Estonia’s ‘holy forests’ threatened by demand for biofuels

Estonians struggle to reconcile their ancient forest-based religion with more and more stands of trees grown as a commodity for export.

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Eda Veeroja takes a moment while collecting young branches to use for the sauna on her farm in Haanja, southern Estonia.

Estonia’s ‘holy forests’ threatened by demand for biofuels

Estonians struggle to reconcile their ancient forest-based religion with more and more stands of trees grown as a commodity for export.

The Heinrich Boll Foundation and the Pulitzer Center provided grant support for this story.

When Arvi Sepp was a boy in Soviet-ruled central Estonia, his parents would walk into the forest, carrying gifts.

“They would bring the first cut of meat from a cow, the first cup of beer from a cask.” He smiles, touching his newsboy’s cap over his white hair. “The first glass of vodka from the bottle.”

Walking haltingly over cobblestones, Sepp recalls how, decades earlier, his family would follow ancient footpaths to find a spring in the center of the hill that rises like an upthrust fist from the swampy lowlands near his village of Paluküla. There, where the water bubbled up beneath a birch canopy, they laid the offering.

Sacred sites like that one still exist in Estonia, a country where today thousands follow a pre-Christian religion of forest worship called Maausk. But the sensibility Sepp grew up with—that certain places in the forest must be kept sacred and inviolate—is no longer quite so universal.

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.

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A sauna smokes on the grounds of the Põlva Talurahvamu Museum in southern Estonia.

Worldwide, as the area covered by forests has decreased by more than 440 million acres since 1990, tree plantations have increased by more than 300 million acres. 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.

At the heart of Estonian culture, Sepp says, lies the idea of the forest as an active presence, a thing humans do not create but rather “get out of the way of.” The reverence for nature here is powerful. The nonviolent independence movement that threw out the Soviet occupying force in the 1990s began as an environmental protest.

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.

“You can plant trees,” Lõhmus says, ”but you can’t plant a forest.”

In that distinction lurks a world of debate over the global future of forestry: will natural forests be allowed to follow their own destiny—as in the traditional Estonian model—or will landscapes be bent to the will of the commodities market. So far, it’s been the second.

What is a forest?

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.

But as supplies of sawdust ran out, Graanul turned to the forest that Lõhmus called “the only good thing the Soviets left us”: the sprawling stands of conifer and oak that had grown up wild on fields whose workers had been killed, deported, or scattered by the upheavals and state terror of Stalinism and World War II.

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.

But what, precisely, constitutes a forest?

The way both the U.S. Forest Service and the Estonian Ministry of the Environment define it, a forest may have just one type of tree on it—or may even be a field of stumps. “Forest,” as those agencies use the word, is a zoning category: It means that the land is designated for trees, not rye fields or houses.

That definition, Lõhmus says, papers over an enormous difference between natural woodlands and those planted and harvested. Tree-planting of this sort, and the biomass products that come from it, are often discussed as natural climate solutions, since trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But what’s happening in Estonia, where natural forests are being logged for wood pellets and then replaced by plantations, is something else entirely, Lõhmus says. It’s not just that the carbon stored in the trees is released when the pellets are burned. When the forest is cleared—with its dozens of varieties of trees, hundreds of plants, thousands of insect species—the carbon that had built up in the soil over decades or centuries oxidizes. That releases a continuous plume of carbon dioxide that—according to a study by the Center for Sustainable Economy—may last more than a decade.

And the plantation that replaces it, according to a 2020 study published in Environmental Research Letters, may hold 30 to 50 percent less carbon than the natural forest, and even that less reliably over the long term. It will also be less resistant to drought, though the reasons why aren’t yet clear.

For Lõhmus, the key to a healthy forest ecology is a baseline understanding that forests shouldn’t have to be for any human use—an understanding, he notes, that jibes nicely with the traditional forest religion of Maausk. Maa is Estonian for “the land.” Maausk is sometimes translated as “nature worship” or “Earth believers” or even “neo-pagans.” For his part, Sepp, the linguist, likes the word “heathen,” a Germanic word that suggests one who goes to worship in the heath—the moor outside town.

By linguistic coincidence, he notes, “heath” resonates with hiis, the Estonian name for the sacred sites, and both carry the shared memory of the beliefs native to Europe in the ages before its indigenous faiths mostly disappeared, along with the heath itself.

Unlike the Celtic Druids and the old Germanic religions supplanted by Christianity, Maausk and its practitioners—like the small remnants of old-growth forest in Estonia—have to some extent escaped this fate. The Maausk shrines stand as relics of a time when faith was as inseparable from Europe’s northern forests as Shinto is today from those of Japan.

