverty in 2020. In his inauguration speech on 11 October 2021, Alar Karis, the new Estonian president, openly admitted that “Estonia’s success story has not reached everyone in the country”.
In such conditions, echoing a time-honoured tradition when there’s a power and economic imbalance between one country and another willing to pay them, with a rapid transition from a Soviet economy to the cowboy capitalism of the 90s which evolved into a society with a kind of money fetish and a clear tech worship, it’s understandable Estonia would look to its unique resources and consider destroying them in return for payment.
Recently, walking near Lehetu, I found a new area of forest being cut down. I took a photo, and the operator of the machine paused and asked if I was filming. “It’s not my land”, the machine operator said. “The farmer hired me. It’s my job.”
It’s true. It is his job. He probably can’t easily find another. The farmer who hired him simply sees an opportunity for money. And someone is willing to pay. From such ingredients is exploitation built.
War on Estonian nature
Alar Karis has spoken of the threat of climate change to the country: “…the clause in our constitution that stipulates everyone has a duty to preserve the living and natural environment has grown greater than Estonia’s own forests, lakes and soil. It is a matter of our entire planet’s survival.”
In 2020, entering some public forests were banned due to the danger of fire in a hot summer – the first time ever in a country saturated with water. Estonia faces more dangers to its nature than just logging.
On 8 December, the Estonian Forestry Development Plan 2021-2030 agreed on felling 10 million cubic metres of forest per year. Yet according to that article (in Estonian), Estonia needs to cut at least a third less forest than that to preserve biodiversity, or to meet its carbon dioxide sequestration goal.
The national park Lahemaa is beloved by Estonians and tourists alike. Within it, residents are allowed minimal tree cutting. Forestry companies are now able to buy the rights to forest within the national park and then combine and exploit the rights intended for residents to log hectares of the old forest. On Facebook, one can see many photos of the old forest of Lahemaa cut and stacked into logs next to the road.
Yet there are hints that there is something worse in the governmental bodies than mere bad management or conflicts of interest.
Laws safeguarding supposedly “protected” nature reserves have been steadily weakened. The rules allowing national parks to be cut were introduced several years ago. Unlike countries which have ministries dedicated to the environment, in Estonia the same government institution (the RMK, State Forest Management Centre) is responsible both for protecting the forest and for allowing it to be cut. At best, it’s hard to avoid concluding a clear conflict of interest.
In mid-2021, the director-general of the Environmental Board paused forestry during the period that birds use the trees to nest. Forestry companies pressured the government minister. Shortly after, the director general was no longer present at the Environmental Board, leaving “at his own wish”.
Another Facebook post shows photos of clear-felled forest near the Soomaa National Park, cut down to the earth. The forest was, oddly, classified as meadow. Logging it, therefore, was not a violation of the law, and the machines cutting down the trees were simply mowing.
In August 2021, land belonging to the city of Tartu was cut down without permission. Citizens nearby repeatedly brought the logging to the attention of the Environmental Board. The board, through an eventual investigation, found that land was cut, but according to the board the diameter of the trees cut were not able to be determined, and therefore the damage could not be ascertained. In fact, the board was even unable to measure the depth of the marks left, simply because they contained water. Anecdotally, this kind of response is typical.
In July 2021, both the Estonian Public Broadcasting and Postimees, a private media outlet, reported on the Ministry of the Environment and the State Forest Management Centre “misleading” the public. The European Commission initiated court proceedings against Estonia for logging forest in protected areas. 15,000 hectares of protected forest have been destroyed in the past 20 years. But this court case will take years, perhaps decades, to resolve in terms of forcing government action.
That 15,000 hectares of government-approved cutting is in supposedly protected natural areas. Unprotected land can effectively be cut at will.
The pattern of having the same government body responsible for preservation and exploitation, of changing laws to allow cutting protected land, to slowly investigate issues, to fail to be able to determine damage, and to have staff leave after industry pressure points to a poison deep in the Estonian government.
“Our natural environment… is unique in Europe. This is a resource we are not yet conscious of, that we more often than not still have to learn to use [and] we could make huge and incorrigible mistakes when looking for immediate profit.
“Let us be masters in our own country, not avaricious colonists, who leave a ravaged country behind them… The export of raw timber is a sign of a bad master. If we add the wasted felling areas and damaged ecosystem, we can see that there is not much left of our advantages,” the late Estonian president, Lennart Meri, said in a speech on 24 February 2000.
That was 22 years ago. The president’s words have not been heard.
Lehetu: the village without leaves
Lehetu is a village I’ve spent a lot of time in. Surrounded by fields and forest, with deer, foxes and hares visible on any walk, the dug-dirt signs of boar when wandering among the trees, and even the footprints of wolves and bears seen by a few lucky residents, it is representative of Estonia outside the cities most of us see.
There are still trees between the fields. You can drive through and see forest there, mixed with clear-felled plots of land. Yet every one of the forest places I valued, those places of berries, moss and beauty, are now gone – and it happened fast, in less than a year. Each one will take decades to regrow.
In Estonian, “Lehetu” translates to “without leaves”. I used to find this a funny name: completely inappropriate to the reality of a village where it was a pleasure to walk in nature. But today, in the country where tour guides boast to believing tourists of their forest, the village without leaves is now truly becoming leafless.