A paper published in Nature in July found that Estonia had one of the highest rates of forest loss in Europe—after an abrupt increase from 2016 to 2018 that raised the rate of clearing by 85 percent over what it had been in the previous decade. The surge was largely brought on by demand for wood pellets for bioenergy, the authors of the study found.
Worldwide, as the area covered by forests has decreased by more than 180 million hectares since 1990, tree plantations have increased by more than 120 million hectares. Forests are being converted into industrial tree fields—and tiny Estonia has become a pointed case study in this global transformation. The loss of natural forests cuts deep into Estonian history and religion.
The Estonian cultural association House of Groves lists 80 sacred sites that have been cleared by industrial loggers, a list they stress is not exhaustive. They have mapped 1,200 additional sites, many of which have no formal protection, putting them at risk of being logged.
Most of the sites are in old-growth forests, which make up about 2 percent of Estonia’s remaining forest cover. Only half of those are set aside as protected areas; a quarter are under limited protection, and another quarter aren’t protected at all.
Forests are deeply encased in Estonian culture. But in the decades after independence, Scandinavian investment and logistical support poured in, and Estonians driving the country’s highways began to see harvester machines on the edge of the forests, plucking trees like daisies. In their place have come evenly spaced rows of fir and spruce planted for the global market, a replacement of the forest with something far simpler and more profitable, as Estonian ecologist Asko Lõhmus has said.
In the early 2000s, Estonian lawyer Raul Kirjanen saw an opportunity to break into the booming world of green energy. To feed the demand in nearby Sweden for coal alternatives, Kirjanen founded a company, called Graanul, to turn Estonian sawdust into wood pellets that could be burned in coal power stations.
Over the first decades of the new millennium, Scandinavian logging companies cleared thousands of hectares of this forest, and replanted it with conifers. Since 2009, when the European Union decreed that biomass energy was carbon-neutral—meaning it supposedly releases no new carbon into the atmosphere—Graanul has benefited from the resulting market, emerging as the world’s second largest pellet producer, behind Maryland’s Enviva. As Estonia’s forest loss has become increasingly visible, the debate over biomass harvesting—a small but rapidly growing slice of a forestry sector that also produces paper and other consumer products for export—has come to stand in for the larger conflict over the country’s forests.