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Arvi Sepp, from the forest worshipper group Maavalla Koda, walks through a forest on Paluküla hill in Rapla county, Estonia. He says he likes to describe his beliefs as "heathen."

A forest people

In Estonia, the traditions are rooted in nearly a millennium of traumatic history. Far below the fortress where Arvi Sepp and I walk, Lake Viljandi glitters in a valley carved by ice-age glaciers. Some people claim that Estonians have been there since the ice retreated.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the frontiers of Christianity crept north, as missionaries, traders, and crusaders dispatched by the pope penetrated the Baltic forests. The crusader castle Sepp and I visit stands on the hilltop where Lembitu, the last great Estonian resistance leader, died in battle in 1217. After that, the Estonian population was forced to convert to Christianity and was ruled—and periodically enslaved—by Swedes, Germans, Poles, Russians, and Danes.

“There was a saying from the time,” says folklorist Marju Kõivupuu, “that ‘an Estonian is a tool that speaks.’” As Lutheranism swept in from Germany and Sweden, or Soviet Communism from Russia, Kõivupuu says, the forest groves helped to foster “a secret order that stood against the religion forced on the Estonians.”

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Destroyed Kullamaa Saint Nikolaus church in Lääne county, Estonia. Estonia had Christianity forced upon it, but its people have retained their deep and ancient connection to nature.

Which is to say, the forest came to take on a more extreme version of the role it plays everywhere else, of a shared commons, the place outside town where wild and civilized met and flowed together; where farmers could find berries, meat, clean water, firewood, and shelter. Renegades could live there without money, apart from civilization, as Estonia’s Forest Brothers resistance movement did during World War II.

When the Soviets finally withdrew from Estonia in the 1990s, and the country became independent, Estonian environmentalists argued for the country to return to its traditional model of low-intensity forest use—mushroom gathering, berry picking, beekeeping, selective woodcutting, gathering of firewood—as opposed to the industrial timber harvesting common among Estonia’s rich Scandinavian neighbors. Finland, for example, had invested heavily in high-yield, high-value but extremely expensive and often invasive forestry, a model based on remaking the landscape around a few carefully tended species, planted in square blocks and harvested by clear-cut.

“Rather than clear the principal,” ecologist Asko Lõhmus says, “we can live off the interest.”

“What people have to remember,” Lõhmus says, “is that behind every environmental policy debate is a moral debate. The question is, what matters to us? What do we value?”

The holy forest

That question resonates far beyond Estonia. On the hot July day Sepp and I roam Viljandi Castle, we meet an international group of forestry activists visiting some of the remaining Maausk sites. They’ve come from the U.K., Tasmania, and the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, all regions that have also seen their natural forests replaced by the plantation model.

The movement against industrial forests in, say, North Carolina is not as explicitly religious as that of the Maausk proponents—environmentalists in the United States speak more of bottom-line benefits like carbon sequestration and other “ecosystem services” rather than spiritual value. But even for such activists, Maausk resonates like a struck tuning fork: a reminder of a different notion of value.

“There is this heart-mind connection that people feel with forests,” says Rita Frost, a campaigner with the North Carolina-based Dogwood Alliance. That feeling, she says, propels people into action in a way that more quantitative approaches do not.

That same day, Sepp and I drive north through rye fields. We pass newly planted young trees fighting for their piece of sky. An hour north of Viljandi, the old hiis looms above the fields like a kind of beast, its fur made of trees. At the top we’re greeted by Eha Metsallik, a 60-something beekeeper with hot pink Nikes and long, white-gold hair. A Maausk practitioner, she sells the honey from her bees, which she keeps in the hiis forest, because the fields where she used to keep them are now poisoned with herbicide, she says.

This site is now protected, thanks in part to a local citizens’ movement that fought its clearing for a ski slope a decade ago. But like many hiis sites, it faces another threat possibly even harder to fight: the death of those who know where the sacred sites are. Ahto Kaasik, the 51-year-old head of the House of Groves cultural association, has estimated that thousands of sites could be gone in the next decade, lost first to collective memory and then, ultimately, to harvesters.

For now, we walk slowly through a green tunnel of 80-year-old birches, Metsallik's voice singsong and melodic. She recites poetry half to herself, syncopated with the branches crunching under our feet. “This is the silence which guards the world,” she says. “The whole world needs that wondrous silence. Every needle, every leaf.”

On the plains below, the pine and spruce grow in lines, destined for pellets, pulp, paper, and consumer products in faraway lands. The hiis forest where we stand is free, self-organizing, a vision and a thin remnant of land left to manage itself, and of a culture that moves out of the way.