Former MEP, Minister Sari Essayah to the EU: ’Forest issues should not be approached ”through the back door”’

2.11.2023 / Article
Sari Essayah
Appointed in June as Finland’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Sari Essayah is also known as a former racewalker with one World Championship and one European Championship under her belt. Photo: Vilma Issakainen / Finnish Forest Association

’Finnish forest management could serve as a model,’ says Sari Essayah, former Member of European Parliament and newly appointed Minister of Agriculture and Forestry.

Finnish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Sari Essayah (Christian Democrats) suggests that other European countries should model themselves on how Finland and Sweden manage their forests.

’I have done my best to introduce to the EU decision-makers the idea that they should observe how Finland does it. I don’t know if it’s too self-satisfied to say this, but unfortunately, the forests in many European countries are in poor shape. To some extent, they have been destroyed through ill-considered policy,’ says Essayah, MEP for Finland in 2009–2014, when interviewed by

’The postwar forestry in Finland is a success story and the basis of our national economy. In addition, we do have protected nature and national parks. Everyone’s rights enable all citizens to enjoy a hike in the forests, for example,’ Essayah says.

It is generally known that Finland’s forest resources have increased continuously for about the past 50 years.

Joint statement by For Forest group

A year ago, four EU Member States with extensive forests – Finland, Sweden, Austria and Slovenia – set up the informal partnership For Forest, to defend the national forestry of each country. In September, the group published a joint statement stressing the importance of the subsidiarity principle in EU decision-making.

’Increasing the understanding on forests is a crucial way of exerting an influence in the EU. In this way, we can ensure the sustainability of forestry and provide solutions to carbon binding and climate change,’ Essayah says.

Increasing the understanding on forests is a crucial way of exerting an influence in the EU. In this way, we can ensure the sustainability of forestry and provide solutions to carbon binding and climate change.

One of the EU-related matters of national importance to Finland is the nature restoration regulation, on which the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission are conducting a trilogue.

The nature restoration regulation, an element of the EU’s biodiversity strategy, falls under the remit of the Ministry of the Environment in Finland, but Essayah says she is keeping track of the discussions. One point of particular interest is whether restoration measures on Natura 2000 sites will be included, as was voted by the European Parliament – and as Finland would like.

’Though it’s immediately clear that the combined area of the Natura sites won’t be enough, but they would help. What is crucial for Finland is to reduce the cost of restoration,’ Essayah says.

According to an estimate published earlier in the year by Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), the nature restoration regulation would cause an expenditure of EUR 13–19 thousand million by 2050 (about EUR 500 million per year) to Finland, and the area to be restored comes up to 2–6 million hectares.

In comparison, Germany, with 15 times the population of Finland, is anticipating a TAI: AN ANNUAL cost of only EUR 190 million, while Belgium and Austria are looking to have to pay about EUR 65 million.

Forest ownership in Finland is shared among many more owners than in many other European countries. The number of private forest owners is over 600,000. The protection of valuable forest sites is supported by the state through the Forest Biodiversity Programme for Southern Finland (Metso)  and the Helmi habitats programme, and the Government plans to allocate more money for these.

’Protection must be based on voluntary action by land owners,’ says Essayah.

The aim of the Metso programme is to halt the decline of forest biotopes and forest species. Measures under the Helmi programme include, among others, restoration of mires, improving the condition of sites important for aquatic birds and maintenance of traditional biotopes.

Effective presence in EU discussed in Finland

Essayah was appointed as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry in Prime Minister Petteri Orpo’s (National Coalition party) government in June. Essayah says she visited Strasbourg in July during the European Parliament’s session there, to meet the rapporteurs and other key people in the same administrative sector as her ministry.

According to Essayah, the Finnish government now puts more weight on proactive work in the EU, to ensure that the position of forest owners, the availability of timber for the forest and sawmill industries and Finland’s competitivity in terms of costs will not be weakened.

’During the previous government’s (under Sanna Marin, Social Democrats) term of office, internal conflicts prevented sending a timely and unanimous message,’ says Essayah, who sat in the opposition throughout the previous parliamentary period.

Sanna Marin, who recently gave up her seat in the Finnish parliament and now works for the non-profit institute founded by Britain’s ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, rejected the opposition’s criticism out of hand at the time.

Essayah is not happy about the way the EU works its way in to forest policy ’through the back door’, via its climate and energy policies.

Essayah mentions Finland’s national forest strategy, adopted by the government in October and stretching to 2035. The strategy takes into account comprehensive sustainable development and the significance of forests as carbon sinks in combating and adapting to the climate change.

Finland’s national aim is to improve forest biodiversity in line with the principles of sustainable forestry.

One of the ways in which the current government programme strives to ensure carbon sinks is by supporting forest growth through ash fertilization. A market-based compensation is proposed for land or forest owners who carry out fertilization.

Protection for old forests

The Orpo government will take rapid measures to protect all existing, natural-state old forests. This is based on a commitment to the EU.

’The criteria for this are being prepared under the leadership of National Resources Institute and the Finnish Environment Institute. In addition, proposals have been presented by numerous NGOs. I’m pleased to see that people are interested in forests,’ Essayah says.

In protecting Finland’s old forests, the aim is to focus on sites with the highest protection values.

’This is not so much about hectares as about the desire to have a positive impact on biodiversity,’ Essayah says.

Tero Karjalainen | English translation: Heli Mäntyranta

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