People power: Estonians show how to bring about change

10 July 2018

Written by: Nicole Gerard

People power: Estonians show how to bring about changePeople power: Estonians show how to bring about changePeople power: Estonians show how to bring about changePeople power: Estonians show how to bring about changePeople power: Estonians show how to bring about change

Concerned residents of Tartu, Estonia, have pulled off a rare victory: Estonia’s government has announced it will end the national planning procedure for a proposed “biorefinery” (pulp mill) developed by Est-For Invest OU (FW 235), estimated to be worth about €1 billion, that would have significantly harmed important forests and waterways. Success was secured through the joint efforts of environmental organisations that drew attention to relevant issues, local activists who organised and galvanised, and local politicians who listened to constituents and prioritised the public interest they were mandated to defend.

Siim Kuresoo, forest program coordinator with the national-level Eestimaa Looduse Fond (ELF: Estonian Fund for Nature), explains what happened, underscoring that local activists and the pop-up movement “Tartu apell” (Tartu Appeal) deserve the lion’s share of credit.

Even before the projected pulp mill, the Estonian public was engaged in a heated debate about the overuse of Estonia’s forests.

Whereas previously legislative changes had been adopted without public reaction, this time ELF made sure that proposed rules did not pass under the public’s radar. “The debate was still very hot when the Est-For investors announced the plan to build a biorefinery. Their communication was smart. They were non-aggressive and polite, insisting on how green the development would be – but even if ‘biorefinery’ sounds positive, by far the biggest product is pulp,” explained Kuresoo.

While in normal circumstances planning permission would be sought from the local authority, in this case no specific municipality was named; rather, the site was to be situated “near the Emajõgi River” – the “Mother” river. A special, national-level planning procedure was engaged.

Without a precise location to challenge, ELF was fortunate to be contacted by the Environmental Paper Network, whose technical experts shared valuable insights on pulp mill technology and risks, what regulations would be applicable, and what other options would be open to the developers. 

As Est-For engaged the planning permission process, environmental organisations identified significant risks and asked for actions to minimise them: the mill would extract 3.3 million cubic metres of wood from forests already over-exploited; increase carbon dioxide emissions; and put forest biodiversity and threatened species such as the flying squirrel at risk. Water ecology would also be endangered: the mill would not only consume 1.3 per cent of the Emajõgi’s average flow, it would discharge an effluent containing chloride, potassium, carbon, calcium and sulphate compounds into Lake Peipus (which Estonia shares with Russia).

A watershed moment came when the people of Tartu realised – even with no precise location for the site announced – that their quality of life would be affected.

“Tartu apell,” a very active movement of committed locals, was launched.

One of its members, Virve Sõber, an ecologist and a researcher in the University of Tartu, knows that the ecological status of the Emajõgi river and Lake Peipus requires improvement to comply with EU water directives. She was alarmed about the environmental effects as soon as she heard about the mill plans. “The water consumption and effluent amounts seemed too big for the small river. Building the mill would have decreased their bad status further,” she says.

That was not all: the group was concerned that the Government did not consider the socio-economic impacts on the small, culturally vibrant university town, or even the impact on the burgeoning info-technology industry and high-level research community implanted there.

Even those not opposed to the mill itself reacted to indications that good governance had been side-stepped, for instance regarding hurried changes in laws that appeared to meet only the developer’s interests.

Nor were people convinced by the company’s overly green Public Relations.

In December 2017, citizens and scientists wrote a petition to the city government of Tartu and the city council, outlining problems and appealing to the national government to end the special planning process. About seven per cent of Tartu’s population signed.

Joined by groups such as Eesti Metsa Abiks (the environmental movement to protect forests), locals organised education campaigns, through all means big (social media and national newspapers) and small (street banners, emails, neighbourhood contacts and collecting signatures door to door). People reacted immediately.

“Very quickly, our appeal got huge support – hundreds of scientists, thousands of citizens.” Sõber says. They delivered the petition in early March 2018, and the city council – with representatives reflecting the Estonian Parliament’s political spectrum – voted unequivocally for a declaration asking the national government to halt the special planning, as did other nearby municipalities.

The local government even attempted to stop the planning procedure by judicial means, but the court ruled that, as no municipality was specifically designated as the site, Tartu did not have legal standing to pursue the matter.

The pop-up movement of Tartu had put the national government in a difficult position: the same parties were represented at both levels, and in this instance local authorities displayed rare cross-party unity in defending their home.

This unity of purpose was again manifest when, on 19 May 2018, more than 4,500 people from Tartu joined in a human chain along the river, applying still more pressure on the government. A new petition quickly gained 9,000 signatures.

By early June, the two smaller parties in Estonia’s national governing coalition declared their opposition to the planning process on the grounds that it went against the will of the local people; there followed a few rumour-filled weeks of speculation about what the biggest party would say.

Stunningly, in defiance of the considerable pressures brought by the business community, that party also decided to defend the broader public interest. On 21 June the Cabinet announced that they would close down the planning procedure.

“I heard a lot of celebrations in the gardens of Tartu, my home town,” Kuresoo laughs.

He also gives credit to the local Estonian politicians who took their constituents’ concerns to heart. “People in Tartu are very proud of the local politicians who stood up for them and went against the national government’s will. For these politicians it was a difficult choice: Tartu is the second biggest city in Estonia – a stepping-stone to the national political elite, and it was brave for them to put aside their personal ambition and take the side of the people. It was a very powerful moment for many, many people.”

“Many people in Estonia now are very happy about having a say,” he continues. “They feel that actually they can change things. We, as an environmental NGO are definitely glad to witness this, and what were possibly very negative environmental impacts were avoided because people stood up against it.”

As for Tartu apell, members hope that the episode – where the voice of the public was eventually heard – becomes more permanent, helping to ensure good governance. “In a country as small as Estonia, it is possible,” says Sõber.

All that remains is for the project to be shut down completely. The next parliamentary elections will take place in March 2019.

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