Estonian law student takes on state-owned Finnish forestry company in battle to save her childhood singing fields

Case could make it easier for communities and NGOs to protect forests across Estonia, where vital woodland has been decimated by industrial logging

A potentially precedent-setting case was filed today in the Administrative Court of Estonia, protesting the government Environmental Board’s sign-off on a clearcutting plan for the Lauluväljaku community forest in Märjamaa, a small village in rural Estonia. The case against the Environmental Board, taking on Finland’s Stora Enso’s felling permit, was brought by Tiina Georg, an Estonian law student representing the NGO Eesti Metsa Abiks (EMA), and several residents of Märjamaa. If they are successful, the case would establish important legal precedents that limit exploitation of forests in Estonia by foreign companies like Stora Enso and strengthen individuals’ legal right to a clean and healthy environment.

The Lauluväljaku or “Singing Grounds” forest park is only a few hectares in size, but it is of huge importance for Märjamaa. The trees shelter an outdoor theater where residents gather for concerts, while the community uses the forest for gathering wild foods as well as walking and skiing. The forest blocks noise and pollution from the nearby Tallinn-Pärnu-Ikla highway, and it also helps protect the settlement from winter winds, functions which are critical for the daily lives and wellbeing of Märjamaa’s residents.

 
Lauluväljaku theatre

The forest has been under threat since the Estonian Environmental Board issued logging permits to Finnish forestry giant Stora Enso in October 2019. Supported by Tiina Georg and EMA, village resident Mari Laanesaar launched a legal challenge in early 2020, asking the court to block the forest cutting and protesting that the community had not been given adequate notice to appeal the plan. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court but collapsed on a technicality when the year-long permit expired just as the case was due to be heard. The defendants claimed that there were no longer any permits in place to challenge, and the Supreme Court closed the case. The Environmental Board then issued identical permits to Stora Enso in October 2020, forcing the community back into court once again to seek a ruling on the legality of the cutting plan. That case was filed December 30th.

With grandparents that live in Märjamaa, Tiina Georg has fond memories of visits to the theatre and family walks through the forest park. Now she is using her legal training to protect it. “One of the reasons I started studying law is to help the weaker party. And it’s so sad to say it, but the environment often is the weaker party. In this case it is clear that the Environment Board and Stora Enso are ignoring the law. They have not followed the rules which protect biodiversity, nor have they respected laws in place to protect the local community from wrongful government actions. And this is all done to keep up the supply of wood for industries like biomass energy, where our beautiful forest will very literally go up in smoke.”

Marked trees in Lauluväljaku

The applicants point out that the Environmental Board never carried out the environmental impact assessment required for such logging plans. In fact, this is rarely done for any logging projects. Clearcutting in Estonia removes almost all trees and vegetation, sometimes even ripping tree stumps out of the ground and leaving a barren landscape. Estonia’s forests have suffered drastic declines since 1990, with much of the wood in recent years converted to pellets that are exported and burned for “renewable” heat or electricity across Europe, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Climate scientists and EU law point to the need for forest protection and extensive restoration of native forests to areas where human activity has in recent history destroyed them, if Europe is to have any hope of meeting “net zero” climate goals.

Mari Laanesaar, the resident who first discovered the initial logging plans, says “Watching ever more of the Estonian forest being cut around us, we must fight harder than ever to protect these special places. Stora Enso representatives scoffed at our protests, and said they’d send a choir to celebrate the planting of seedlings after clearcutting our treasured forest. To the company this is just a pile of logs and woodchips; to us it is everything, a special resource that provides shelter, food, tranquility, and a place for wildlife.”

Mari Laanesaar

After filing the case, Tiina Georg observed “it’s a Christmas miracle that so many people and organisations have come to the rescue of this lovely forest park. But this is about so much more than one little forest. Lauluväljaku is becoming a symbol of the struggle to save the pieces of nature that we still have left, and I’m so proud of that.”

Further information

  • Lauluväljaku has been designated as a green recreational area by the municipal council for 20 years.
  • The forest is home to songbirds and endangered wood ants (formica rufa and formica polyctena).
  • Finnish government bodies own more than 15% of Stora Enso, controlling more than a third of the votes at the company’s Annual Meeting.
  • The initial case was funded by NGO Eesti Metsa Abiks (EMA). This second legal challenge is being brought with support from The Forest Litigation Collaborative, a joint venture of the Partnership for Policy Integrity and The Lifescape Protect, and with funding from the Center for Climate Integrity, a project of IGSD.
  • Read here for a more detailed presentation of the battle to save Lauluväljaku and the key characters involved.
  • Read this report (pdf) for more information about why logging and burning forests for biomass is a disaster for climate mitigation and biodiversity.