ALL WHO work in the forest industry have spent the past few weeks wondering where the future lies. The recently published document of investment priorities by the Department of Finance has left everyone reeling at the scale of the cutbacks.
Over the years we have become accustomed to double talk from politicians but not since the Mahon Tribunal have we witnessed the presentation of spin and disinformation on such a scale. I doubt even Bertie Ahern would have had the neck to try and present such shocking figures as being good news.
The text of the document speaks glowingly of how agriculture and forestry will expand and thrive under the generous capital investment programme and then, without even an explanation or an apology, the tables of figures relate a very different tale of what is in store.
There is a total disconnect between the claims made for the future of agriculture and forestry and the actual monies to be allocated. The hard facts are that the barely adequate current annual spend for forestry of €104 million is to be reduced further, down to €89 million in 2011 and to €84 million for each of the remaining five years to 2016. That is a reduction of €20 million a year so one wonders how the commitment to plant 10,000ha a year is to be achieved. It is worth looking at what the Department of Finance is saying as opposed to what they are actually doing.
It states: "Forestry has made a strong contribution to climate change mitigation and forests planted since the 1990s have had a significant impact in offsetting national green house gas emissions and obviating the need to purchase carbon credits. In economic terms, the output of the forestry sector was valued at €1.8bn in 2008 and there are 16,000 people employed in the sector, predominately in rural areas."
This clearly acknowledges the economic value of forestry and, in particular, its value as a job creator in rural Ireland yet they now propose to cripple this thriving industry that is handsomely repaying all funding.
Unlike our semi-state industries, forestry is delivering an excellent return to the exchequer yet gets its funding slashed while our Government continues to prop up the semi states and waste billions on an overstaffed and inefficient public sector. If the support schemes for roading and tending/thinning of broadleaves go, this will cut off supplies of thinnings to the pulp mills, the sawmills and the wood fuel industry. If the funding for planting and maintenance are reduced it will further ensure the neglect of established plantations and a consequent loss of the raw materials which replace costly imports of construction timber and biomass. These measures will also halt afforestation and bankrupt nurseries that have invested on the back of earlier Government promises.
One of the few good news stories right now is that the timber trade is booming.
To cater for this demand and the needs of our sawmills we are currently importing sawlog from Scotland. Wood fuel is also being imported into Ireland from Eastern Europe, Canada, Portugal and even Namibia, all of which could be produced profitably here at home. Growing our own timber is the perfect, sustainable, renewable means of producing the raw materials for construction and fuel. Using wood fuel is about as "green" as it gets but we are told that funding is to be concentrated on developing the "smart" economy. What's smart about transferring funding from a sector that is paying its way and creating prosperity to one that is largely aspirational and unproven? We all know we must reduce spending and borrowing and we cannot deny the need for research and development but we must focus our limited spending on areas that give a real return in terms of wealth creation and employment. As a nation we are still living way beyond our means and we must concentrate on sustaining the productive and profitable sectors and eliminating wasteful spending. This will take courage and leadership but, unfortunately, governments tend to follow public opinion rather than lead. How bad does a recession have to get before the same public opinion demands some efficiency and accountability?
Getting rid of most of the senate would be a start. How many senators can you name? I can only think of three, namely Fergal Quinn, Shane Ross and David Norris, who undoubtedly earn their keep. I would rather not think about Ivor Callelly.
Like all self-employed people I receive no travel or phone allowances. Because of this I spend the minimum necessary on these costs. Maybe our TDs, semi-state industry bosses and all civil servants on inflated wages could start doing the same.